FIGURATIVE HELL AND LITERAL HIGH WATER
Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis and its characters are the property of Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story was created for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author(s), not me. Thank you to the amazing writers, producers, actors, crew and directors who bring these shows to life.
Characters: Rodney, Keller, Team
Genre/Rating: Gen (pure Action/Adventure) - T
Status: Complete in Nine Chapters
A/N: Takes places early in Season Four – not long after Missing. This was written for the SGA Genficathon. My genre was Action/Adventure, my prompt was Weather or Elements.
Description: Rodney’s desperate to save his team, and Keller’s just trying to keep up, on a planet where hurricanes can last for days.
CHAPTER ONE: BUILDING THE STORM
Lightning flashed, and Jennifer jumped.
“Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate thunderstorms,” she muttered, trying to stifle the shakes as thunder erupted through the room, rattling everything in it. “Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
“You say something, Doc?” Major Lorne looked up from his book from across the room. He sounded calm and, annoyingly, amused. She resisted the urge to glare at him, pulling together a mask of professional disinterest. When she finally looked at him, she even managed a smile.
“No,” she said, hating how feeble her voice sounded. Why couldn’t she have a strong voice like Teyla’s? Or Colonel Carter’s? “Just…” she shrugged, thinking quickly, “wondering if we’re going to be able to leave this planet without getting completely soaked. This storm came out of nowhere.”
Lorne’s little smile said he saw right through her. Jerk. Just what she didn’t need—another one trying to act all older brother on her.
“Afraid not, Doc,” Lorne said. “There’s no cover between this hospital and the Gate—luckily, it’s not far.” He glanced out a window. “If we run for it, might not be that bad.”
She sighed softly. She hated getting wet. Grimacing, she returned her attention to the photos she was studying on her laptop—a random set of blood samples from the general populous, taken by the portable digital microscope. She frowned at the images. They certainly seemed to support her initial diagnosis, but the machines back on Atlantis would better confirm—
Lightning flashed again, and she jumped once more. Damn it! Looking up at the ceiling, she unconsciously held her breath as she waited, mentally counting out seconds in “Mississippis”.
She winced as thunder burst around her ears, even more explosive than before, and more items in the gray hospital room rattled. Something fell of a shelf behind Jennifer, and she flinched. Then she froze as the lights suddenly flickered, going in and out like some terrible horror movie cliché. Oh god—it really was a dark and stormy night! Well, except that it was still morning—around 10:00 am. But still…
The lights returned to full power a second later, but she continued to stay still until she was sure it wasn’t a fluke. Releasing a shaky breath, she looked to the left, out the large plate window at the gray and green planet outside, and grimaced at the water streaming down the glass. The rain and wind were pummeling this planet.
What a bad day to visit.
The planet was called Helena, which had initially pleased her greatly (it was also called M7X-whatever, but she never did have a head for numbers). The name reminded her of Montana, and going on road trips to Glacier National Park with her dad as a kid—memories she cherished. They’d always stopped in Helena on the way out there, eating at this diner on the side of the road which served the best blueberry pancakes ever created. So, when she’d been told that, as part of a trade agreement, her services had been offered to study an infectious disease here that sounded a lot like malaria, she’d actually been looking forward to it. That, and meeting a population that, apparently, was almost entirely blond—which sounded too bizarre to be true (but it was. So, so blond!).
To make it even better, Colonel Sheppard’s team was going to be here as well, to check out some Ancient sounding ruins, and, well, she liked being around the four of them. Being chief of medicine sort of set you apart (which, frankly, was nothing Keller hadn’t felt before), but so did being chief scientist, chief military officer, and the only two aliens in the City.
And they’d become her friends.
Oh, sure, she had no pretensions to thinking she’d ever be considered “one of them”—not like Carson had been, or Elizabeth—but they were still her friends. Her best ones—though she doubt they knew that.
Either way, she was happy that they were going to be coming to Helena with her.
But then, almost as soon as they’d come through in the early morning light, the Colonel’s team had headed off into the dense evergreen woods, to some far off place out of radio range, leaving her here with her small medical team and Major Lorne’s team in the Helenan main settlement—a town made almost entirely of concrete. Not that she didn’t like Major Lorne—he was a good guy—but…
She glanced at him. He smirked at her again.
Fact was, he looked eerily like someone she’d dated while getting her first research doctorate at Harvard. And, well, the less said about that debacle the better. Needless to say, she sometimes found herself thinking rather nasty thoughts about the poor man, when she was sure he was nothing but kind and good.
Perhaps because he was so kind and good.
He had to be hiding something. Ooh, maybe he was gay!
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He was watching her. At her glance, his eyebrows lifted in a question.
She blushed mightily, and he smirked.
Oh, fabulous. Now he probably thought she had a crush on him. Great. Now his smiles would move from amused and brotherly, to patronizing and brotherly. Should she kill herself now, or wait until she was back on Atlantis?
She sighed and turned so that she could look at him fully. “Yes?”
“You nearly done?”
She sighed again, looking back at her laptop. The pictures gave her no more information than they had before. Enough to give out some test samples of medicines. She tapped her radio.
“Marie?” she called.
A short pause, then, “Yes, Doctor Keller?” Marie, as always, was clipped and profession over the radio.
“How is it going?”
“Nearly done,” Marie answered. “We’ve taken the full range of samples you requested. I’m just taking a couple more from some of the healthy children for comparison. There’s folk here sheltering from the hurricane, so I’m taking advantage.”
Jennifer nodded, “Great. Are you still in the clinic room?”
Marie gave a small laugh. “If you can call it that.”
Jennifer smiled. “The Helenans call it that.”
Jennifer smiled at Marie’s snobbery, and looked up at the ceiling. “Okay, we’ll come down to you. Are Huong and Doug down there as well?”
“Yes, and the rest of Major Lorne’s team.”
“Let them know we’ll be ready to leave as soon as you’re packed up.”
“Will do. See you soon, Doctor.”
“Check. Oh, and Marie…” Lightning flashed again, and Keller hunched her shoulder as she looked out the window. “Marie, you might ask the Helenans if we can borrow some ponchos. Keller out.”
Jennifer pushed through the doors of the main hall of the Helenan hospital and found total chaos. A shout to “get out of the way!” and she was jumping backwards as two stretchers passed by, each surrounded by a cloud of Helenan medical workers. Her eyes quickly catalogued the blood covering the patients, unconsciously performing her own mental triage as the wounded were swept away towards another room.
She grabbed a doctor running past, a young woman with a long blonde ponytail. “What happened?”
“Oh, um,” the doctor looked caught, almost guilty. “I…I’m sorry, I don’t have time. Ask the minister.” With a sharp tug, she pulled herself free and ran after the patients. Keller frowned, looking behind her at Lorne. He was frowning deeply as well.
“That seem odd to you?” she asked. His frown turned into a grimace, but he didn’t say no.
“Let’s find the others,” he said, turning away from what was probably their pre-op and striding swiftly towards the clinic rooms. Jennifer grasped the handles of her two medical cases a little tighter and jogged after him.
Two more stretchers were carried past before they got to the clinic. More blood and trauma.
They pushed through the double doors into the first of the small clinic rooms, and found Marie there, talking quickly to the tall, blond Helenan minister who had been assigned to help them. He turned and smiled with relief upon seeing her and Lorne.
“Oh, Ancestor’s be praised,” he breathed, leaving Marie mid-sentence and walking over to Keller. The nurse frowned deeply at the rudeness, and placed her hands on her hips. Jennifer just shrugged at her and looked up at the tall Helenan, noticing he had his hands lifted up as if in prayer. “We need your help.”
Jennifer’s eyebrows lifted. “My help?”
“A bolt of lightning sparked an explosion at one of our local factories—we’ve many people hurt. I know this is not part of your agreement with us, but we could really use an extra set of hands. The hurricane is preventing many of our physicians and surgeons from coming in.” He turned, gesturing at Marie. “Your assistant told me that she couldn’t do anything without your say so, but—“
“She’s right,” Jennifer said, nodding at Marie before turning back to the minister. “And while, in most circumstances, I would absolutely volunteer our help, truth is, other than myself and Marie, none of the others here are trained medics or physicians. They’re researchers—microbiologists and pathologists.”
The minister’s eyes drooped then, the sadness clear on his face. “Oh.”
She took a breath. “However—“
“Doctor,” Major Lorne’s voice cut in. There was no questioning the tone of his voice—he was warning her not to agree to anything reckless.
She turned and looked at him, and, though she knew perfectly well that he was only trying to be helpful—she felt unbelievably irked by the interruption. She had just been about to say that they would talk to Colonel Carter about sending help, but the look on Lorne’s face….
And then she did something she knew she shouldn’t have.
She turned back to the minister and smiled. “However,” she said, “I’d be happy to stay. The rest of my team will take the samples back to Atlantis, so the pathologists can get started. Marie,” she looked at the woman, “you’re in charge of getting the project started.”
“Doctor!” Lorne sounded upset. It just made Keller smile more.
Of course, in the back of her mind, she was screaming at herself for being such an idiot. Stupid, stupid, STUPID!
No wonder Rodney got into so much trouble—he probably did this all the time.
The next thing she knew, Lorne was apologizing to the minister and dragging her to the other side of the room to talk to her.
“Look,” he began, “I know you want to help—I saw how bad those people looked—but this is the sort of thing you need to run by Colonel Carter first. More to the point,” his eyes narrowed, “what you’re suggesting is going to split up my team, and I hate having my team split up.”
Okay, she admitted to herself, that was kind of bad of her. And, yes, she really should have gotten permission first, but…
“I can’t back out now,” she replied. “I’m sorry. You’re right, I should have thought about your team first. But, honestly, I don’t think there’s much danger. This storm—hurricane—is pretty serious. It’s not like anyone could attack this planet while it’s happening. I’ll be alright. Plus,” she frowned, “they clearly need my help.”
He grimaced. She pushed on.
“I’d like you to take Marie and the others back to the gate and through. Leave one of your men here with me, like Sergeant Brent, and we’ll follow as soon as the worst of the casualties are taken care of. And if, say, Colonel Carter wants to send more personnel to help, or sends you back to fetch me away before I’m done—well, she can make that decision. But right here, right now, I’m telling you that I’m staying.”
He frowned, eyes studying her face. She felt confident in the decision, and didn’t hide it.
“Besides,” she added, “do not forget that Colonel Sheppard’s team is still here…” she grimaced, thinking about the weather outside, “somewhere. It’s probably a good thing that someone stays here to be a contact in case they need help. They’re out of radio range, remember?”
Lorne lowered his head, sighed, then looked up again. After a moment, he nodded. “All right. We’ll do it your way, Doc.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
Lorne nodded and turned away, already ordering his men to pack up and prepare to leave—all except Sergeant Brent, who he ordered to stay behind with Jennifer.
As the sergeant looked at her, Keller smiled and hoped, really, really hoped, she wouldn’t regret this.
Keller shouted “good luck, stay safe!” to Lorne and the others as the small group pushed out the doors into the hurricane winds; they were quickly swallowed up in the howling rain, lost to her sight almost immediately. She felt the force of the gale for the first time as they left, the icy rain smacking her cheeks even though she was a good five feet inside the main doors, and she shivered, glad she wasn’t leaving in that. It wasn’t safe out there.
As soon as the doors were shut, however, she shifted gears, forgetting about everything but the job she’d agreed to do.
Ten minutes later, she was standing at the operating table, pulling off the bandages pressed tightly to the wounds of a young man, quickly assessing the damage. She frowned at the state of his body—what the hell? Her eyes narrowed, flashing to the silent nurses assigned to her, and finding their gazes downcast. She shook her head—did the minister really think she was so stupid that she wouldn’t notice the nature of the wounds? Gritting her teeth, she said nothing as she set to work.
Her radio crackled at one point during the procedure, and Sergeant Brent, who was in the OR with her, answered it. That static was heavy and the words unintelligible. Keller ignored it—Brent would tell her if it was anything important.
She had only just finished closing the patient up when another was pushed into the little OR they’d given her—making her feel momentarily like she was in a MASH unit. Sighing, she bit her tongue again as she recognized the small hole in his abdomen for what it was, and asked for a scalpel from the nurse they’d assigned her.
The third patient was conscious when he came in, blinking up blearily at her as she set to work on his leg. Local anesthesia she presumed—pretty advanced, considering the otherwise early twentieth century nature of these facilities. The boy said nothing the whole time, just looked small and pale and lost as she worked on him.
When the fourth patient came in, a young woman with a shoulder wound that wasn’t that serious, Jennifer guessed that they were nearing the end. She was able to clean and stitch her up in just minutes.
There was no fifth.
Glancing up at the clock, she saw that about three hours had passed. That made it close to one in the afternoon here (which was late afternoon back home), and she was starving and exhausted. She sighed, frowning at the fact that there had been no word from Atlantis in all that time. Had the major made it back?
Pulling off her surgical gloves, she peeled the mask from her face and walked out of the stifling little cement room into the hallway. Once there, she breathed in the cool air deeply and dropped into a chair along one wall, tipping her head back against the concrete.
Brent dropped himself onto the chair next to her.
“You okay, Doc?” he asked.
She nodded, closing her eyes. “They didn’t give me anything serious,” she said dismissively, which, was partially true—the last two patients hadn’t been difficult. Her words slurred a little, and she grimaced. Damn, she was tired.
With a sigh, she pulled off the bloody gown she wore and tossed it in a bin off to her right, along with the gloves and mask. Then she closed her eyes again, and found herself yawning deeply.
Wasn’t there something she wanted to tell Brent? A comfortable lethargy pulled her down. Vaguely, she felt someone draping something over her…
When she opened her eyes again, it was half an hour later and her neck hurt. With a groan, she leaned forward, rubbing at the nape. A blanket dribbled off her shoulders, pooling on her lap. She smiled at Brent’s thoughtfulness.
Despite the crick in her neck, she felt a hell of a lot better, not as tired. Pulling the blanket up, she started to fold it, feeling slightly guilty now for having dropped asleep so quickly. A side effect of her residencies—she could fall asleep at the drop of a hat. At the same time, staying asleep was not something she was good at. Anxiety—fear of being needed—always woke her up before she wanted to.
Placing the folded blanket on the floor, her stomach grumbled angrily. Apparently, she was even hungrier than before.
As if hearing her thoughts, an instrument tray was placed on her lap—without instruments. Instead, she stared down at a wrapped sandwich, potato chips and bottle of water. She looked up, smiling gratefully at Sergeant Brent who had appeared from nowhere, it seemed. He smiled back.
“Figured you might want the lunch you brought with you,” he said. “I found it in your backpack.”
She nodded, smiling more broadly. “Thank you.” He grinned, settling himself against the cement wall opposite as she dug into the meal. “You hear from Major Lorne?” she asked then, her mouth full of ham and cheese and relishing the tang of mustard on her tongue.
He nodded. “During your first patient. Storm was wreaking havoc with the signal, but I could make out most of it. They made it to the Gate, but it took them almost half n’ hour longer than it should have, and one of your team may have been injured by some flying debris on the way.”
Keller was instantly alert, almost dropping the sandwich. “Injured? Who? And how badly?”
“Dr. Houng Nguyen, and not badly,” Brent said quickly, raising a hand to calm her, “but they needed to carry her through the gate. In the end, they all went through because Major Lorne determined it was just too dangerous to stay outside a moment longer. Sounds like the hurricane’s gotten really bad—oh, and he wants me to keep you inside as well. Said not to risk going to the Gate until it’s cleared up. He said they’d send back help when the weather allowed, or unless we contact them and let them know they’re needed sooner. I told him you were doing okay. You were, weren’t you?”
Keller grimaced, putting the sandwich down and looking up at the concrete ceiling. There were no windows where they were in the center of the hospital structure—just lots of cement and fluorescent lighting. But even here, she could hear the howling winds outside.
Unfortunately, she’d remembered what she’d wanted to tell him, which meant that, no, they weren’t okay and, yes, they’d have to go out in that.
She’d just operated on gunshot and arrow wounds.
She was about to say something when she saw him look down the hall at the double doors, and give a thumbs up to someone standing there. The Helenan standing there gave a nod and took off.
Jennifer’s eyebrows lifted. “What was that?”
“Oh, the minister wanted to know when you were awake. He seems to think you’d want to talk to him.”
She snorted. Damned skippy. She rolled her shoulders, stuffed the last bite of food in her mouth, then put the tray to the side and brushed the crumbs from her thighs. Looking up, she saw Brent was frowning at her now.
