by Eildon Rhymer
"No. Oh no. Oh no." Rodney turned his body carefully, making sure that his right hand was behind his back. With his other hand, he gestured sharply with the life-signs detector. "Someone's coming."
"What sort of someone?" Sheppard asked, as Ronon simultaneously asked, "How many?"
Rodney subtly pulled at his finger. "Lots," he said, and, "How should I know? This thing doesn't colour-code the dots – red for people you don't like, white for friendlies, green for things we can eat, blue for hot girls…" He strained harder. Still nothing. "Purple for… for…"
"Ascended Ancients," Sheppard said, though his face said Rodney…
"Oh. Yes. I'm sorry." He looked at the life-signs detector again. "There's…" He counted, pulling hard enough to hurt. "Eleven. They're that way. Probably enemies, knowing our luck, and going from precedent."
Sheppard raised his eyebrows, clearly pretending to be unaware of his slime-stained clothing and his bandaged arm, grazed by a near-miss that was a little too near. "I can't imagine why you'd say that." But he was scanning the forest, clearly alert despite his light words. Ronon and Teyla looked like wild animals, deadly and coiled, ready to spring. Rodney swallowed. If he didn't trust them so much, sometimes he would be a little afraid of his own team.
"We can take eleven," Ronon said in a low voice, as if he didn't have a blood stain on his leg, and a fast-developing black eye.
Sheppard pressed his lips together, then shook his head. "Maybe we can, but I'd rather avoid them." He looked at Ronon as he said it, and Rodney thought that some silent exchange was happening there, but he had no idea what it was.
He pulled again, the effort flowing out of his mouth in a strained gasp. "Are you all right, Rodney?" Sheppard asked. "You're all…" He jerked his shoulder rhythmically, and pulled a ridiculous face, and Rodney knew that he would never look like that, never, and it was all a horrible lie.
"Fine," he said, smiling to show how true it was. Any… minute… now, he thought. One more pull, and no-one needed to know.
Not too far away, a bird rose up, squawking in alarm. Something moved in the undergrowth, setting shiny green leaves quivering. He saw tiny insects in a beam of sunlight, heavy with heat. Heat was bad, he thought, as sweat trickled down the back of his neck. People were smaller when they were cold. Fingers were smaller.
"Time to go," Sheppard said quietly. Once again, he seemed to be exchanging something with Ronon. Then they both turned their backs, and Rodney watched them begin to walk away. Teyla followed them. The trees were so thick that he wouldn't be able to see them at all within a few seconds.
"Uh…" He swallowed. "Guys." One more pull. One more pull. "I…" They turned. Sheppard's expression was polite interest. Ronon looked annoyed. Rodney laughed nervously. "Here's a funny thing…" He looked at the life-signs detector, then turned it outwards to face them. "They've stopped. Look at it. Look! Look! False alarm, and all that. Probably having a picnic." Or planning how best to disembowel us. He swallowed again. "So we can stay here for a few more minutes. Rest in this heat, and all that."
"What have you done, Rodney?" Teyla asked.
"Well…" He laughed again. "It's a funny thing, really. Silly. I–"
"You're stuck." Sheppard's voice was entirely without inflexion.
Rodney stepped to one side, removing the shield of his body. He smiled sheepishly.
The silence that followed was ridiculously long. Rodney looked up at the distant speckling of blue sky far above him, beyond the dense leaves. He saw a flash of red, and imagined some horrible predator looking down on him, pinned to the altar, tethered for sacrifice.
"Why did you put your finger in there in the first place?" Sheppard sounded only mildly curious. "I'm just… you know… uh… wondering."
"Well, you were busy doing your macho stuff–"
"We were resting," Sheppard said.
"Talking war and tactics." Rodney tried to flap his hand dismissively. His brain, it seemed, didn't realise that his finger was trapped. The attempted gesture hurt. "Like I said, you were–"
"You were bored, and you decided to poke things." Sheppard's eyes were glistening. He could look quite nasty at times, Rodney decided. "Didn't your mother ever warn you not to stick your finger into strange holes?"
"That sounds quite disturbing," Rodney said, "and I'll have you know that it reflected a proper spirit of scientific enquiry. Scientific advances don't come out of sitting back and not touching anything. It's all about wondering what happens if you press that button there, or do just that with that equation, or–"
"Poke your finger into a hole on some ancient altar… table… thing," Sheppard said. "That's a great one for the annals of science. They'll devote a whole chapter to it in your biography."
"I'd read it," Ronon said, though his eyes were entirely focused on the screen of the life signs detector, following it as it moved in Rodney's hand.
"It was there, all right?" Rodney jerked the life-signs detector violently to the left, just because he could. "A hole. A perfect circle. Exactly finger sized." Sheppard and Teyla were looking at him, eyebrows raised. "You'd have done it," Rodney asserted. "I defy anyone not to do it."