“Doc,” he said, “I need to ask a question.”
“You want to know why the minister thinks I’d want to talk to him,” she replied.
“Pretty simple, really,” she answered, sighing. “I just spent three hours operating on soldiers, not factory workers. Those wounds were from a firefight. And the minister must know I’d figure that out.”
Brent’s eyes widened slightly, then narrowed in annoyance. “You should have said something before,” he admonished, his hands gripping his P90 a little more tightly. She grimaced.
“I know, I just…I couldn’t in the operating room and then I stupidly fell—“
She was interrupted by the sound of the doors at the end of the hall swinging open with a bang, and footsteps echoing swiftly towards them down the hall.
The blond Helenan minister was moving fast, his broad shoulders hunched slightly as he wrung his hands together. He smiled when he saw her. When she didn’t smile back, his expression dimmed and he dipped his head.
She stood and placed her hands on her hips, lifting her chin to clearly show how pissed off she was. Brent was up and by her side immediately, his hand resting on his P90. The minister glanced at the soldier sorrowfully, then returned his full attention to Keller.
“Doctor,” he began, “thank you again for—“ Jennifer held up a hand, stopping him.
“You know perfectly well,” she stated quietly, “that those wounds were not from a factory explosion.”
He flinched as if slapped, and, if possible, his head bowed even more. “No,” he admitted sadly.
“That first boy had two bullets in his chest and shoulder. The second had one in his abdomen. The other two looked like they were hit with arrows or crossbow bolts.” She lifted her eyebrows. “Care to explain?”
He sighed, then gave a single nod. “I’m afraid we occasionally have skirmishes with the indigenous population. The ‘Auggies,’ we call them.”
Jennifer frowned. “The what?” She didn’t hide her confusion. “This isn’t your planet?”
“Of course it’s our planet,” he said quickly. “For about a hundred years or so, it’s been our home. But…” He sighed again. “Before we came here, there was another group of people living here and,” he shrugged, “they didn’t want to share.”
“The Auggies,” Keller said.
“Yes. As the story goes, on our old planet, we apparently reached a level of technological advancement that made us a threat to the Wraith. We were warned, and then targeted when we didn’t…” his lips pursed, “devolve quickly enough. After the first culling took about half of our population,” he shuddered, “the other half decided it was best to escape, to leave that planet and hide. Unfortunately,” he shook his head, “none of our trading partners were willing to take us in. By the time we came here, we were starving and desperate. The Auggies were an undeveloped people, still using bows and arrows and with little or no speech or contact with the outside world. They were…” He frowned, looking chagrined under her stare, “easy to force back.”
Keller’s jaw tightened. “You killed them?” she asked softly.
“No!” he promised, raising a hand. “Not…no. Not if we could avoid it. But they kept attacking us, and our only choice was to overpower and subdue them. So, to establish order, we prevented them from tilling their fields, or tending their herds, or using the Gate. We pushed them into the forests. They…well, long story short, it worked. And, for the last sixty years or so, we’d sort of achieved a truce. But they’ve been acting up again lately…” he trailed off.
Keller didn’t say anything for a moment, just soaked it in, wondering a little at how similar human populations could be, even across galaxies. “So,” she said quietly, “I take it they acted up again today?”
The minister still had his head bowed, not really looking at her. “They attacked one of our secure areas near the western edge of our town. In the fighting, they managed to claim some of the guns from our guards, and this encouraged them into an ultimately suicidal attack on some of our warehouses. We managed to quell the uprising, but…there were casualties, and with the hurricane…” He looked up at her finally, “I am glad you were here.”
Keller’s eyebrows just lifted at that. She wasn’t. Worse, a horrible suspicion had lit in her belly.
“Minister,” she said, “why did they attack today? Of all days? With the storm raging, surely they were in as much danger from it as you?”
He continued to meet her gaze, his jaw tensing then releasing, until he finally had to look away. “It is possible,” he offered slowly, guiltily, “that allowing your Colonel Sheppard’s team access to the Ancestor’s Ruins, which the Auggies consider sacrosanct, may have instigated the attack.”
Keller felt punched in the gut by that, and she closed her eyes.
“Were they attacked?” Sergeant Brent asked tightly by her side.
The minister’s eyes remained averted. “We believe so. Before our communication lines went down because of the hurricane, there were reports of fighting along the road to the ruins.”
“Oh my god,” Jennifer whispered, looking to Sergeant Brent. His expression was angry.
“You knew before Major Lorne left,” he demanded the minister, “didn’t you?”
The minister swallowed nervously. “We…weren’t certain. Between the hurricane and the attack on the city…” He grimaced, looking at Brent. “I’m sorry.”
Brent’s nod was curt. “We need to go. We need to tell our people, and bring back help.”
The minister nodded. “I understand, but I should warn you that this storm is still young. Hurricanes here only get worse before they—“
Someone shouted loudly from elsewhere in the hospital, interrupting the minister. He glanced over his shoulder at the doors at the end of the hall, frowned, and turned back to Keller.
“As I was saying, our hurricanes can last for days at a—“
Another shout, this time closer and louder, interrupted him again, and, when the shouting showed no sign of stopping, all three turned around to look at the double doors at the other end of the hall. Jennifer tensed, confused because—had she just heard her name called?
And then the voice, a very familiar voice, became suddenly clear.
“Where is Dr. Keller? Keller! Blonde—well not as blond as you people, but blondish— and pretty, doctorish looking, ‘bout this tall. Is she still here? What do you mean you don’t know? Then get the hell out of my way! What the hell is wrong with you people—hair too peroxided to think? Move, move, move! Keller! Damn it, where are you? Hey! Back off, Ken Doll! Let go of my arm! I don’t give a rat’s ass that you call this architectural nightmare of a concrete box a hospital! KELLER!”
She stepped forward towards the doors at the end of the hall, just as Doctor Rodney McKay shoved through them, drenched to the bone and wearing an expression as furious as the hurricane outside. A sea of blond men and woman fell through the doors with him, like a school of fish circling a shark, and they tried to draw him back through.
“I said let go!” he shouted, barreling through the small group and shaking two of them off who had grabbed his arms. He was badly out of breath, and his face was flushed with cold and sweat as he looked around. “Keller! Where…” His gaze landed on her, and his eyes lit up with utter relief. “There you are! Oh, thank god!” He jogged forward, shoving past the minister so he could grab one of her arms, his grip tight as he drew her close. “You have to come with me!”
“What?” Jennifer asked Rodney, feeling the quaking of his body through his grip. “Why?”
“They’re hurt, all three of them and Ronon badly. Really, really badly. They need you.” His voice grew more desperate, and he took a step away as if prepared to drag her by her arm. “Please, you have to come with me now!”
CHAPTER TWO: THUNDER AND LIGHTNING
“Come with you?” Keller asked, wrapping her hands around Rodney’s on her arm, trying to loosen it. It was ice cold and his fingers an unhealthy blue. “Where?” Behind him, Jennifer saw the minister wave the other Helenans away.
“Up on the other side of the ridge, towards the ruins. Look, don’t ask questions—there’s no time. Ronon…what do you need for arrows? And Sheppard hit his head. Hard. He wasn’t conscious when I left. And Teyla’s ankle…well, she downplayed it, said it was twisted…but you know it’s bad, maybe even broken. She could have the bone jutting out, and she’d say it was just a flesh wound.” He shuddered, his eyes closing momentarily. She gripped his icy hand tighter, trying to offer comfort now—he seemed oblivious to it. Then, without warning, he looked up, letting her go in order to point a finger at Sergeant Brent by her side. “You…,” he glanced at the man’s outfit, then up again, “Sergeant. Where’s Lorne?”
The soldier frowned. “Gone. It’s just me and the doc.”
Rodney dropped his hand, not hiding his dismay. “What? Where? Whose stupid idea was that? We need him.”
“He’s gone back home, sir. Doctor Keller wanted her team to start working on the blood samples. The major was just going to send them through the Stargate and come back here, but the weather…” He trailed off, grimacing, looking Rodney’s sodden form meaningfully.
“Oh,” Rodney said, frowning as if in pain, reaching up to brush some of the wet hair from his forehead, “the weather. Right. I saw that.”
“Saw it?” Keller frowned, confused by that. “Only saw it? Surely you walked through it to get here.”
Rodney gave a headshake, sending droplets of water to hit Jennifer. “Only a bit of it. It’s not so bad up in the mountains, just a really bad storm, but when I looked down on the town from the ridge, I saw the heart of it boiling off the ocean. It looked almost stuck over the buildings and,” he frowned some more, his eyes looking down, “the Stargate. I could barely see it through the gloom. I might…I might even have seen funnels forming.“ He shuddered again, and this time it lasted a little longer than before.
“Funnels…” Keller repeated, feeling her gut twist at the word.
“Tornados,” Rodney said quietly. “But then again…I…I’m not…I might have been… But it’s bad, whatever the weather is.” He backed up a step and fell against the hallway wall, suddenly covering his face with his hands. “Christ,” he moaned through his hands, “they’re not going to be able to come back with the weather around the Gate like that, are they? Certainly not with a jumper. Oh God…”
“Sir,” Brent stepped forward, his voice soft, “what happened?”
Rodney didn’t answer for a moment, just seemed to breathe and shake. When he looked up, he looked completely washed out, as if close to fainting. “Can someone get me some food?” he asked weakly.
“Oh, yes,” the Helenan minister said from behind Keller, as if suddenly coming back to life. “Immediately.” He turned and started to jog down the hall. “I’ll fetch a blanket as well.”
“No citrus,” Rodney called after him. “And pack some food for a trip up the mountain! And some canteens!”
The minister waved a hand to show he understood, already pushing the doors at the far end, leaving the three Atlantians alone.
“Sir?” Brent asked again, his voice echoing softly down the concrete hallway.
Rodney sighed and looked at him, then bowed his head as if resigned to the telling. “It’s, uh,” he waved a hand, “pretty simple actually. Horrible, but simple. “ He drew in another shaking breath and lifted his chin. “We made it to the ruins sometime around mid-morning, and had a good look around. There’s some interesting things there,” he looked at Keller, “I think it was a medical facility,” he looked back at Brent, “but then the storm started to get worse, and the Helenan guides started talking about hurricane weather and how we needed to get back. Sheppard agreed, and we were about halfway back when we were attacked.” He frowned, his gaze turning inward. “There were too many of them. The Helenans took off after a couple of them were killed, and Sheppard and Ronon were injured. We barely made it out of the ambush, and Teyla led us a place to hole up—some hovels she’d spotted up on the mountain while walking to the ruins.” He shook his head, and looked at Keller. “She sent me to get you, and to get help from Atlantis. That was... “ he looked at his watch, “almost an hour and a half ago.” He looked at Keller again, his eyes scared. “Ronon and Sheppard are really bad off. I don’t know how much time they have. There was…” he seemed to choke slightly, lowering his voice, “there was a lot of blood.”
Jennifer could only nod. What else could she say to that? She turned away. “I’ll get my bags ready.”
“Whoa, hang on, wait.” Sergeant Brent had his hands raised, looking back and forth between Rodney and Keller. “What about the storm?”
Rodney looked confused. “What about the storm?” he repeated.
“We can’t go out in that. It’s too dangerous. My orders were to keep Doctor Keller safe and indoors, and I’m going to do that, especially if that thing is forming tornados.”
Rodney frowned. “I already told you, it wasn’t as bad up in the mountains. Plus, I made it through. And if I can make it, anyone can make it.”
Brent grimaced. “It’s not that, sir. I’m not so much concerned about you…” Jennifer grimaced when the Sergeant looked at her instead of finishing the statement.
Rodney shook his head, dismissing that. “She’ll be fine. Tougher than she looks, right?” He looked at her, and Jennifer just opened her mouth—she didn’t really have an answer. Rodney took her silence for a yes, and turned back to Brent. “Besides,” he frowned, “my teams needs her. That includes your commanding officer, Sergeant. They can’t wait for this storm to die down, and I came all the way down here to get her for that reason. I’m taking her up to them.” He looked at Keller. “Okay? I’ll wait here for the food—go get what you need.”
“Doctor Keller, wait,” Brent called to Jennifer, and then he looked at Rodney again, whose face showed the first flashes of annoyance—finally making him a little more like himself. Brent shook his head. “Sir, please, I understand what you want to do, but my orders were very clear, and, as much as I want to—I can’t in good conscience let you or Doctor Keller go out in this hurricane. Especially if, as I think the minister was about to tell us, it’s going to get worse. Not to mention, besides the storm, there’s also the danger the rebels represent, these ‘Auggies’. What if they attack you again? It’ll be hard enough keeping you both safe in the storm, but if I have to watch out for them as well…”
“Well, that’s easily solved,” Rodney replied quickly, waving a hand dismissively, “you won’t have to keep us safe, because you’re not coming with us.”
“What?” Brent’s eyebrows lifted. “Sir, are you crazy?”
“Someone has to stay here to contact Atlantis. You need to get yourself to the Gate and let them know what’s happening—tell them we need a jumper and a medical team. It has to be you, because I’m the only one who knows where my team is.”
Brent’s eyes were wide, and he shook his head vehemently. “Sir, I can’t.”
Rodney’s brow furrowed dangerously. “Of course you can. What part of ‘get yourself to the Gate’ can’t you do? I know the hurricane’s going to be a problem, but you’re a strapping marine type, you—“
“No, sir, I mean I can’t leave you. You and Doctor Keller need protecting.”
Rodney let out a huff of surprise, then rolled his eyes. “Oh for Christ’s sake. Okay, listen,” he lifted his hands up to Brent, as if to placate him, “most of the time I’d agree with you, wholeheartedly, believe me, but we don’t have the luxury for that now. There’s no one else that can do this. I’ll take care of Keller, and you—“
“No, sir, I can’t let you. It’s not operable.”
“Not operable?” Rodney repeated, almost snarling the word. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It means you’re not a soldier, Doctor McKay. Please, be realistic!”
“Realistic?” Rodney’s face suddenly turned bright red. “You want realistic?” he demanded furiously. “What’s real is that two of my teammates are dying on that mountain, Sergeant! I’m taking Keller to them, you’re going to the Stargate, and that’s the reality! And if you think I’m going to let anything stop me from getting her to them, you’re out of your mind. I didn’t run all the way down here, through figurative hell and literal high-water, just to be cloistered away in a concrete hospital! So, suck it up, be a good little marine and do what I tell you!”
Jennifer looked back at Rodney, then at Brent. She wasn’t sure where she stood in this argument. Rodney was technically her boss, and she had a duty to Colonel Sheppard and the others, but the storm was bad and with those ‘Auggies’ out there…No, no, what was she thinking? Of course she had to go. People were hurt! Why was she even questioning?
Because she was scared.
She swallowed, looking again at Brent. His expression had gone from surprised, to angry, to stone-faced during the last few minutes, and the hard stare he was giving Rodney would have intimidated almost anyone.
Anyone except Rodney.
McKay was livid now, not blinking as he glared at the marine.
“Sir,” Brent said slowly, his own face red, “I appreciate your fear and worry for your team, but I also know my orders. I have to keep you and Doctor Keller safe. Atlantis will check in at some point, and we can tell them what’s happening. Until then—“
“Um,” Jennifer raised a hand, suddenly remembering what Brent had told her earlier, “didn’t you say that radio communication was breaking up? What if they can’t reach us out here because of the weather?”
“Okay, you know what?” Rodney said, throwing up his hands before Brent could answer her. “This is stupid and I’m not arguing with you anymore—all it is doing is wasting time. I’m not letting my team die because you feel some compulsion to win the best babysitter award. Keller, go get what you need to treat Sheppard and the others. We’re heading out as soon as that minister guy comes back with food. As for you,” he stepped forward to tap a finger against Brent’s breastbone, “you’re going to the Gate and dialing home. You’re going to tell them what’s happened, and tell them to ready a team to come get us. Tell them that you’ll dial them as soon as the weather’s clear enough for them to bring a jumper through. Or sooner, if this storm doesn’t let up quick enough.”
Brent sighed, “Sir, my orders—“
“Oh, screw your orders! You may answer to Lorne, Sergeant, but Lorne answers to the people in charge of Atlantis. That’s Carter, Sheppard and me, in that order. I don’t see Sheppard and Carter around, do you? So that leaves me. We’re leaving, you’re staying, and that’s the end of it.” He whipped around to point a finger at Jennifer, and she jumped. “Go!”
“Going,” she said, whipping around and running down the hall to get to the clinic room, where they’d left her supplies.
Behind her, she heard Brent trying to argue again, and Rodney’s clipped, furious responses. But she’d made up her mind. She was scared, yes, but Rodney was right—Sheppard and the others needed her. One way or another, she was heading out into the hurricane to get to them.
Hurriedly, she pulled her backpack together, mentally checking off everything she needed. Rodney was right to get food—they’d need that. They could probably also use things like blankets and pillows, but didn’t have the ability to carry that much. Not with the weather and the need to rush. In the end, she rolled up two blankets into the pack and hoped it was enough.
At some point, she’d also gotten a Helenan nurse to bring her extra bandages and some ponchos for the rain. She’d even gotten gloves.
She was double-checking her medical supplies in her black medical case when Rodney pushed in through the doors to the little clinic room, sporting a yellow blanket around his shoulders. His hair was sticking out in all directions from obviously being dried with the blanket, and his ears and nose were bright red. He was wiping his nose on a tissue as he came in, while his other hand carried what looked like a small cloth drawstring bag.
“Food,” he said, tossing it to her. She pulled the bag open, saw bread, cheese, dried meat and what looked like some sort of fruit. Good enough. She stuffed it in her backpack, then turned to look at Rodney. He was sniffling as he watched her, his eyes red-rimmed. He still looked like a drowned rat, even though he was a little drier than he had been. He also still looked too pale and a little shaky.
“Did you eat?” she asked. He gave a quick nod.
“Helenan Minister guy gave me roll with some kind of meat in it. I also had a snickers bar that I had tucked in my vest.” He blinked, looking down at her pack and the black case on the table. “You ready to go?”
She nodded, and turned to shoulder on the fat backpack. She saw Rodney stuff the tissue in his wet pocket, then reach to help her, losing the blanket draped over his shoulders as he did so. His wet arm brushed close to her neck—she could feel how cold he was even without touching him.
“Should change your shirt and jacket before we go,” she said, drawing away from him as she adjusted the backpack’s belt around her waist. He shook his head, picking up the blanket from the floor and tossing it on the table behind her case.
“I’ll just get wet again.”
“But I got us ponchos,” she said, pointing to the table, “and gloves.”
“Oh, gloves!” He grabbed for the pair of black men’s gloves sitting next to the medical case. He had them on so fast, she barely had time to blink. He was rubbing his now gloved hands together, looking a little like he’d just been given all the secrets of the universe. He looked up at her and smiled so brightly, so full of gratitude, she blushed.
She grabbed for one of the ponchos and slipped it over her head, covering the backpack. She then donned the other set of gloves and reached for the case.
“I got that,” he said quickly, pulling it from her. “Faster if I carry it. Let’s go.”
“You don’t want the other poncho?” she asked.
He shook his head. “At this point—I can’t get more wet or cold or miserable. Plus—the rain is blowing up as well as down. There’s not much point.” He turned then, so missed the look of misery on Jennifer’s face.
Steeling herself, she found herself trooping out of the little room after him, her hands wrapped around the shoulder straps of the backpack under the poncho.
They were soon in the same hall as before, and she stopped when she saw the Helenan minister looking as unhappy as ever—standing over an unconscious Sergeant Brent on the floor. Keller’s eyes widened.
“What happened?” she gasped, running forward to check on him.
Rodney shrugged. “I stunned him,” he answered tiredly as he continued to walk forward. “It’ll be easier for him with Lorne that way. Come on, time’s a wasting.” He was stepping over the sergeant’s outstretched legs already.
"Was it a Wraith stunner?"
"No, it was a Star Trek phaser. Of course it was a Wraith stunner! I carry one in my backpack--took it out because I thought it would help if I ran into any more of those Auggie people. Now, come on!"
“But—“ She hesitated as she watched Rodney stride down the hall away from her. He was almost at the door now.
“Keller.” Rodney turned to face her. “He’s fine. He’ll continue to be fine, and when he wakes up in a few minutes, he’ll be really pissed off, but he’ll do what I told him to do because he won’t have any other choice. Now are you coming?”
She grimaced, not liking the idea of leaving him there like this.
"Keller! Come on, we need to go! Chop chop!"
She looked up and nodded at Rodney. “Right,” she said. “Right, I’m coming.” She looked up at the tall blond minister as she passed by. “Take care of him.”
“Of course,” he said sincerely. She smiled at him, then took off after Rodney, who was already striding swiftly away from her.
CHAPTER THREE: HELLACIOUS WINDS
Rodney stood before the doors leading outside, and for a moment, he seemed to hesitate, the fingers of his empty hand curling and releasing nervously. Under his breath, Jennifer heard him whisper, “You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.” She smiled a little as she realized this was how he psyched himself up. Then the smile fell when she realized what exactly he was psyching himself up for.
“Ready?” he asked a little too loudly, his voice shaking, his gaze still locked on the double doors. They were rattling with the force of the winds outside, like something big and ugly was trying to get inside.
Which wasn’t wholly wrong.
She sucked in a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. “After you, McKay,” she said jauntily, trying to sound confident. “Once more into the breach, and all that.”
He glanced at her, grimacing a little (apparently, she didn’t sound as confident as she’d hoped).
“Just, um….” His free hand lifted, his fingers dancing like he was playing an invisible trumpet. “Keep your eye out for flying bits of debris, okay? There’s a lot of it out there—nearly got taken out a few times on the way down here. “ He looked back at the doors.
“You know,” he shrugged, and now he was the one feigning confidence, “bits of wood, chunks of metal,” he sucked in a breath, “large, heavy objects that have no call being off the ground, flying at your head at high rates of speed.”
She knew her eyes were as wide as saucers, but Rodney paid no mind as he suddenly closed his eyes and, with a determined step, shoved the doors open.
Jennifer gasped as freezing cold rain bit at her cheeks, the powerful winds blowing her poncho up around her ears. She staggered backwards, and had to consciously think about digging in her heels and holding her ground. In front of her now, Rodney threw up a hand to cover his face and, bending over slightly, pushed forward into the driving rain. Muttering a prayer under her breath, Jennifer did the same, except she used both hands to shield her face.
The wind was incredible, shoving at her from all sides as she lurched into the middle of the paved street. The rain felt like it was cutting her to bits, drumming down on her shoulders like nails hammered into a board.
And she’d barely cleared the building.
Oh God. This was bad. This was really, really, really bad!
She peered through her upraised arms, trying to follow the dark figure of Rodney McKay as he slogged determinedly away from her, up the paved road. He was only a few feet distant at most, but the storm was too strong; he was already losing definition in her sight. And…and he was moving faster than she was, getting further away with each step. No, no, no, no…
“Wait!” she screamed—and felt her voice ripped from her and carried away. The wind was so loud, she could barely hear herself. “Rodney!” she screamed, lowering her arms slightly. “Can you hear me? Don’t go too fast! I can’t go as fast as you! Wait!”
She heard him yell back, but she couldn’t make out the words. She bit her lip and pressed forward, arms upraised again to shield her face, trying to move quicker. Every footfall was like pushing through quicksand, and she began to worry that the tread on her boots weren’t enough to stop her from slipping on the rain-slicked pavement.
Rodney appeared to be headed straight up the main road, climbing the hill that made up half of the town, but Jennifer knew there were many side roads and alleyways shooting off of it. If he turned onto one without her seeing, she’d lose him. And each step took him further away from her, his black clothes helping him to blend into the gloom.
“Rodney!” she screamed again. “You have to slow—“
A massive gust hit her square in the side like a punch, and she staggered, tripping over her own feet. It was a miracle she even stayed upright. She started forward again, focusing on keeping her footing. The water was blinding her now, and she was blinking furiously, trying to clear her sight.
Keep moving; don’t lose him!
As she feared, Rodney abruptly disappeared down a side road, and she followed, almost running to catch up, but the wind and rain kept pushing her back; she only seemed to lose ground. She nearly lost him again as he turned up yet another new road. She came around the corner just in time to spot his black shadow turning down another road.
“Rodney!” She stumbled after him. Again, she hit the end of the alley, barely in time to see him head up another road. Up, always up. “Rodney!” This road was as featureless as the others—it’s only distinguishing feature being that it climbed even more steeply.
Another gust, even stronger this time, and her left foot tripped over her right, pain blossoming inside her right ankle. Before she could right herself, a third gust blasted into her and she went down on her side, the rough pavement scraping her hands and right hip as she hit. The massive backpack hindered her motion, seemingly trying to keep her down as she attempted to regain some sense of balance. She hissed in pain, dragging in great gasps of air, her entire body trembling and her right ankle throbbing.
Get up! she commanded herself. You’ll lose him if you don’t! Get up!
Steeling her jaw, she somehow managed to get one leg under her, pushing up onto one knee. Another push, and she was on her feet again, tottering a little…but up. She tilted her head up, blinking through the water coating her eyelashes, wiping off the water dripping off her face with the back of her arm.
She didn’t see Rodney anywhere.
Fear gripped her, and she lurched forward up the hill, turning her head left and right, trying to spot him down an alleyway or next to one of the identical concrete box houses.
“Rodney!” she screamed into the hellacious winds. Where had he gone? “RODNEY!”
She didn’t know where she was—wasn’t even sure she could find her way back to the hospital now. She kept climbing upwards, hoping to find him. Wind raked at her, and her poncho was up around her neck, trying to strangle her. She fought it down—no wonder Rodney hadn’t wanted one.
She was stumbling a lot now, barely keeping to a straight line, the wind sending her sideways and backwards as often as she moved forward.
“Rodney!” she shouted, desperation like a fire in her chest. “Rodney! Where are you! RODNEY!”
The wind slammed into her back this time, and she fell forwards onto the pavement, her knees getting the brunt of the pain, but her hands the rest. She even banged her chin, bringing tears to her eyes. Ow! Damn it!
Shaking, crying (and wishing to God she wasn’t), she got her hands under her again and started to push herself up of the black paved road.
Suddenly, a black gloved hand appeared before her, just inches from her nose.
She peered up, and found Rodney staring down at her, all wide blue eyes and looking as scared as she felt. “Sorry!” he shouted, and he really did look sorry. “I thought you were behind me!” He waved his hand in front of her, obviously intending her to take it.
She tried not to feel upset at him for it—it wasn’t his fault. None of this was. God—what were they doing out here? If they had to fight this weather the whole way….Brent had been right. They’d die in this! Reaching out, she took his hand and let him pull her up. “I can’t go as fast as you!” she yelled at him. “I can’t do this!”
He shook his head. “Yes, you can!” he promised. “Just don’t let go of my hand!”
And with that, he took a more solid grip on her hand and started to drag her after him. She staggered forward at the abrupt yank, and her fingers gripped harder around his hand—afraid he’d lose her, or she him.
For the next few minutes, Rodney just pulled her along, turning down a side road then up another road, always heading uphill, always heading farther away from the center of town and the Stargate. He seemed unerring in his course, never slowing, compensating as best he could whenever the wind tried to knock them down. Twice, he had to help her up when she fell, and once, when he took a blast of wind to the face and fell back into her—she caught him.
She could barely see. How Rodney even knew where to go amazed her.
He turned up another street, this one as plain as the others, distinguished again only by the fact that it was still going uphill. She tried to see what made this street different, but failed. They were all gray, dark and lined with concrete houses. The whole town was as nondescript as any former Soviet apartment block in Eastern Europe—except that the people here hadn’t even tried to decorate, to bring any color or individuality to their homes at all.
“How do you know where you’re going?” she shouted.
“I counted streets!” he shouted back.
“Trust me! I know where I am!”
Keller grimaced, feeling her already cold lips press into a thin line. She wanted to, she really did, but she didn’t know him all that well yet, and she had heard Sheppard and the others ribbing McKay in the mess. He was not exactly known for his wilderness skills.
“But,” she yelled, “how can you see anything in this? I can’t even see you that clearly!”
He didn’t answer, and she frowned more.
He just kept tugging her forward with him, leading her farther and farther away from safety and towards the woods.
“Rodney!” she called. “I—“
She stopped, spotting something black and flat coming at them fast from the side. “Get down!” she screamed, jumping on his shoulders to bring them both to the ground, slamming them both into the unyielding pavement. He shouted something angrily, trying to get up, but she held on as the massive piece of metal shot over their heads and slammed into the side of one of the small concrete homes with a massive bang, sending chunks of concrete flying.
Rodney gasped, and, wide eyed, he looked from the piece of metal then at Keller. “That could have cut us in two!” he yelled. She just nodded, not trusting her voice, and finally let go her grip on his shoulders. He rolled away and got up to his knees. He shook visibly, staring again at the metal, then back at her.
“You saved my life!” he yelled, reaching out a hand. Jennifer tried for a smile as she took it, but her lips hurt from the cold, so it probably looked more like a grimace.
“You can pay me back later!” she yelled in return. He flashed a quick grin, more wry than happy. Together, they clambered back to their feet. Still holding her hand, Rodney leaned over and grabbed the black medical case he’d dropped, frowning down at it.
“It’s okay,” she shouted. “It’s designed for combat! Strong and sturdy—it won’t break or let anything inside break!”
Rodney stayed still for a moment, still looking down at it, before lifting his gaze to study their surroundings—particularly the now damaged concrete home. She could guess what he was thinking—the case might not break, but they easily could. It really wouldn’t take much—not in this weather.
And for a second, Jennifer thought he might be considering taking them back.
But then he tightened his grip on her hand and was dragging her towards another side road—once again away from the hospital down below.
And she followed.
Rodney was right. They crested a hill near the edge of town, and as they started downwards, the wind lessened almost immediately. At about the same time, the concrete and pavement world of the Helenan settlement abruptly ended; there was nothing before them now but a dirt path leading downhill into a heavy forest. By the time they had dropped about twenty feet, surrounded by pine and fir on all sides, the screaming gusts had been replaced by a dull roar on the edge of hearing, and, while the rain continued to pelt down, it was now hampered by the thick pine needle and leaf cover.
The hill was a natural windbreaker—which was why McKay had been so certain they’d be okay when they got this far. She wished Brent were here so she could smile smugly at him—she’d been right to believe Rodney…even if, deep down, she hadn’t really. Not until now.
Rodney continued to hold her hand, leading her down the muddy, leaf strewn dirt road. Pinecones littered the area, and she nearly turned her ankle a few times stepping on them by accident. Water ran down in thick rivulets by their feet, a hundred little streams pouring down the hill from the concrete town above. Through it all, Rodney kept up his brutal pace, and she jogged, tripped and slid down behind him, straining to keep up. His grip on her hand was beginning to make her fingers ache.
Finally, as if finally registering how much she was struggling, he slowed when they reached a curve in the road, at a point just before the path tilted upwards again. A large boulder jutted up off the side, and he dropped her next to it so she could lean against the stone, catch her breath. Letting her hand go, he backed off a couple of feet, resting his now free hand on the P90 attached to his vest and watching the woods.
Jennifer was grateful—she knew it probably killed him to have to stop at all. She leaned her back against the cold rock, her hands on her knees, gasping for air as if she’d just run a marathon. After a moment, she reached up and ripped off the strangling poncho, grateful for the freedom as she let it drop to the muddy ground. Then she returned to her bent over position, again just trying to get her breathing under control.
“You okay?” he asked, his voice at a more natural volume. She peered up at him, and nodded as she panted.
“Yeah,” she said. “That was…” she pulled in a shallow breath, “not fun. Let’s try to avoid walking through typhoons in the future, okay?”
He gave a small smile and turned away from her. “Yeah. Welcome to my world. I say stuff like that to Sheppard all the time. It doesn’t work. Sometimes I think he puts me in situations like this just to drive me crazy.”
She laughed softly, reaching up a gloved hand to rub at the back of her neck, and pulling the wet ponytail out from under her collar at the same time. It slapped against the top of her jacket and backpack with a wet ‘slurp.’ She sighed again, and stood up straighter. Her heart still felt like it was going to slam through her chest, and her breathing was ragged to the point of painful—but she knew they couldn’t stay here long.
Trying to catch her breath, she peered more carefully at their surroundings, taking in the dense wood. It reminded her a little of a mountain forest back home—which wasn’t surprising. From everything she’d seen of Pegasus—which wasn’t that much, truth be told—all of the planets had flora and fauna similar to Earth. Probably because the Ancients had seeded them that way.
This particular forest was very brown. Other than a few short evergreens and a handful of baby deciduous trees, mostly all you could see were the tall, brown tree trunks of the tall pines, each with a million short branches and dead looking limbs sticking off of them. She used to climb trees like that as a kid—before she’d developed her fear of heights. There were a few lighter colored trees—birch like white trunks interspersed with the brown—but that was it for variety. The ground was littered with dead brown leaves and thousands of rust colored pine needles, and darker brown mud. Brown, brown, brown.