"You've not seen enough movies." Sheppard shook his head ruefully. "An altar thing like that… Traps. Hidden blades that slice your finger off."
"Oh. Oh." He swallowed hard. Thrusting the life-signs detector into Sheppard's hand, he pulled as hard as he could, bracing his trapped hand with the other. In the corner of his vision, he saw that flash of red again, and he heard the expectant whisper of a thousand insects. The sweat on the back of his neck was so very like a touch. "Oh God. Oh God. I'm trapped here like a sacrifice. That's why they're coming. They're going to sacrifice me to some primitive imaginary god, and I… Is that dried blood down there? Oh God, is that blood?"
Sheppard looked down at the device in his hand. "They're not coming any closer."
"Putting on their war paint and boiling the water," Rodney said, "and I'm going to– Oh! Butter! Have you got any butter?"
"Strangely, the American Air Force doesn't issue butter as part of its standard survival kit," Sheppard said.
"I've got a power bar." Ronon pulled it out of his pocket.
"I have chocolate," Teyla said, "but it appears to have melted."
Rodney saw Sheppard's eyes gleaming. "No, you are not smearing chocolate on me," he said. "Somebody must have something sensible we can use for lubrication."
"Feeling a bit kinky today, are we, McKay?" Sheppard had taken a step back and was far too far away for Rodney to hit. It was a cause almost worth losing a finger for, but not quite.
"Soap," he said, instead, with dignity. "Surely you must get issued with soap, for all those times when you get lost in the wilderness or behind enemy lines, or whatever."
"I don't get lost," Sheppard said, "and, no, I don't carry a beauty kit with me wherever I go."
"Weapons are more important than soap," Ronon said.
"Do not even think of saying it, Rodney." Teyla's voice was mild, but her eyes were not. "I may be 'a girl', but I do not come out with–"
"I can tell you don't come out with a comb, anyway," Rodney interrupted, nodding sharply at Sheppard. Lack of hands was impairing his wit, he thought. He needed his hands to order his ideas. A teacher had once told him that he used his hands too much, and had forced him to keep them still for an entire presentation. He had just stood there, tongue-tied, unable to stutter through the tiniest explanation.
Sheppard didn't respond. "They've moving," he said. "Not fast. We've still got a few minutes…"
"We could shoot his finger off." Ronon raised his blaster.
"Ronon," Teyla said reprovingly, then betrayed Rodney by adding, "A knife would work better."
"Oh, thanks, guys." He heaved as hard as he could. His left hand slid on his right, and his finger felt as if it was being pulled out of its socket.
"It's your call, Rodney," Sheppard said. "Get bloodily sacrificed to some heathen god, or let Ronon cut your finger off. Sacrifice your finger, or lose your life."
"You wouldn't." He could never see the knives on Ronon's body; that's what made the man so terrifying. "Would you? It's not… It's not come to that."
"No." Teyla moved towards him, and touched him on the arm. "It has not come to that. We were merely teasing you."
Sheppard, too, stepped closer. "We're going to protect your finger with our lives; let them sacrifice you over our dead bodies – heroic stuff like that." He glanced down at the life-signs detector. "But if you could get yourself out it would really help right now."
"I'm trying!" he gasped. "I'm trying!"
"Could shoot the table," Ronon said.
"If it really is an altar and central to their beliefs–" Teyla began.
"If their beliefs involve slaughtering me, then I don't care about trampling on their entire philosophy." Rodney turned to Ronon. "Do it. Shoot it. Set it on kill."
"Yeah, kill the inanimate lump of rock, Ronon," Sheppard said.
"Wait!" Rodney stabbed outwards with his free hand. "That doesn't mean it'll kill my finger, does it?"
"Well, tell us," Sheppard said. "You're the scientist."
Ronon stood with the blaster aimed, death in his eyes. Rodney moistened his lips. It occurred to him that most people who saw that look over the barrel of a gun probably saw nothing else after that, ever.
"No." He cleared his throat. "No. I mean… I don't think so. No. No. It won't." He straightened his spine, feeling like a martyr facing execution. "Do it." He tried to look noble, but at the last moment he closed his eyes.
He screamed when the altar was hit. He felt himself pulled down, dragged down, and he screamed again, because it hurt. He felt the impact tear through his body, and he moaned, and then, through the dust and the sunlight and the insects and the pain, he saw Ronon raise his blaster to shoot again, and he begged him, "No, please, no."
"Small enough to carry, now, anyway," Ronon said, but he didn't put his weapon away.
"Are you hurt, Rodney?" Teyla bent over him in concern.