The forest was also thick with mist. A side effect of the storm—the air was heavy with water vapor, preventing her from seeing anything more than a couple dozen yards from their position clearly. After that, it was just gray gloom and shadows. Between that and the constant white noise from the hurricane, she shivered a little from a strange sense of claustrophobia.
She drew in one more fortifying breath, finally feeling her heartbeat lessen.
She looked up, taking in the towering green overhead, letting the rain wash the sweat from her face. The canopy was their protection from the worst of the storm. At least, since it had developed into a hurricane, typhoon, monsoon…or whatever it was, it wasn’t thundering and lightning anymore. That was something, right?
She tipped her head down again, and pushed herself off the rock, adjusting the pack on her back. Rodney was still waiting for her a few feet away, his jaw tense, his countenance rigid with worry and impatience—but he said nothing. Obviously he didn’t want to push her beyond what she could do, even with his clear desperate need to hurry.
She gave him a nod. He gave her a grateful smile back and immediately started walking, heading uphill along the path.
She blew the air out of her cheeks and jogged to catch up, sparing a glance for the poncho she left behind. Someone else could grab it later.
Rodney had a really long stride, something she had noticed before in the hallways of Atlantis, but hadn’t really appreciated until she was forced to catch up to him when he was really moving.
“So,” she said, panting a little as she came up alongside, “how far away are they from here?”
He gave a shrug. “Not sure. I wasn’t really paying that much attention when I was running back to town.”
She lifted her eyebrows. “You ran?”
“It was mostly downhill,” he admitted, peering into the woods, his free hand still on his P90. “I couldn’t run back to the hovel where I left them—not the whole way. Ronon probably could, though. Or Teyla. If they hadn’t…I…” He stopped, pressing his lips together unhappily. “I wish I could,” he said softly.
Jennifer dropped her eyes to the ground. Fact was, he was more hampered by her now than his own weaknesses. She tried to pick her pace up a little.
Hang on…if the way from the hovel to town was mostly downhill…that meant the way back was mostly uphill.
Oh crap. Don’t think about it. Don’t.
Instead, she considered that they were on this path—was it the same one that led to the ruins? Or was it a different one?
“How do you know where you are?” she asked. “Is this the same road you took before?”
He glanced at her, then gave a quick nod. “Yeah. ”
“But then…” Jennifer swallowed, “aren’t you, um,” she bit her bottom lip, “maybe worried about being attacked? You know, since you were attacked on this road before?”
He grimaced, then shook his head. “We didn’t see anyone after the storm got really bad. I don’t think they like the rain any more than we do.”
“Okay,” she said, hoping he was right. She looked at the road again, which was curling up away from them, disappearing around another corner further up. Were they going to be on the road the whole time?
She cleared her throat. “The cabins you found—“
“Hovels. They’re more like hovels.”
She frowned. “What’s the difference?”
“You’ll know when you see them. I didn’t think there was a difference either, but…,” he shook his head, “wait until you see them.”
“Okay,” she said slowly. “So,” she licked her lips, “the hovels you found, are they on the road?”
He snorted. “No. Wouldn’t be much of a place to hide if they were. Teyla’s not that stupid.”
She frowned. Did he just imply that she was stupid?
“Well,” she said, “if they’re not on the road, then are they close to it?”
Rodney sighed heavily, grimacing in irritation. “If what you’re trying to ask is,” he looked at her, “whether we’re staying on the road the whole time—no. The hovels are far, far away from the road, way up on the side of the mountain. Happy? We’ll be going cross country soon enough. I marked a tree where I hit the road on the way down. We’ll turn there.”
Jennifer frowned again. “But, how can you be sure we won’t get lost once we’re off the road?”
“Oh for…” He rolled his eyes. He stopped in the road and faced her, not hiding his annoyance. “You don’t trust me, do you?”
She’d stopped with him, and her eyebrows lifted. “What?”
“If I were Ronon or Teyla or Lorne or someone like that, you’d not even question, would you? You’d just follow blindly, right? But because it’s me, you’re terrified that I’m going to lead you right into the middle of an ambush or into a pit of vipers, right?”
“Uh…,” she bit her lip, “well, I mean….”
“For your information,” he stated, spinning around and walking away from her at a fast clip up the road, “I have a very good sense of direction—better than most people. If I’ve been somewhere once, I can almost always find my way back again without needing directions again. You should see Sheppard in the woods—it’s like watching a chicken with its head cut off. Did I tell you how his getting us lost was how we ended up with the Genii as enemies? Next thing we know, they’re invading Atlantis and Elizabeth and I are fighting for our lives and the city, and all because he ‘likes to walk in a straight line.’” He huffed. “Sure, sure, he saved us and all that during the Storm, but—”
He stopped walking. It was so abrupt, Keller, who had been practically running to keep up with him, slammed into his back.
She teetered backwards, holding her now bruised nose. Ow!
“What the hell, McK—“
“Shht!” he hissed, and she suddenly realized he was staring off to one side, not blinking.
She went rigid, looking in the same direction. She couldn’t see anything. What was he…?
Her eyes widened when she saw a flutter of movement between two trees.
“Take this,” Rodney said quietly, shoving the medical case at her. She did so, pulling it close to her.
Rodney pulled up his P90, resting it in both hands and focused on the movement they’d both seen.
“Back up,” he whispered quietly. “Into the woods behind you. Move slow. Biggest tree you can find—get behind it. If I start firing—run up away from me as fast as you can.”
She nodded, stepping backwards until her boot-heel impacted the muddy incline of the hill behind her.
Swallowing thickly, she turned and started climbing up the incline into the trees. There was a large oak like tree not far up, and, when she reached it, she stopped.
Rodney was covering her, backing up as she was. When he too hit the edge of the road, he started to climb up the hill sideways, never losing his sharp eyed gaze on the woods. He was tense and ready for whatever might come…
Suddenly, whatever was behind those trees moved, jumping out from between the brown trunks and running away into the woods.
It had looked like a deer. Or whatever creature on this planet was deer-like.
Rodney’s shoulders slumped in relief. Jennifer rested her head against the tree trunk and closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again, he was looking up at her, his mouth turned down in a deep frown.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”
She nodded, stumbling down the incline back to the road. When he reached to take the medical case from her, she drew it back.
“I got it,” she said. “You just…you just keep that gun up, okay?”
He gave a sad smile at that, but didn’t argue. He just started walking again, with Jennifer on his heels.
CHAPTER FOUR: SLIPPERY WHEN WET
As they climbed higher, the way growing increasingly steep, the forest began to thin, and Keller became aware again of just how heavily the rain was still bucketing down. The wind had picked up as well, sharp gusts battering them with every step. She was beginning to forget what it felt like to be dry or warm. At least she could see—she didn’t feel like she constantly had to wipe sheets of water from her face as she had back in town.
Not that there was much to see. The brown landscape was really beginning to get to her. There were more rocks and boulders up here to break the monotony—sometimes whole shelves of granite jutting out of the mountainside—but it was still mostly the barren looking pine tree trunks.
Bent over from the weight of the backpack and now the medical case, Jennifer slogged up the muddy trail, having long ago given up the attempt to keep her feet on solid ground. Since they’d left the road to hike up this goat track, it had just gotten worse. Black mud sucked at her boots, seeping inside the lining to drown her already sodden feet. It was like walking on gel insoles, except the water bubbles she could feel between her toes and under her arch were actually bubbles of water between her toes and under her arch.
To distract herself, she mentally went through the treatment for trench foot.
In front of her, Rodney marched up the barely visible path, often looking back at her to make sure she was still there. A couple of times, she thought she would slip, but her balance stayed remarkably stable, so that, despite a lingering soreness in her right ankle from her fall in town, she was moving pretty well. She was even keeping up, which was impressive.
Exercise was never something she was that interested in. She knew she should do it, and heaven knew she preached it often enough, but she was a little like those doctors who told you not to smoke, but then went outside on their breaks and took a drag. Oh, she didn’t smoke, but she had an unhealthy addiction to McDonald’s french fries, Reese’s peanut butter cups, rare steaks, Doritos, and, really, everything else bad for you under the sun. She tried to eat vegetables when she was in the mess hall, but more often than not she was eating junk food at her desk or in her room. As for exercising—the occasional use of the stairs from the Gateroom floor up to the Control Room probably didn’t count for much.
So her breathing was ragged as she stumbled after him, her quads felt like jelly, and her shoulders were close to breaking under the strain of the pack and lugging the black medical case.
But she was keeping up. Not that she had any doubt that, if he wanted to, he could leave her behind.
She found herself watching Rodney as he trudged forward in front of her, clambering over rocks and trees in their path, wondering a little if this is what it was like for him on missions—feeling like the stone around the neck of his companions. Oh sure, she knew he exercised…sort of. He’d come in numerous times complaining of bruises and welts and strained muscles from working out with Ronon or Teyla or John, but she’d never actually seen him actively doing anything. And the physicals she’d performed on him confirmed what she saw—a man nearing forty, strong but not necessarily in the peak of health, in a weight and BMI class that didn’t make him overweight by any means, but he also wasn’t in a class that could be considered “fit.”
But of course, he was out in the field at least once a week, walking, running, fighting…between that and the exercise she knew he did do, he should have been fitter. But he wasn’t—and she could guess why. It was for the same reason she wasn’t.
She just never seemed to find the time to really care for her body. With her hours and her schedule, she was lucky to have time to sleep, and she knew it was the same for him. She knew he was up at all hours working on the city, keeping it running, or studying the latest findings brought in by other field teams, or out in the field, often in danger. She knew he had time off—Elizabeth had mandated it for everyone at one point not long after Jennifer arrived in the city—but she imagined Rodney spent much of it working anyway.
He was just that type. And so was she.
Except that, he had friends. Real ones, as close as family. A team he’d kill himself for—like he was doing now. Maybe it wasn’t about how fit you were, but how determined you were to get to your goal.
He stumbled suddenly, and she heard him hiss in pain as his left foot got caught between two rocks he’d been climbing over. She hurried forward, to reach him, but he just shook his head at her. With a grunt, he pulled himself up and resumed moving upwards.
“It thins out a lot up here,” he said, panting slightly, clambering up between another set of boulders. “More rocks, because we’re nearing the ridge. Once we get over that, it’s a straight shot to where the others are.”
She nodded, and asked, “So, we’re close?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe a few kilo…a couple of miles left to go.”
She smiled at the correction. She knew her metrics, but it was nice of him to make the adjustment. And the fact that he did it without sneering showed how tired he was.
He was picking up the pace a little now, and she skipped a little to catch up.
Rodney stopped suddenly when he reached a wide waterfall of granite rocks and boulders, complete with a fast moving river sluicing down it. The path turned in a different direction here, pointing away from where they’d been climbing, sloping off and down into a fairly deep looking gorge. They couldn’t keep following it—it clearly went the wrong way. Which meant they’d have to cross the river.
This was bad. The rocks were all wet and clearly unstable. One misstep and they could easily take a nasty fall down the waterfall. At the very least, it would break a bone. More likely, they’d crack their heads open.
Keller swallowed. “Was this…was this the high water?” she asked, remembering Rodney’s claim to Brent down in the town.
He nodded. “I came down this, followed it a ways, then crossed over at this point when I saw the path we’re on, on this side,” Rodney said, gesturing at the stream, then his hand fluttered down, as if depressed. “But It wasn’t…there was a lot less water. It was more a…,” he cleared his throat, “a stream than a torrential river.”
He sounded worried—and she knew why. The river rushing down was a mini-torrent, all the rocks jutting out of it were slick with rain and damp algae, and with the wind blowing up and down it…. The footing would be precarious, if not impossible.
“This is bad,” he said shakily. It sounded like he was about to quit. Keller shook her head, nudging his arm.
“Do we have a choice?” she asked finally.
He sighed and shook his head. “No.”
“Then, I guess ‘lay on, Macduff’,” she said, gesturing at the stream.
He grimaced again, staring at the rocks, obviously choosing the best place to cross. After a moment, he turned and looked at her, holding out a hand. “Give me the backpack.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “What?”
“I can take it and still have both hands free for the gun, if we need it. And it’ll help you balance more.”
“Me?” she wondered. “What about you?”
“I’m used to lugging all my equipment on my back in the field,” he said. “Besides, you look like you’re about to collapse.”
Her eyes widened slightly. She did? She didn’t feel that bad. Of course, she was shivering and her face did feel sort of flushed, and her legs felt like dead-weights….
“Just give it to me, Keller,” he ordered. “You keep the case.”
She swallowed, but did as he asked, turning around so he could help. The pack had begun to feel like part of her, so taking it off was almost enough to cause her to feel light-headed. She staggered as he took it from her, and, for a moment, her vision grayed. She leaned forward, her back feeling strangely naked, breathing in deep draughts of air.
“You okay?” he demanded, sounding a little impatient. She turned to face him again—he was pulling the backpack on, adjusting the straps as he did so. He was frowning at her.
“Fine,” she answered shakily, straightening once more. “You know, Teyla told me…she said, people often underestimate the level of discomfort they are capable of enduring.”
He eyed her for a moment, then gave a small smile. “Yeah. That sounds like her.”
“What I mean is,” she smiled weakly, “I can endure.” She smiled. “So can you.”
He snorted. “Right.” He took in a deep breath, then looked up. “Okay. This way.” He turned from her and started up to side of the waterfall, climbing up the steep bank of the stream to a location he’d obviously picked to cross. Tiny rocks and sticks skittered down in his wake. Jennifer grimaced, picked up the medical case, and made to follow.
Rodney reached a point about ten feet above where they’d been before, prevented from going any higher by a large boulder jutting out of the mountainside at about head height. Gingerly, he turned and stepped onto a different rock by his feet that had water streaming down both sides. Jennifer watched as he put his weight on it…and it shifted, sliding down a good two or three inches. His face pinched, and he lifted his foot up. He stood for a moment, then tried another rock. This one didn’t move as much.
It was like that for the next few moments—Rodney testing rocks and slowly making his way forward over the stream. About halfway across, he turned and looked at her, his hand lifting to gesture at her to follow.
She let out a pent up breath, and stepped where he had stepped.
The rocks felt slimy, slick. They shifted slightly, shivering under her weight and from the weight of the grossly swollen river rushing under and around them. Her boots felt like they had nothing on their soles—as if they were as smooth as ice.
So not good.
Rodney was still moving, balancing and stepping. He continued to check on her as he led the way, stopping probably as much to catch his breath as he was concerned for her.
Jennifer didn’t care—she was glad he was watching.
All of a sudden, there was a deep rumble and she yelped, going done to her hands and knees as the whole world started to shake. The rocks around her trembled, and the water seemed to rush faster, spraying her as it crashed down.
Suddenly, the rock she was on slid down a good six inches and she yelped, her left leg instinctively burying itself into the river, seeking purchase on the river bed. Tiny rocks and pebbled skittered over the toe of her boot, but it held…and the rock stopped moving.
She let out a trembling breath. The river was like ice on her leg, freezing it through the thin trousers. It soon began to ache.
The rumbling lasted a long time, and Jennifer closed her eyes. Thunder? No—thunder didn’t last this long. Earthquake? Was this planet prone to earthquakes? She hated earthquakes!
She’d dipped her head, focused on keeping still and balanced, her right hand pressing the medical case down on a wide rock as if it could provide some extra support, her left leg freezing and probably turning blue where it was in the water.
Finally, after what was probably only a minute or two, but which felt like years, the rumbling stopped.
When she looked up again, Rodney was where he’d been before, precariously balanced between two rocks, but he was standing and looking uphill. She could see his hands visibly shaking. His expression was grim. He must have felt her gaze, because he turned. Then he was carefully making his way back to her, stretching out a hand.
“What was that?” she shouted, trying to be heard over the rushing water. He shook his head, his expression growing even grimmer as she took his offer of help. Rodney pulled her upright again, out of the water. “Was it thunder?” she yelled, trying not to concentrate too much on how much her left leg was throbbing now as the blood rushed back to her toes.
He gave a headshake. Of course it wasn’t thunder.
“Come on,” he shouted. “We need to get off this riverbed.” He let go her hand and stepped up to a new rock. “Stay close!”
She nodded, and started forward again, following only a couple of rocks behind him. Her left leg trembled, but it didn’t buckle—which she’d been afraid it would.
But now she felt the need to hurry, and it made her less cautious. Her feet slipped more, and her heart began to beat quickly from her spiking fear, so much so she was afraid it would explode. It only served to make her even more intent on making it to the other side as fast as possible—and she took even more chances as Rodney’s longer strides helped him move faster than she.
She’d stopped watching where Rodney had put his feet, picking stepping stones and rocks on her own. She needed to get across. She had to get to the dry land. She wanted off this streambed now!
She was almost there. Almost…
Her right foot came down on an angled rock and slipped. She shrieked, totally losing her balance as the rock came completely loose...
Strong hands wrapped around her arms and pulled her forward before she could fall, and she felt herself bodily lifted off the stream and onto the soft, brown dirt, landing on her side. The rock she’d slipped on crashed down the stream, spraying up water and breaking in half somewhere about ten feet from where it had been…until finally coming to a rest.
That could have been her. She felt herself stop breathing.
She realized then that Rodney was still holding her, and that she had one hand gripping tightly into his arm as well. She looked up at his face—he was looking down at the rock she’d slipped on. When he looked at her, there was no hiding the fear on his face.
He swallowed. “Are you…?”
She let go of his arm and threw her arms around his neck, pulling him close. He squawked, but didn’t fight her as, for a second, she pressed her forehead into his neck. She could feel him breathing, his warm skin felt wonderful against her freezing, wet face.
His hands had let go of her arms…and were now pathetically patting at her back through her vest.
“Keller…” he called softly. She nodded and pulled away. Not looking at him, she got her feet under her and stood up.
“I’m okay,” she said hoarsely, pulling her vest and jacket down. “Sorry.”
He gave a nod, and let go, backing away. “Don’t do that again,” he warned.
Her eyebrows lifted. “Don’t hug you?”
His eyes widened slightly. “No, no…the hug was…it was nice. No, I meant the…” he gestured at the river, and she could see him blushing furiously.
She gave a weak laugh, slightly hysterical. “I’ll try not to,” she promised.
He flashed a sweet, fragile looking smile, and for a second…Jennifer found herself incredibly jealous of Katie Brown. She felt her face flush with embarrassment at the thought, and she hid it by looking down at the medical case still in her hand. Miraculously, or perhaps because her hand had formed a death grip on it, she was still holding it. She adjusted the handle in her grip and nodded up at him. He nodded back, turned and started climbing again.
As they rounded the edge of the mountainside, they discovered the source of the previous rumbling.
Half the mountain looked like it had washed away, collapsed in a landslide of mud and dirt. It had created a swath at least twenty feet wide, breaking and bending all the trees in its path, so that the few still standing looked like toothpicks sticking out of a chocolate mousse. Dirt, mud and rocks were still cascading down the slope, and thick streams of water trickled down it from the still driving rain. The wind was back to screaming in their ears, no longer dulled by the forest—it swept up the landslide, carrying dirt, water and fog in visible curls and gusts.
Rodney stared at it without moving, his lips parted, his eyes wide. For the first time, he looked like he had lost. The momentary flash of despair he’d shown at the waterfall was nothing compared to what he looked like now. He fell against a nearby tree, staring out at the landscape with an unfocused gaze.
“Oh God,” he whispered, his lips trembling.
Jennifer stood at his side, and she placed a hand on his arm. “It’ll be okay,” she said. It was all she could think of.
He turned a glare on her so sharp, she actually stepped back from it. “It’ll be okay?” he snarled. “It’ll be okay?” He whipped a hand out towards the landslide “How the hell is this going to be okay? We can’t cross that! We can’t go all the way back down and try to find a way around without wasting too much time, or running into arrow happy Auggies. We can’t do anything! We’re stuck!” He wrapped his arms around himself. “Oh God, they’re going to die. They’re going to die because I couldn’t get you to them in time. Because I couldn’t think of a better way. Why didn’t I think of a better way?”
“Rodney,” she tried, reaching for him again. “Come on, we made it this far.”
“Because we had protection from the forest!” he snapped, pulling away from her and physically stepping back, creating distance. “The forest is gone here! All my landmarks that I followed are gone—I don’t even know where to cross! And that ground is completely unstable! It’ll sweep us down the moment we even try to make our way over that thing.”
“Then…” Keller bit her lip, stepping after him. “Then we go above it.”
“Above it? How can we go above it?”
“We just…we climb—keep the landslide to our right and climb. It had to have started up the mountain somewhere. And then…then we can get above it and continued to head to the ridge you described before, and…”
“How do you know the landslide didn’t start at the top?”
“How do you know it didn’t?” she replied quickly.
“Even if it didn’t,” he snapped , “we have no idea how far up we’d have to go! It could be hundreds of meters; it could take forever to get up there! And we’re not exactly Hillary and Norgay here. We’re not even Sheppard and Teyla. We’re taking too long as it is because we’re so slow, so unfit. If it’s too far—”
“But it might not be!” she argued. “It could begin close by. We just—”
“No, no, forget it.” He was shaking his head, walking backwards away from her. “It’s impossible! Even if we could get above it, the ground is probably just as unstable up there, now that all the earth shoring it up is down here! No, no, we’re screwed. We’re so, so screwed. They’re going to die and it’s all my fault! Damn it!”
“Stop it!” she shouted.
He jumped, clearly startled by her yell.
“We’re not screwed!” she shouted again, pouring all her anger and frustration into her yell. “We’re just…we can do this! You told me we could do this, and I believed you! I still do! And I didn’t follow you this far to give up now. We’re going to climb up and over this thing and then you’re taking me to your team, and it’ll be okay! It’ll all be okay!”
He stared at her, his eyes softening. He swallowed and looked out at the landslide. “It will?” he asked pathetically.
“Yes,” she said. “It will. Not get your ass in gear and start climbing, Sir Edmund!”
He sniffed, drawing a hand across his mouth and nose to clear it of water, and blinked out at the landslide again. After a moment, he gave a single nod and turned to start climbing.
Still shaking from emotion, she started up after him.
Amazingly, Jennifer hadn’t been wrong. The landslide curved up and around a bend maybe only a hundred yards up from where they’d been arguing, and came to an abrupt stop. Or beginning, depending on how you looked at it.
The top of the landslide looked like someone had cut a step into the earth with a massive shovel, cleaving the dirt, trees and rock from the side of the mountain in order to send it cascading downhill. It left behind a cliff-like wall of dirt about thirty feet wide and maybe twenty feet high. Above it, the mountainside looked mostly intact, although a few trees and rocks hung out over the edge as if on the verge of falling. Between the rain and the force of the wind—it was doubtful the trees would hang on up there for long.
Beyond it, not too far from the edge of the landslide, the tree forested ground rose steeply to the edge of the “ridge” Rodney had been talking about. The mountain’s spine ran up along an almost straight line separating the ground from the sky, cloud cover blanketing it one moment, then clearing the next, like smoke. It was clear that no trees were growing on it, probably because it was solid rock—which explained why he was able to see the town from up there. Or had been, before the fog covered it. That meant they were close. Rodney had mentioned the hovels were just on the far side.
Despite the evidence that they were close, Rodney’s face seemed stuck in a permanent grimace. He said nothing as he scrambled up the dirt and rocks, aiming for the area above the landslide. Jennifer followed as closely as she dared, wishing that her legs didn’t hurt so much. McKay had resumed his too fast pace, and she was having a hard time keeping up.
It didn’t take long to reach a point above the landslide, to where the ground looked fairly stable. But the wind was fierce and cutting, and it sliced right through the clothes Jennifer was wearing. Her right ankle was throbbing again, and her lungs were burning again—but she wasn’t going to tell him. She could rest later. They had to keep moving.
Rodney slowed as he approached what looked like a fairly level spot, about ten feet up from the edge of the newly formed cliff. He glanced unhappily at the ground, and out towards the landslide. They couldn’t really see the muddy slope from here, but they knew it was there.
Just as they knew that the stability of this ground was more of a fiction than a reality.
“We should move fast,” he said to her, looking towards the far side, towards the ridge. “As fast as we can, at any rate.”
She nodded. She knew.
“Just remember,” he said then, looking back at her. “This was your idea.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “What does that mean?”
“It means, it wasn’t my idea,” he answered, looking forward again. Jennifer snorted.
Right. So if something happened, it was her fault. “Thanks a lot, McKay,” she snarled.
“My pleasure,” he answered, already moving.
The ground wasn’t even, and they were still scrambling over rocks and fallen trees—far more fallen trees than anywhere else. The pines were the worst, because of all the spiny branches sticking off of them. You couldn’t go under or over them—you could only go around.
They were zigzagging as much as going forward.
Rodney was moving fast, leading the way as best he could. Jennifer was almost running to keep up with him, beginning to feel light-headed again as she panted for breath.
Eyes on the prize, she told herself. You’re almost there. You’re almost there. You’re almost there.
She laughed—repeating herself. Now she was beginning to sound like Rodney!
“We’re almost over!” he called to her, sliding down a patch of mud.
And it was true. She found herself smiling as she slid down the same patch of mud. Glancing to her right, she could tell that most of the cliff was behind her.
A moment later, and they were coming down another patch of mud, and she was grinning smugly. They’d made it! They cleared the cliff edge! They had—
The ground rumbled. McKay stopped, his shoulders hunching, and looked up at the hillside. Jennifer was half on her ass, still sitting on the muddy slide they’d just come down, and she looked down at the ground under her free hand where it was pressed against the earth.
Dirt was cascading across her fingers.
She looked up at Rodney, and he was looking at her, his eyes wide. Suddenly, shattering the white noise of the storm…the earth cracked.
“Run!” Rodney shouted, already barreling forward away from the landslide area. Jennifer got to her feet and started after him, but the earth was moving, sliding under her feet. She jumped over a log and nearly lost her footing in the mud, the black medical case the only thing catching her from hitting the ground. She used it like a crutch to push herself up and looked up. McKay was about five feet away, looking back at her, as if he was going to return and help her up…
“Rodney!” she screamed.
The mud came out of nowhere, sweeping his legs out from under him and sending him flying downhill like tumbleweed. “Rodney!” she screamed again, staggering forward as he disappeared into the trees.
Then something hit her solidly in the side, and the world turned into a swirling mess of mud, leaves and sticks…
CHAPTER FIVE: FALLING DOWN
How she stayed conscious, she didn’t know, since she always imagined that, when something like that happened to her, she’d either whack her head and lose consciousness or, well, die.
She didn’t die.
For about a minute, though, she was certain she would. Absolutely deadly certain. Everything was spinning and whirling around her as she tumbled down the side of the mountain, carried along on a mudslide that sucked her down as often as it spat her out. Rocks pelted her, trees and branches scratched at her and stabbed her gut, thorny bushes ripped her trousers and the mud…the mud tried to drown her.
She was probably screaming—she couldn’t tell. She just kept trying to stop moving, to stand up, to quit this stomach churning rolling and tumbling. She hit things—sometimes boulders, sometimes trees—and then she was spirited away with the wave of earth pulling her along.
And through it all—she held onto the medical case. She couldn’t let go, as if her fingers were stuck to it with glue. It rolled with her, and, in the end…it was what saved her life.
At some point, she’d felt herself thrown airborne, perhaps over a shallow cliff edge or she’d just been tossed upwards by the force of the mudslide. She knew she screamed then—putting everything she could into her voice, certain that it was the last thing she’d know, sure that she was falling to her death.
Then her right arm was snagged, nearly wrenching it out of the socket…and she was hanging, almost ten feet off the ground.
Her left arm swung up, her left hand scrambling to join the death grip her right hand had on the medical case suspending her. She looked up, marveling at how the case had gotten stuck between two nearly hugging pine trees, the trunks bowed at an acute angle to the mountainside. They hung over a large rock shelf, around which the mudslide was split in half like an island in a stream. She didn’t know if the two pines had been pushed into this angled position by the landslide or if, by some insane quirk, they’d actually grown that way over the rock shelf, but, provided they didn’t move…she didn’t care.
And for a moment, hanging by the handle of the medical case, she dangled…
Mud and earth continued to roll down below her, rushing past her feet about ten feet below, leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. She watched it with a sort of disbelieving awe. Other trees were swept down, splintered and broken in half as they were carried along. Rocks and boulders tumbled and fell, spinning and bouncing as if they were as light as beach balls. And the dirt and mud just kept going and going and going…
Until finally, finally…it came to a stop.
She blinked, watching as the ground settled, slowing down and building up on itself. Trees created a sort of natural dam, and rocks locked themselves into the gaps. Mud poured on and over them until it stopped coming.
The deep rumbling roar ended, leaving nothing but the screaming wind and pouring rain behind to fill up the silence.
Jennifer closed her eyes, feeling the wind push her around like a windsock. Water ran down inside the sleeves covering her arms, freezing her straining muscles. The trees holding her up creaked a little, and she shivered.
She opened her eyes, and tried to twist around, to look in the direction of the shout. It was uphill of her. She couldn’t see anything, though, but mud and smashed trees in every direction. She couldn’t even discern if it was coming from the right or the left.
“Keller! Where are you? Keller, can you hear me?”
“Rodney?” she squeaked. It was no louder than a mouse, and she had to swallow back the fear choking her.
“Jennifer Keller! Answer me, god damn it! KELLER!”
She drew in a shuddering breath. “RODNEY!” she shouted, and that was better. “McKay! Help!”
“Keller! Oh thank god.” Rodney’s relief poured through his disembodied voice. “Where are you?”
“Down here!” she shouted back. “I’m stuck!”
“HERE!” she screamed back. “How the hell am I supposed to know where here is?”
“Okay, okay, good point! Keep yelling. I’ll find you!”
“I’m here!” she shouted again. “Here, here, here! Help!” She tried to twist more, to see where he might be coming from. Below her, the ground shifted again and her eyes widened. “Watch out for the ground, it’s unstable!”
“Ya think?” he shouted back. “Gee, I never would have noticed!”
“I’m hanging over a chunk of the landslide, you jerk!” she snapped back. Had she been jealous of Katie Brown? What had she been thinking? “I’m just trying to warn you!”
“Hanging? What do you mean, hanging?”
“I mean, hanging! Stop questioning and get down here!”
“Calm down! I’m coming!”
“Calm down?” she shrieked. “Are you kidding me? After that? Help me!”
“It’s not easy navigating this! Just give me a minute!”
“Hurry!” she said, and she twisted again, better able to pinpoint his location now based on the source of his voice. “I can’t hold on forever!”
“I still don’t know what you mean by…oh…”
She turned her head, and there he was standing on the edge of the landslide, covered head to toe in mud. Bits of dirt and tiny twigs stuck off of his clothing and out of his hair—he looked a little like Pig Pen from Peanuts. He was staring up at her, his mouth agape.
“How the hell did you manage that?” he demanded, his eyes wide. “You’re…you’re like ten feet off the ground up there!”
“Ya think?” she snarled in imitation, hissing as a harsh gust of air pushed at her again, twisting her away from her view of Rodney. “Help me!”
When nothing happened immediately, she twisted back when the wind allowed.
Rodney was grimacing, his gaze clearly examining the landscape around her. He studied the trees she was hanging from, and the ground beneath her feet. He looked up at the landslide above her, and below her. And then he put his hands on his hips.
“Any day now,” she growled, reeling from another gust of air.
“I’m thinking,” he said.
“You’re not helping!”
“I’m hanging over a LANDSLIDE, Rodney! I can’t help! You have to get me down from here!”
“Technically,” he noted, pointing a finger in the air, “the landslide has stopped. And you’re damned lucky that you and I only caught the edge of it. I was spat out further up, missing the brunt of it. And you…” he studied her, ignoring the death glare she was currently favoring him with, “well, maybe you weren’t so lucky. Though, damn,” he stepped a little closer, careful where he put his feet, peering up at what she was actually holding onto, “you were right about that medical case. I need to get me one of those.”
“I’ll see what I can do when we get back,” she answered through gritted teeth. “Now, use that big brain of yours and get me DOWN!”
He gave her a half smile, and then pulled off the medical backpack he was still wearing. Dropping it to the ground, he stepped a little closer. The ground trembled under him, but, for the most part, stayed still.
“Okay,” he said, moving carefully, stepping over the most unstable looking parts. “There’s really only one way to do this.”
Keller’s heart stopped beating for a second. Oh dear God, no…
He was closer now, practically right under her. Directly below her feet, the ground was solid—spared being coated by the mud from the landslide because of the large rock shelf the trees were resting on. He stopped there, shifting as if he was bracing his feet on the ground, and lifted up his arms. “You’re going to have to let go.”
“No,” she said. “No, no, no, no. Not happening.”