Rodney blinked. The pain was easing, though his whole body felt tingly with the aftermath of the impact. It had been the shock of it, more than anything else, he thought. Oh, and the weight. The altar had split into four large pieces and hundreds of tiny fragments. His finger was still stuck in the largest piece, and when the altar had collapsed, it had fallen to the ground, dragging him by the finger down along with it.
"So much for stealth," Sheppard said. The dust was clearing, though, and Rodney could see the concern in his eyes, not as well masked as it once had been, or maybe he was just better at seeing it now. "Can you walk?"
Rodney pulled at his finger. It hurt far worse than it had hurt before. "I'm stuck inside a boulder the size of a… of a… a… large dog," he said. "I know some people like to… to drag buses with their ears, but I can't lift something this heavy just with my finger."
"Ah. Oh. Yes." Rodney sat up, giving them room. Sheppard took one side, and Ronon took the other, and together they began to lift the rock. "Careful!" Rodney urged them. "Remember my finger's attached to that."
"I don't think we're in danger of forgetting that," Sheppard said, through gritted teeth.
They started to walk. Sheppard and Ronon went first, carrying the boulder between them, and Rodney tagged along behind them, feeling scared and in pain and ridiculous, all at once, but robbed of the ability to talk about it in the way he really needed to, hands and words and face all weaving together to say the things that made everything seem better.
They only made it twenty steps.
"They are almost here," Teyla hissed. "I see movement."
"Down!" Sheppard commanded, and Rodney fell to his knees, expecting them just to drop the boulder, but they took their time, carefully placing it on the ground in a way that didn't put sudden weight on his finger.
The trees were even more dense here, the sky barely visible at all. Rodney was chained – captured and pinned to the spot. The others had ringed themselves around him, guns outwards, ready to fight. Eleven enemies, he thought. Eleven. Not even a sensible round number, like ten or twelve. These three had taken on more than eleven Wraith, back on Sateda, but these enemies knew the terrain, and he didn't have to be a military genius to know that this position was not a good defensible one. Somebody was going to get hurt. Somebody was perhaps even going to get killed.
"Go without me," he gasped. There was no time even for heroic gestures. All he felt was the fear – the terror – that someone would get hurt. "Leave me here."
"Don't be stupid." Sheppard didn't turn round.
He saw movement – things moving beyond the trees; monsters, murderers, fanged faces. Something cracked, and his head snapped up, but it was probably only a twig, breaking as a bird pushed itself away, and flew off in alarm. Pinned to the ground, he saw everything through a frame of his team-mates' legs and bodies. He groped at his thigh, and pulled out his pistol. He'd do what he could to defend them. To defend myself, he corrected himself, though the correction carried little force.
Something burst through the undergrowth. Oh God, he thought. Oh God. He couldn't see what it was – couldn't see what it was! - because Ronon's body blocked it, his long coat like a screen between Rodney and the awfulness of the world. There was movement to the left, too, and Rodney whirled around, his head low, gripping the pistol in both hands. His finger tightened on the trigger, and it hurt, it hurt…
"Oh." He blinked in confusion, looking at those two hands on the gun. "I'm out. I'm free." His finger was red and swollen, and his whole hand glistened the sweat of his fear. So terror was as good as butter or soap, then. He would have to remember that. "We can run away now."
"Too late," Sheppard said. Ronon was lowering his weapon.
"What John means to say," Teyla said, gentle but firm at the same time, "is that there is no need."
Rodney struggled to his feet, and edged forward. Two of them were visible now. Their supercilious expressions reminded him of llamas, but their bodies were more like deer. Very large deer, he corrected himself. Very clearly herbivorous deer, judging by the way they were munching on the shiny green leaves around the shattered altar.
Sheppard looked at Rodney's hand, and then at the deer things. "I think," he said, at last, "that we don't need to bother putting any of this in our report."
Rodney nodded, then gestured with his right hand, just because he could. "It was nice of you to be willing to defend me with your lives from the rampaging herbivores."
"And Ronon killed a defenceless altar just for you," Sheppard added. "Don't forget that."
They started to walk. "I won't," Rodney said. "No, really, I was touched."
"You screamed," Ronon said.
"Well, yes. Yes, I did. I was touched. It was somewhere in there beneath the agony." He flapped his hand again, one finger frozen and stiff, pointing forever up at the sky. "Let's go home."
"Just don't touch anything else." Sheppard pointed his own finger sternly.
"You're a fine one to talk. I seem to remember that you were told something like that a few years ago, but went and sat in a chair, anyway, and if you hadn't done that, where would we be?"
"I'd have been spared the sight of the world's foremost scientific brain stuck there like a two year old." Sheppard sighed. "I really shouldn't have sat in that chair."
Rodney hit him. With his right hand. It felt good.