He frowned. “I’ll catch you. You’ll be fine.”
“I’m not letting go!” she said, feeling her arms shake. “It’s too far.”
“I’m right here,” he snapped. “Now stop being a baby and let go!”
“I’ll crush you!” she whined.
“What? You weigh like half of me! You won’t crush me. Now drop!”
“I don’t! I weigh exactly fifty-two pounds less than you, but combined with the weight of the drop, it’ll be too much! You’ll drop me and I’ll hurt you!”
“Keller, as far as I know, the only one of us around here with a physics degree is me, so stop trying to sound like you know what you’re talking about! Let go!”
He dropped his arms and placed them on his hips again. “You’re being an idiot.”
She swallowed thickly. “I’m not being an idiot,” she defended, wishing it didn’t sound so much like a whine.
“Not only are you being an idiot,” McKay pressed, “but you’re wasting time. Time, if you remember, we don’t have. I know you’re scared but, frankly, I don’t give a rat’s ass right now. You have to trust me. You have to let go—I will catch you. Now,” he lifted his arms again, “suck it up and let the hell GO!”
Keller sniffed. She looked up at her hands, then down at Rodney.
“Okay,” she said shakily. “Don’t…don’t drop me.”
He gave a small smile. “I won’t. I need you too much.”
She nodded, then closed her eyes…and let go.
She hit him square in the chest, bringing them both down even as he wrapped his arms around her, and they rolled down the incline in a mess of limbs.
When they finally stopped sliding, he let her go, and she fell to the side, rolling away from him and just lying still on her back, looking up at the leaden sky. Fat drops of rain were slapping her forehead and cheeks, but she didn’t care.
She wasn’t hurt.
Next to her, McKay groaned—the painful sort of groan a really old man makes when he’s trying to stand up after sitting in a lazy-boy for too long. She turned her head to look at him and watched as he covered his face with his hands. Like her, he was on his back, but he had one leg up bent.
“Rodney,” she called, feeling herself about fifty years older than she was, “you okay?”
“Mostly,” he replied unhappily. “God…,” he sighed, “you are heavy.”
She laughed, and tipped her head back into the rain.
“So,” she said, closing her eyes, “how do we get the case down?”
He used rocks. The double doctorate, self-proclaimed genius of two galaxies threw rocks at her medical case until it fell out of the tree. As she bent to pick it up, she had to admit—it was effective.
Every muscle ached and cramped as she stumbled after Rodney, following him back to where he’d left the backpack. When he leaned over to pick it up, a hand went to his back and he ended up on one knee, groaning in agony. Keller jogged the last couple of steps and dropped the case, pressing her hands to his side and back.
“What is it?”
“I think I…” he hissed in pain, and let out a harsh breath, “Damn it, I think I wrenched my back.”
Oh, that wasn’t good. “Can you move?” she asked. He turned a glare on her.
“I’m going to have to,” he snarled, “so don’t ask.” Then his eyes shut in pain again and he stood, using her as a crutch. When he straightened, she could see that his face was deathly pale beneath all the mud and grime.
“You need rest,” she said. “If you really strained it, which, considering everything we’ve just been through, is incredibly likely, you should—“
“Keller,” he said, interrupting her, his voice low, “let’s just keep going, shall we?”
She grimaced. She knew how painful a wrenched back can be. “But—“
He closed his eyes, “After all this, you’re not seriously going to argue that I stop moving because of a bad back, are you?”
She frowned, then shook her head. Of course not. “No, but, at the very least…” She knelt down next to the backpack and opened it. Within moments, she had the bottle of ibuprofen out and had poured two into her hand. Without a word, she held them up to Rodney.
His lips were pressed into a thin line, but he took the medicine, dry swallowing the pills as she watched. Then she poured out two more pills and took them herself—her right arm was throbbing with a pain she didn’t want to diagnose just yet. With the chalky taste still on her tongue—she hated dry swallowing pills—she quickly recapped the small bottle, then replaced it back on the pack. A moment later, she was pulling it on her own back, adjusting the straps. He watched her with a rueful gaze, saying nothing as she then picked up the medical case.
“You know,” she said, passing the grip to her left hand, because her right arm wasn’t feeling up to holding anything at the moment, “if you’re faking the bad back thing just so you don’t have to carry the backpack, I’m going to tell Ronon to punch you.” She gave him a wry smile. “Just saying.”
He gave her a dark look, then sighed and looked out at the woods. Everything was in shambles over here, and there was no real guarantee that there wouldn’t be another landslide. The rain was still heavy, and the wind still fierce.
She reached up, tucking a mud-slicked piece of hair behind her ear. “So, um…” she lifted her eyebrows, “do you know where you are?”
“No,” he said, sighing heavily. “But that’s okay. I think we’re close enough now.” And with that cryptic statement, he reached into his vest pocket and pulled out the little Ancient scanner. “In case I got lost,” he said, “I did adjust the life signs detector to pick up the others’ subcutaneous transmitters. The problem was range—until we were close enough, I couldn’t…ah. There.” He grinned, showing her the screen, on which three dots blinked. “There they are.”
Jennifer smiled, but it was forced. Three dots on the screen—but where were those dots in relation to here?
“So,” she asked, “that means they’re…where, exactly?”
He frowned at her, drawing the scanner back and looking down at it. “Isn’t it obvious?” he asked. “They’re that way.” He pointed vaguely up and to the right. Jennifer nodded.
“Okay. How far?”
“I’ve got the scanner set to its fullest range.”
“Uh huh,” she said, nodding again. “Which means…what?”
“Oh, you’re kidding!” he demanded suddenly. “You should know this stuff! It’s Ancient tech 101. In fact, I actually remember teaching you and a class of about twenty others this when you first got here. Weren’t you paying attention?”
She blushed, trying to remember exactly what she’d been thinking about that day. It might have been Ronon. That man turned heads, he was so pretty.
“Look,” she said, clearing her throat, “I just don’t have a head for what you do, okay? I know I should know, but I don’t, so how about telling me, huh? Is it really that hard?”
He gave her a look that suggested that, yes, it really was that hard, but, after a moment, he sighed heavily and put the scanner away.
“They’re about two miles up that way,” he said. “We lost about half a mile of distance in the fall. We have to make that up.” He turned and started walking, wincing slightly as it obviously pulled on his back, “And we don’t have time to waste anymore with stupid questions!”
Jennifer stuck her tongue out at his back, and jogged to catch up with him.
Rodney became increasingly morose as they climbed up through the trees, winding around walls of thorn bushes, felled trees and something that Keller was absolutely certain was poison ivy. They were so close to their goal now, she began to grow worried. Shouldn’t he be glad they were almost there?
He pulled out the Ancient scanner every ten steps or so, and adjusted their direction—with all the zigzagging they were doing inside the woods, it was easy to get turned around. Before, they’d been following paths, now it was pure cross country—not even a goat track to follow. Apparently, even the animals of this world didn’t come to this depressing patch of mountain.
The wind, which had died down with their return to the woods after the landslide, was growing strong again, and she found herself shivering more and more with each blast of cold air against her side.
A rumble erupted overhead, and Keller froze, turning terrified eyes to her left, where the sound emanated from. Rodney glanced in the same direction, but didn’t stop moving.
When she realized he was leaving her behind again, she ran to catch up.
She pulled up alongside, and glanced at his face. It was set into a scowl, as if he felt like the whole world was against him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, taking a few jogging steps as he pulled ahead. “Is it your back?”
“No,” he said sourly.
When he didn’t elaborate…she really began to worry.
“Then what is it?” she asked, determined now to figure this out.
“Nothing,” he snapped, and she saw him skip a step forward, as if to get away from her. She frowned, and caught up again.
“It’s not nothing,” she said, “clearly. Are you hurt?”
He didn’t answer, and increased his pace again.
She was getting annoyed now.
“Stop worrying about me!” he snapped suddenly. “I don’t matter!” He was taking impossibly long strides now, pulling himself up over a rock fall without stopping. “We need to move faster,” he snarled, sliding some rocks down behind him in his rush. Jennifer shifted out of the way, then grimaced.
Once again using the medical case as a sort of crutch, she pulled herself up after him, wincing a little at the strain on her own legs.
When she got up to the top, he was a good ten feet away from her. Releasing a pained breath, she spat out the adrenalin generated saliva in her mouth and ran to catch up to him. She was breathing hard again as she finally got close.
But at least she figured out what was wrong. Wasn’t hard when someone insisted they’ didn’t matter’. It meant others mattered more. Three dots on a screen.
“We’re going to get to them in time,” she said, hoping it was true. For his sake as much as theirs.
He gave a harsh headshake. “We’ve taken too long.”
“It’s only been an hour or so since you found me…”
“Try almost two.” As he walked, he pulled out the scanner again, staring at the dots as if they might wink out at any minute. “What if…what if Ronon and Sheppard are already dead?”
Jennifer had no answer for that. The transmitters weren’t tied to life signs—they just emitted a pulse, regardless of whether the bodies containing them were alive or dead.
She just shook her head. “You can’t think that way,” she said. “We’re going to make it. And there was no way we could have gone faster than we did.”
He just pinched his eyes shut, then opened them again, and started walking even faster.
Jennifer’s shoulders slumped, knowing there really was nothing she could say to help him right now. It was what it was. He was trapped inside his despair, and until they got to the hovel where the others were…
A harsh gust of wind tripped her up, and she skidded sideways, landing hard on one knee.
“Shit,” she hissed, shakily getting back to her feet and frowning down at her skinned knee. Her trousers had long ago lost most of their cohesion—showing rips and cuts up and down, and her knee was bared to the elements now. It was bleeding, skinned.
As Rodney says, she told herself, suck it up.
Breathing out heavily, she pulled on remaining reserves and jogged after him again.
As they rounded a thick set of trees, the wind cut at her again, shoving her around even more brutally than before, and she realized it was because the trees were thinning—and quickly. She blinked at the increase in rain as well, drops hitting her face more persistently with each step. With her right hand, she wiped at her face and peered through the gloom. Ahead of her, the world seemed to be glowing white through the few remaining trees.
Still well in front of her, Rodney was bent over with a hand in front of his face, walking forward steadily and quickly. It looked like he was walking into pure white fog.
Or a cloud.
She ran to catch up, afraid to lose him in the dense white. Especially if the weather up here was anything like it’d been down in the town, where like here, there was no protection from the forest.
“Wait!” she called, stretching out her right hand to him. “Please!”
He stopped, looking back at her.
Then he nodded and held out a hand. A few more steps, and she grabbed it—then let him pull her into the fog.
White water vapor encircled them as the trees fell away completely, and the ground turned to almost solid rock. The granite surface was flat and slippery, and she was having a hard time keeping her footing.
Rodney’s grip on her hand grew tighter, almost dragging her along, much like he had in town. Each step he took was solid and sure, and she had to wonder at his control over this landscape.
He slowed when he reached a point where he could go either left or right. Pulling out his scanner again, he studied it for a second, then tugged her to the right. His eyes were focused on his destination, his jaw set in rock hard determination.
There was her answer. The world was meaningless in the face of his need to get to his team. However he might be normally, right now he was so hell bent on getting to the others that nothing was going to get in his way.
Jennifer lowered her head, stepping wherever he stepped.
Finally, she took her first step downwards. And then another. And another. They were heading down off the ridge…
They were headed downhill.
She almost cried in relief, unbelievably grateful at the sensation. Her legs had long ago felt like they had muscles in them, she was sure they were pure jelly at this point. It amazed her she had even kept moving. Stepping downhill brought tiny shocks of pain to her knees and hips, but she didn’t care. Her quads were finally going to get a rest. Thank God.
The fog started to dissipate, and they met their first tree. The pine swayed, as if greeting her. She smiled at it, part of her almost wanting to say hello and thank it for coming.
Rodney glanced back at her, looking slightly startled, and she stifled the sound, schooling her face. Yes. She might be going a little crazy. Just a little. A wee bit. Teensy weensy.
She giggled again.
She cleared her throat, knowing it was a punch-drunk sensation. Calm down, she commanded herself. Stay focused, stay in control.
Rodney gripped her hand again, and she realized it was more a gesture of comfort than of stability. She might have fallen in love with him a little for that.
She needed to focus. In moments, she’d been dealing with a very sick, very injured set of people…
It was enough to kill her humor. It also reminded her that she could probably use a little more information about what had happened. Rodney hadn’t told her much.
“Rodney,” she said, looking up as more trees appeared
through the fog, “what really happened?”
His grip tensed on her fingers. “What?”
“You told me that the others were hurt—arrow wounds, head wound, and twisted, possibly broken ankle. What actually happened? During the attack?”
He drew in a deep breath, then let it out.
“It’ll give me some warning, so that I will be better prepared,” she replied. It’ll also help me get my focus back, she silently added.
He sighed. “Fine. Well,” he shrugged, “like I said, we were attacked on the way back from the ruins. They came out of nowhere—out of the trees. The Helenans with us called them Auggies. It, uh,” his eyes squinted a little, as if he were having trouble remembering, “it gets a bit blurry after that. I just remember this rain of arrows mixing in with the heavy rain, almost like a dark cloud. One of the Auggies got Ronon in the shoulder. Up here,” he tapped his upper left shoulder. “Normally, that’s not enough to even slow him down, but then this bolas like weapon comes out of nowhere and Sheppard goes down with it around his legs, cracked his head on a rock. Ronon runs over to cover Sheppard, who’s now out cold, and takes another arrow to the right leg. From there, it just got worse. “
Jennifer nodded, not letting his hand go when she felt him shudder. “Go on.”
“Well,” he smiled slightly, as if proud, “Teyla basically saved us all. She tossed a couple of grenades, scared off the Auggies, and ordered me to carry the colonel, so I picked him and put him over my shoulder. She’s kind of amazing, you know?” He glanced at Keller, and Jennifer nodded. It was only a few weeks ago she’d seen Telya in action on new Athos. She knew exactly how amazing the other woman was—and how much Jennifer wished she could be more like her. Rodney shrugged, continuing his story.
“Teyla led us off the trail and up the mountain, saying she had seen some abandoned looking structures high up on the mountain on our walk to the ruins. She’s half carrying Ronon at that point—who is still on his feet despite sporting three arrows in his hide, because he’s a freak of nature—and she’s pointing me towards the ridge. You could still see it clearly then—that fog wasn’t there when I crossed it the first time.” He sighed. “Anyway, we’re climbing up as fast as we can up the mountain, when Teyla hears something, or sees something—I’m not sure which.” He gave a headshake. “She leaves me with both the colonel and Ronon, with orders to keep moving forward with them. I do. When I see her again, about fifteen minutes later, she’s half covered in blood and limping. She takes Ronon from me and leads the way again. Sometime after that, we find these hovels. She picks one, puts Ronon down on a straw pallet thingy, then helps me put Sheppard on another. She’s still limping—and when she went outside to get some more wood, I hear her cry out.” He gave a short laugh. “She’d been gathering wood for a fire, and she slipped on the mud. After everything she went through—she gets taken down by mud.” He shook his head. “She can’t put any weight on her ankle now—the same one she’d been limping on before.” He closed his eyes. “There was no way we’d make it back, and Ronon…” He looked at Keller, “He needs you. They all need you. So,” his eyes took on a desperate quality again, “I came to get you. And Lorne. And help.” He stared off into the woods. “But Lorne wasn’t there, and the hurricane…”
He didn’t need to finish. She knew the rest.
“Brent will have gotten through,” she promised. “He’ll have informed Atlantis that we need help.”
He just grimaced, and turned his face to look up at the sky through the trees surrounding them again.
She knows what he’s thinking—the weather will continue to isolate them until it’s over. And they have no idea how long it was going to last. All they knew right now, was that it didn’t seem to be getting better. It only seemed to be getting worse.
He was still holding her hand, and she didn’t want him to let go.
They were still moving steadily downhill, though not quickly. Rodney pulled out his scanner, studying it for a second, then he looked up. A tiny smile touched his lips, and he looked forward. He pointed generally straight ahead, to where there was a stream rolling down in their path.
“I remember that stream. We can’t be more than a half a mile from them now. We’re almost there.”
Jennifer smiled with him.
And then the ground rumbled again. Rodney slowed, letting her hand go and looking behind him towards the source of the noise.
Jennifer jumped when she heard another crack in the distance like the one that had heralded the landslide that had caught them. She stuttered in her step, getting a little in front of Rodney, who was now walking backwards, his eyes on the area of forest they’d just come from. The rumbling grew louder…but it didn’t sound like it was getting closer.
“Pretty sure we’re okay on this side of the ridge,” he said, turning to look at her over his shoulder. “Landslides, by description, need land to slide, and, if I remember right, the only thing above us here is sheet rock. We’re okay.”
“You sure?” she asked. For a moment, he seemed uncertain, then he nodded with assurance.
“Yeah. I’m sure.”
She nodded. “Okay then.” Turning again, she locked her eyes on the stream in the distance—less than half a mile from that. Almost there.
Then the wind blew straight through her, nearly knocking her down again. At almost the same time, something loud fractured and splintered in the near distance.
“Oh shit,” Rodney whispered behind her.
She looked over her shoulder, only to feel Rodney push her forward. “Run!” he shouted, and she saw why.
Trees were falling, crashing into each other like dominos. The landslide must have caused a chain reaction on this side of the ridge somehow—the wind must have blown unearthed trees across the stone. She turned and started to run, but she was hampered by her exhaustion and the heavy pack and case. Rodney ran next to her, moving faster than she was, and grabbed her hand to urge her to greater speed.
The ground shook, and more and more cracks of splintering wood resounded in her ears, getting closer and closer. They were side by side now, Rodney pushing as much as pulling, trying to keep her moving even as she felt ready to collapse.
They were almost to the stream.
Suddenly, she felt Rodney shove her hard and strong, throwing her off her feet and sending her rolling. Her left wrist bent awkwardly and she let go of the medical case with a yelp of pain as she tumbled. Finally, she hit what had to be a tree and landed on her stomach, skidding on her front for a couple of feet, landing with one leg into the icy stream.
Shaking like a leaf, she covered her head, expecting at any moment to feel the crush of a tree landing on her back and squashing the life from her.
But nothing happened.
In fact, the forest was oddly quiet.
Her jaw trembling, she lifted her hands and risked raising her head.
And her eyes widened.
The destruction was impossible. A good twenty or so tall pine trees were down, smashed into each other. Some of them were leaning against other trees, others were down fully, including one huge one just a few feet from her. She could tell by the near lack of pine needles that this one had been dead, or nearly dead. No wonder it had fallen so easily.
But it had missed her—barely.
She let out a relieved breath, and pushed herself to her feet, looking around for Rodney. She had no doubt that he had just saved her life. Where was he? On the other side of the tree?
“Rodney!” she called, when she didn’t see him immediately. “Rodney!”
She climbed up the small incline, feet slipping a little on the mud, and cupped her hands around her mouth. “McKay!”
She looked down at the felled tree, spotting the medical case she’d dropped partially hidden inside the maze of branches at the edge. Kneeling down, she reached into the spiny limbs to grab it.
She’d found Rodney.
CHAPTER SIX: THE STRAW THAT BROKE THE CAMEL’S BACK
“Oh my God,” she whispered, dropping the backpack from her back and pushing herself under the branches. “Rodney! Rodney, can you hear me?” The thin limbs caught at her hair and clothes, and she roughly snapped them to get them out of the way. There were too many—and she ended up on her belly, trying to stay under them as they grabbed at her. “Rodney!”
He was on his back, his eyes closed, his left arm outstretched towards her as she crawled towards him. It was so dark under here—as if she’d crawled into night. As she got closer, she grimaced when she realized she couldn’t see his right arm because the tree branches were in the way. She couldn’t see his legs either—which was a little terrifying, as, the way he was angled, there was no question that the top of the tree trunk had to be covering them. She grabbed his left wrist, pushing up the wristband of his watch to capture the pulse point. She nearly fainted in relief when she felt it beating—fast, but there. She pulled herself closer, using his arm for leverage. Her left hand crawled up his vest and quickly undid the zipper as far as the P90 still attached to him. Resting her left hand on his chest, her right hand then sought out his left hand now by her right hip, and she held clasped it tightly.
“Rodney! Please, answer me! Rodney!”
He groaned, and his head shifted. She could see that he was partially on his left side—he must have turned around after he pushed her, probably to see how close this falling tree was, and it had taken him down on his back. God—she can’t even imagine how much it had to hurt.
His eyes fluttered, then closed again.
“No, no, it’s okay,” she said, trying to get closer, snapping more of the dry branches that pulled at her hair. “Come on, McKay. Stay with me.”
His brow furrowed, and his eyelids peeled back slowly. Blinking a few times, they opened enough so that two glazed blue eyes were visible. She smiled when they turned to look at her.
“Hi,” she whispered.
His brow furrowed more, as if confused by her closeness, then he suddenly gasped, his head tipping back and his body arching. What began as a soundless groan of pain became a scream as if a dam burst, and he bellowed in agony. She grabbed at his upper torso, using his vest for anchorage, trying to hold him down. His right arm came up, grabbing at her left wrist—thank goodness. She’d been worried his right arm was trapped as well.
“Calm down,” she begged, “please! You’ll just hurt yourself more. Calm down!”
Whether it was exhaustion or her words, he finally stopped screaming, his jaw steeling shut, the muscles flexing as he gritted his teeth. After a moment, he managed to look back at her, and the fight seemed to leave him—his whole body just suddenly collapsed. He was panting harshly now, his mouth falling open as if he couldn’t get enough air. Blue eyes were locked on hers, terrified.
“Ke…Kell…” he sniffed, hissing again as the pain must have spiked through him again. His grip on her left arm tightened and she could feel him trying to shift again, his eyes squeezing closed against the hurt.
“No, no, Rodney, you have to stay still, okay?” she said, her right hand still gripping his left. “Stay still. Stay still!” She waited until his eyes opened again, and he looked at her again. She gave him her most confident smile. “You’re going to be okay. Just hang on and don’t move—I’m going to try to see what happened to you.”
His eyes rolled a little, and he stared up at the branches caging him in, letting out another harsh breath. “Tree,” he gasped, then swallowed, “tree fell on me.”
“I know,” she said unhappily.
He looked at her, and then he frowned. “No. S’ what happened to me,” he said between panted breaths, as if talking to an idiot. “Tree fell on me.”
She blinked a moment, confused, then huffed a laugh. He was responding to her statement about wanting to find out what happened to him.
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “I know. What I meant was, I need to see what it did to you. Okay? Try to hold still.”
He frowned some more, and, still breathing too quickly, he turned to look up at the branches again. Keller looked up as well, taking a better look at what exactly they were facing. There was about a foot of space between McKay and the spider-web of branches covering him like the bones of a bat’s wing. Not a lot of space. Turning to look down his body towards his legs, she could see that, indeed, the top of the tree trunk was crossing his legs at an angle, from left to right. The good news was, she could clearly see that nothing had punctured his torso. As for the bad news…
She squirmed backwards on her knees, staying hunched over, and ended up on her stomach again as she inched her way down the side of his body to get closer to his legs. The branches were even denser here, casting everything inside a deep, dark shadow—making it next to impossible to see. She should have brought a flashlight in with her. Oh…wait, hang on.
She crawled back up, and fiddling with his vest for a moment, found the switch for the flashlight on his P90. Twisting it, she flipped the light on, then frowned as it cast an unhealthy white light over the tree covering him.
This was bad. This was very, very bad. She shimmied down to look more carefully at his legs.
She swallowed down the horror she felt, trying to back away from ‘oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,’ and review the damage professionally. As it always did, thinking medically helped her focus, and a sense of calm took her.
“What?” Rodney asked, clearly unable to see what she could, but obviously catching on to her body language. “What is it?”
She looked back at him, grimacing. Then she pulled herself up so that she was next to his head again.
“The tree…the trees branches have pierced your right leg in at least two places. And I think there is a branch puncturing your left as well.”
He just stared at her, eyes wide. Then he blinked, shook his head, and said, “I’m sorry. What? Did you say…did you just say pierced?”
She pressed her lips together, and shook her own head. “It’s not good, McKay. You’re effectively pinned down by the branches. But, um…” she looked down at his legs, then back up at him, “it could have been worse.” She gave a weak smile.
He blinked again, then his brow furrowed angrily. “You…you just said that…that I’d been impaled by a tree…,” he let out a breath, “Impaled! And it could have been worse? How? And don’t…,” his face was red again, as he drew in a breath, “don’t you dare say…at least I’m not dead.”
She shook her head, “No, I wasn’t going to say that. What I was going to say is, that the trees branches are so thick and strong that they’re holding the trunk up off the ground—off you. It could have crushed your legs otherwise. You might not have died immediately, but it would have killed you eventually. And painfully.”
He just stared at her for a moment, then turned his head away, looking up at the branches, not blinking.
“Fabulous,” he breathed out. “Yay for mere impalement.”
She grimaced, then looked down at his legs for a moment.
“Okay,” she said, “there’s really only one way to do this.” She patted his left arm. “I’m getting my things. Just hold on; I’ll be right back.”
He nodded once, then tilted his head to watch her as she crawled backwards on her belly out from under the branches.
Jennifer let out a heavy breath, shaking herself as she managed to escape the grasping hold of the tree limbs. The one benefit of all this was that the tree was keeping the bulk of the rain and wind off of Rodney, and it would do the same for her when she worked on him. Out from under it, the rain was back to drenching as she scrambled for her backpack and the medical case. Closing her eyes, she quickly considered exactly what she’d need…
Opening her eyes again, her jaw locked and she pulled the medical case close. Popping it open, she grabbed a handful of white plastic containers of bandages to put to the side, then dug down deep for the saw. Her arm brushed past the box of morphine, and she considered that she’d need that as well. But first things first…
Her fingers found the saw handle, and she pulled it out.
“Wha…what is that?”
She turned, surprised to notice that Rodney could still see her, though probably only barely. His pale, grimy face was mostly hidden by branches, but not enough to completely conceal him. She tilted her head so she could see him better, frowning at the expression on his face. Rodney’s eyes were wide and huge, staring at the saw Keller pulled out.
“It’s a bone saw,” she explained, holding it up for him to see and hating the fact that she was essentially going to ruin the instrument to use it this way.
“For what?” He sounded terrified.
“For cutting the limbs,” she explained, quickly clasping the bag shut and placing the saw and bandages on top before sliding down under the tree once more. She wanted to look more carefully at the damage before bringing the instruments with her.
“No! No, no, no, no, no!” Rodney tried to shy away as she got closer, which was idiotic, Jennifer thought, since all it did was cause him even more pain. His whole face scrunched up as he obviously rode through the shocks of his attempt to move, and Keller crawled faster so that she could grab his left forearm to stop him.
“It’s okay!” she called, gripping his arm tightly. “You’re okay! Calm down! I told you not to move!”
“Don’t…,” he whined again, finally gasping for air, tears streaming down his face, intermingling with the rain and sweat. “Please don’t. Don’t do it. Just leave me here. I’ll be okay. The others need you, and I…I…” He closed his eyes, his face scrunching up again.
“Rodney,” she said, pulling herself deeper under the tree, sliding on her belly on the mud until she was only inches from his face, her left hand sliding up higher until it rested on his heaving chest—he was going to hyperventilate at this rate. “Listen to me. It’s going to be okay. I’m going to get you out of here. You have to trust me.”
He sniffed and opened his eyes again to look at her, and, for a moment, she was startled by how incredibly blue they looked in the pale light—and how young he looked at the same time. “Please, don’t,” he whispered. Her brow furrowed, and she felt her lips twist in a grimace, wishing she didn’t have to do this either.
“I know,” she said, trying to sound strong. “And I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. It’s going to hurt, Rodney, but I will make it quick, I promise.”
He stared at her for a second, then tipped his head back, breaking out a sobbed, “Oh God.” Gulping down a breath, he looked at her again. “Are you sure you have to? I mean…,” he lifted his head and attempted to look down at his legs, “there has to be another way.”
She nodded. “Short of beaming you out of there, which you know I can’t do, it’s the only way.” He shut his eyes and tipped his head away back in the mud, turning his face away from her completely.
“It just…” he sniffed, “it seems so medieval. Are they really…? I can still feel them, you know. Are they totally beyond saving?”
Keller had been looking down, staring at the leaves and mud on the ground under his left shoulder, but she lifted her head at that. Huh? “What?” she asked. “The branches?”
“No,” McKay moaned, looking back at her again, “not the branches! I don’t care about the branches!”
Keller was thoroughly confused now. “But you just said—“
“No, no. I don’t…” He tipped his head back, staring up through the web of branches. “I don’t want to lose my legs.”
Keller blinked, then her eyes widened and she burst out laughing. If it was a little bit hysterical sounding, well, that’s because it was. She’d been holding it back for a long time now, and it poured out of her like a burst levy.
“Oh God, McKay!” she gasped, trying to stop the punch drunk laughter, burying her head in his shoulder. “The saw is for the tree limbs, not yours! I’m going to cut the branches!” Her shoulders shook, her chest burned, and she knew she was skirting the edge of collapsing into sobs, her control was that fragile. She sucked in a couple of deep breaths, and somehow pushed back the worst of the manic laughter. When she looked up again, she saw that Rodney had his eyes closed, his lips depressed in a light frown—he probably thought she was laughing at him. Her laughter died into a sort of hiccoughed chuckle, the feeling of levity passing almost as quickly as it had come.
He opened his eyes again. “Done?” he asked crossly, a hint of his old self in the tone. Jennifer snorted a laugh.
“Yes,” she said, more somber now but still smiling. “Sorry. It’s not funny.”
“No,” he agreed, “it’s not. You just scared the hell out of me, you know.”
She smiled again, sadder now, and rested her too warm head on his wet shoulder again. “Sorry.”
She sucked in another breath, and looked up at him again. He was watching her carefully, no hint of a smile on his face.
“So,” he said after a moment, his voice soft, “it’s going to hurt?”
That did it. Any vestiges of amusement she still felt died completely. She frowned, studying the hard lines of his cheekbones and gritted jaw, and found she couldn’t answer. He seemed to understand, and he turned his head to look up at the leaden sky through the branches again.
Keller dropped her gaze from his face, then she drew away from him to slide down the mud under the branches to get a better look at his legs again. She needed to get closer this time.
It took a lot of shifting—branches caught at the back of her wet hair and her jacket and pants, tugging them the wrong way as she slid closer to the trunk of the tree and his legs. Closer now, she could see more clearly that she’d been right about the pine—the numerous boughs had stopped it from completely hitting the ground; the many, many limbs and branches were propping it up. That was good—it meant she wouldn’t have to find a way to lift it off of him when this was over. The bad part, of course…was that three of those limbs were currently piercing his legs in an ugly, ugly way.
Rodney’s left leg, the one closest to her, didn’t look too bad—the stick piercing it was pretty small and, since his leg was angled slightly on its side, it had gone through the fleshy part of the lower thigh. But the right...
She felt a little sick as she mentally estimated the amount of dark red blood pooling beneath his right thigh. She couldn’t tell, but, based on how slowly the blood was bubbling, it didn’t look like either branch had got the artery. But there was no question—it was a serious trauma. She blew out a breath then looked up again at his profile. His eyes were closed again.
“Okay,” she said softly, sliding back up to him so he could hear her better. “Yes. This is going to hurt. It’s going to hurt a lot. I need to saw through the branches, and, even if I’m holding them as tight as I can, they’re invariably going to shift a little while in your legs. I’m going to pack bandages around your thighs to muffle the movement as much as I can, but it’s going to hurt no matter what I do. The morphine will help, but…”
“Yeah,” he said hoarsely, finally opening his eyes again. “I get it. Lots of pain. Great, because I needed more of that today.”
She gave an unhappy smile at that.
“But...,” Rodney swallowed, his adam’s apple bobbing up and down slowly, “see, here’s the thing—how long will it take?”
Keller frowned, and looked again at his legs. The two branches that had pierced the right, and the one branch that had caught the left, were all different sized, but even the thickest only looked to be about an inch around.
She looked back at the thin saw on her bag, then again at the branches. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Maybe ten minutes? Fifteen?”
“And then what?”
She frowned. “And then I pull you out of there.”
Yes, Keller thought, and then what? She couldn’t drag him the rest of the way, and, obviously, she couldn’t carry him. It would all depend on whether he could walk. His left leg could carry him, probably. His right…would be a problem, but with her as a crutch, they could do it. She was sure. And even if Rodney gave up on her…
She wasn’t going to leave him. She would find a way.
“And then,” she said quietly, firmly, “we’re going to do what we came to do. You’re going to get me the rest of the way to that hovel and we’re going to save your team.”
Rodney grimaced, blinking up at the sky. A few random raindrops were still hitting his forehead and cheeks, but most of the water was hitting the tree and sliding off away from where he was stuck. It created the sensation of being surrounded by a river of water, the liquid rushing down, past and around you, but very little of it touching. It made Keller feel cold and small—but it didn’t look like Rodney even noticed the rain anymore.
“Realistically,” he said quietly, startling her a little after the long silence, “what it boils down to is, if you try to get me out of here, not only will it take time—something I don’t know Ronon or Sheppard has—but it may not even work. If I can’t walk, you can’t take me with you anyway.”
Keller grimaced, then shook her head. “Rodney—“
“I think I should stay here,” he said then.
He tipped his head towards her, and he looked so scared, it almost belied the next words out of his mouth. “Face it,” he stated, his voice shaking, “it’s not going to work. You can’t save me and them. And I want you to save them. It’s why I brought you here. They’re not far, like I said. No more than a half mile. We’ve wasted too much time as it is. Take the life signs detector, it’ll lead—“
“No!” Jennifer said again, more firmly this time.
Rodney looked pained, his face so pale and wet under the dirt it was almost translucent. “Look, I know. Believe me, I don’t want to stay here and I don’t want to die either.” His voice was almost too soft to hear now. “But if you move me, I’ll probably pass out, and then what will you do? You won’t leave me, will you? You’ll stay with me as I bleed to death in the freezing rain, when Ronon and Sheppard need you more, when they can be saved and I can’t. But if I stay here, right here, and I stay really still, maybe I won’t bleed as much and you can save them, and then you—“
“…And then you can come back for me,” he finished, as if she hadn’t interrupted him. “I’ll be okay. It’s not that bad, right? I mean, I can feel both legs, so it’s not that bad. So, you can go. Then come back when they’re okay. Okay?”
She shook her head, no longer trusting her voice. Rodney’s brow furrowed.
“Please,” he begged, his voice shaking so much it hurt to listen to. “You have to go. Your plan won’t work. You have to leave me here. Please.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“You have to!” he snapped, his face reddening.
“I won’t!” she snapped back, tears in her eyes as she glared at him. “If I leave you, you’ll die!”
“I don’t care!” he shouted. “Do you hear me? I don’t care! I want you to go! You have to go save my team!”
“And I will!” she yelled. “But I’m getting you out of here first!”
“There’s no TIME!” He grabbed her wrist. “Damn it, Keller, go! Leave! Get out of here!” He drew in a deep breath, then his eyes softened, pleading with her. “Please. “
She closed her eyes, every muscle in her body shaking. “I’m going to get my things.”
“No, Keller. I mean it. I’m your boss and I’m ordering you to leave, to go to my team. You can’t save me and staying here just wastes time they don’t have. You have to go. Please.”
She stared at him, and something inside her snapped. Setting her jaw, she once more pulled herself close to him, stopping only when her face was inches from his.
She had never been so angry at anyone in her entire life.
“Now you listen to me, Doctor Rodney McKay,” she snarled, feeling her anger radiating off of her in waves. “I may look like I’m only right out of high school, but I have ten years practical experience under my belt, including three years working with Medicins Sans Frontieres in the Sudan and two years in the A&E ward at Glasgow University hospital, all after earning an MD/PhD from Harvard Medical School, one of the most cutthroat schools in the world. With the exception of one man, I am the best damned doctor you are ever going to meet. That means, when I tell you that you will not survive if I leave you here, then you have to believe that I am telling you the truth. And, equally, if I tell you that I can save your life, that I can get you out of here, and I can get you to that cabin to where the rest of your team are, then you have to believe that I can do it. Because I can. And that is exactly what I’m going to do.“
He opened his mouth, but she put her hand over it before he could speak.
“No. Not one word. For the last two hours, I have been listening to you say ‘trust me’ at every turn, and I have, because you knew better. And you got us through. But now it’s my turn.” Pulling her hand off his mouth, she stabbed a finger into his chest. “As far as I know, McKay, the only one of us around here with a medical degree is me, so stop trying to sound like you know what you’re talking about and trust me!” Her eyes narrowed. “You are going to let me do what you brought me all the way out here to do. I’m going to save your team and, right now, that includes you. So shut up and let me do my job.”
He just stared at her, not answering for a moment. Then, blinking a little, he quirked a smile.
“Wow,” he said weakly. “That was really hot.”
Jennifer just stared at him, then groaned deeply and rolled her eyes. Anyone else had said that, she would have slapped them. But, she had to admit—it was so McKay. She bowed her head to hide the smile she couldn’t quite stifle. “You are such an ass,” she whispered.
“I know,” he said pathetically, snorting a laugh. “Sheppard says all the time that it’s amazing Teyla hasn’t killed me yet. ”
Jennifer laughed, her head still on his shoulder. When she looked up again, she was smiling. “So,” she asked, “we good?”
He gave a wry, sad smile in return. “Yeah,” he closed his eyes and tipped his head back, “we’re good.”
She smiled more.
“Okay then. You ready?” she asked.
He grimaced then, opening his eyes to look at her again. “Well, since I don’t have a choice…”
She shook her head. “No.”
He swallowed, then nodded. “Then I’m ready.”
She smiled again, nodded at him once, then turned and slid back out of the branches. Finding her bag, she picked up the saw, the bandages and quickly also pulled out some morphine for the pain. Sliding back under, trying to keep everything in her hands up and out of the mud, she shifted down, sliding on her belly to get down by his legs. She got snagged a couple of times, but, with some shimmying, she finally got to a place where she could brace her feet on large bough and saw at the same time.
Quickly, methodically, she pulled the bandages from their containers and packed them around his legs. Her hands moved almost without conscious thought, and a sort of calm took over, as it usually did when she was finally doing something she knew how to do—and do well. Within minutes, she had the saw up and pressed against the first branch, her hand gripping it just above where she wanted to cut it. The goal was to leave about two inches of branch sticking out of his leg—which left about three inches to work with above where she wanted to separate the branch from the tree. Not a lot, but she was sure she could do it.
She glanced up at him through the branches—he was mostly hidden, but she could see the curve of his chest as he breathed, and the set of his jaw. She could also see his eyes blinking up at the sky—she wondered what he was thinking about. Of course, she knew what he was trying not to think about.
“Okay,” she called out, raising her voice to be heard above the rain still coming down, “I’m going to start sawing now. Just...hold on, okay?”
She saw him nod, and then close his eyes. “Okay,” he said.
She just nodded, sucked in a breath…and started to saw.
He held it in for about a minute, but when she accidentally jerked too hard on the branch—he let out a scream that cut right through her. But she didn’t stop. She couldn’t.
She continued to saw the branch, tears running down her face.
CHAPTER SEVEN: PULLING OUT FROM UNDER
Pulling Rodney out from under the tree was actually not that hard, even though he was dead-weight in her arms. The downward slope combined with the mud-slick ground gave her enough of an advantage that she managed to get all the way to the stream nearby without too much trouble.
But, God, he was heavy. She was pulling him with her arms under his shoulders, dragging him with his butt still on the ground, and, after only about ten feet, she was already breathing hard, her back spiking in pain. It didn’t help that she couldn’t really watch where she was going, so intent was she on keeping an eye on the three sticks sticking out of him like needles in a voodoo doll. Worse yet, her hands were sticky from sap, which really didn’t bode well for the wounds not getting infected. She needed to get him to that hovel as fast as possible.
With a final tug, she got him to a soft patch of moss and, as gently as she could manage, lowered his upper body down to the ground. He was unconscious—which wasn’t surprising. But, based on what she’d seen of his left leg, she was pretty certain he could take weight on it. Which meant he could walk. If she could wake him up enough to get him to try.
Out from under the shelter of the fallen pine, the rain was once again drumming on her back and shoulders relentlessly. As soon as he hands were free, she wiped the water from her face and nose, and blew pooled water off her lips, then knelt by his side to do a quick survey of his legs in the brighter light.
She’d gone into a sort of zone under that tree, especially once McKay passed out, cutting the branches and bandaging his legs. The light hadn’t been the best, but she’d worked with stab wounds enough times to feel like she could have worked on his in the dark if need be. Studying what she had done now in the gray light, she had to admit—she really was good. She huffed a laugh, smiling a little, wondering what McKay would say if she’d said that out loud in his presence. He’d probably sneer and then try to one up her. Her smile grew, and she looked up at his pale face, feeling so much affection for him now, it was almost overwhelming.
He was going to be okay, she promised herself. She wouldn’t lose him. She wasn’t going to lose any of them.
Shakily, she wiped a warm tear from her face and knelt up closer to his head.
Gently, she tapped his cheek. “Rodney?”
He didn’t react, so she tapped his shoulder more forcefully than she had tapped his cheek. “Rodney, wake up.”
Still nothing. Shaking her head slightly, she moved to grab the smelling salts from her bag. A moment later, she was by his side again, holding her breath as she unstoppered the bottle. Quickly, she ran it under his nose, pulling back as soon as he jerked. His expression wrinkled then released, his eyes blinking open then closing again as the rain got to him.
He reached a hand up, covering his eyes and groaning.
“Rodney,” Jennifer called. “Can you hear me?”
He groaned again, and lifted his hand up. He looked at her, exhaustion lining every feature of his face. “Obviously,” he said. “You’re sitting right next to me.” He turned away, blinking some more, then lifted his head to look down his body. At the sight of the bits of branch still sticking out him, he moaned and plopped his head back on the muddy earth.
“How do you feel?” Jennifer asked.
“Like a voodoo doll,” he muttered, closing his eyes again briefly before turning to look at her again.
“Ha,” Jennifer grinned—she had thought the same thing. “Jinx!”
His brow furrowed, and he stared at her like she was crazy. “What?”
Her eyes widened slightly. She’d said that out loud? God, she was such a girl. “Nothing, nothing,” she promised, patting his shoulder lightly. “I was just…nothing.” She frowned then. “Look, I need to know how you’re feeling. Really.”
He grimaced at her intent expression, and sighed, looking up at the sky again. “A bit strange,” he admitted. “It hurts, but I’m so fuzzy, I’m not entirely sure what I’m feeling.”
She nodded. “That’s the painkillers. I’m hoping they’re strong enough to get you on your feet, so you can walk.”
His eyes widened slightly, his expression clearly saying, ‘what, are you nuts?’ “Really?” he squeaked.
“We need to get to your team. Your left leg should be able to handle the bulk of your weight, and you can use me as a crutch for your right.”
He swallowed, still looking at her as if she’d lost her mind, but, after a moment, he nodded. The need to get to his team was stronger than the pain he felt, or his fear of the agony walking would bring. And just as she’d seen him do so many times before, he set his jaw and his eyes narrowed with determination—he was going to walk, even if it killed him. Jennifer just hoped it wouldn’t.
“Help me up,” he said roughly, holding up a hand.
She kept her gaze glued to the ground, guiding them along the path of least resistance. Her eyes scouted for holes, depressions, sticks, rocks – anything that could either slow them down more, or hurt Rodney more.
He was struggling next to her, breathing heavily and painfully, his right leg all but dragging behind him. His right arm was pressed across her bowed shoulders, his hand gripping the strap of her backpack. Besides feeling like she was carrying the bulk of his weight, she was also carrying the medical case and the pack. It was amazing she was still standing—she’d be feeling this trek for weeks.
Only half a mile. Less than a kilometer. When she was in college, she used to run a mile in six minutes. They could do this.
But, damn, half a mile was beginning to feel like a marathon. Screw that, it felt like a damned century.
She lost track of time, her entire attention focused on the ground surface, on Rodney’s labored breathing and shuffling step, on the soft beep of the scanner in his left hand, leading them forward.
How far had they gone? How much farther was it?
She checked his leg as she moved. Damn it, he needed a new bandage above his knee—that one was soaked through. How much blood was he losing? The whole reason to keep the sticks there was to forestall blood loss until they got to the hovel—but it wasn’t working. God damn it.
The mud grew deeper, sucking at her shoes. Not that her feet could get any wetter or muddier—her socks felt like lead weights on her feet.
Rodney stiffened next to her, and she saw his right foot had snagged a root. She bit her lip, trying to help him lift himself out of its snare.
The rain was driving her crazy! Why wouldn’t it stop! She hated it so much!
They were moving again—the ground was a little harder packed here, a little easier to handle. My God, how long had they been at this? How much longer could he do this? How much longer could she do this?
“Oh, thank God,” Rodney breathed next to her.
Her head was bowed so much, she had to really strain in order to look up.
In front of them, the trees thinned slightly, and a handful of small, green colored huts were hidden amongst the pines, pressed up against trunks. They blended so well with the surroundings, they were nearly invisible. And Rodney was right, they were hovels. The roofs looked like they were made of long grass and straw, and the walls were strapped together bits of wood, tied with black twine. They looked haphazard and temporary—and completely incapable of providing any real shelter in a storm like this. It amazed her they were even still standing considering the volume of water currently drenching them and the muddiness of the gentle hillside they were precariously sticking to.
“Which--?” she began to ask, but was cut off when a familiar looking woman popped her head out of the door of the nearest one.
“Rodney!” Teyla’s face broke into a huge smile, which quickly fell when she saw the state they were in. She threw the door the rest of the way open and, using a long staff she’d obviously fashioned, she hobbled out to reach them. Jennifer quickly catalogued the woman’s appearance—Teyla’s left lower leg was off the ground and wrapped, probably her own work. The rest of her appeared well, though there were cuts and bruises on her arms and face.
“What happened?” Teyla demanded as she reached them. Even with her leg, Teyla was by their side in moments, reaching out to take the medical case. Before Jennifer could tell her not to take it and save her foot—Teyla was already holding the case under her free arm and shifting to get under Rodney’s other arm. “What have you done to yourself?” she admonished, her face pale as she took in the seriousness of the wounds. Rodney stretched his arm over his shoulder, shaking his head.
“The others?” he asked, and Keller tilted her head to hear the answer.
Teyla blinked up at him once, as if measuring her words. The she pulled Rodney’s arm tighter around her shoulders, almost in a hug.
“They’re still alive.”
Rodney grimaced. “Are we…,” he looked pained, “Are we in time?”
Teyla closed her eyes then leaned forward to look at Jennifer. “Let us go inside—the Doctor can answer that question better than I.”
Jennifer gave her a wry look, but nodded, stepping when Teyla stepped to keep Rodney balanced. He hissed in pain, bowing his head.
Teyla looked up again at Rodney as she tried to take more of her weight. “Rodney, what happened to you? And where are the others? Where is Major Lorne?”
Rodney sighed. “The others are back on Atlantis. The weather’s a full blown typhoon or something down in town, preventing them from coming through the Gate safely. As for us…” He glanced at Keller, then grunted as he tripped up a little. “Ouch, damn it.” He sighed heavily. “As for us,” he said again, “we were attacked by a tree,” he said through gritted teeth. “And the tree won.”
Teyla didn’t answer immediately, obviously taking in the fact that Jennifer and Rodney were alone, then she offered a small smile to Rodney. “Well, I am not surprised the tree won.” She hopped a little to get over a dip in the muddy ground. “You really must stop baiting them the way you do.” She grinned, and Rodney quirked a smile, to Jennifer’s happiness. Teyla leaned forward then, to see Jennifer better.
“It really is good to see you,” she said, her voice heavy with relief. “Both of you. I was very worried, what with the weather and the rebels, and…and I….” She shook her head, unable to finish. It wasn’t often that Teyla was at a loss for words, but under the circumstances, Jennifer could completely understand. The Athosian shook her head, as if ashamed with herself and looked up at Rodney. “I should have known you would make it. And we are almost there. There is a good fire inside—you both clearly need it.”
Jennifer just smiled weakly, her now free arms wrapped around Rodney to support him better as they struggled up the slight incline, both women now supporting the sagging man. “Almost there, Rodney,” Jennifer promised him as Teyla let go to hobble forward and push the door open. He just nodded, holding on a little tighter as well.
In moments, they were crossing the rough threshold into a room that almost felt too hot, and Teyla was helping to pull Rodney away from her. Jennifer almost protested, feeling somehow like the other woman was taking him away from her, but sense prevailed and she watched as Teyla settled Rodney down on a straw pallet along one of the hovels four walls.
“Be careful of—“
“Yes,” Teyla said. “I know.”
Jennifer nodded and, blowing out a heavy sigh, pulled the backpack off her shoulders and settled it on the ground next to Rodney. Teyla had set the medical case too near the small fire pit in the center of the room, and, as Jennifer moved over to pull it away, she glanced up at the small hole in the roof through which the gray smoke was escaping. Raindrops fizzled in the heat. She then took a longer look around the single room, frowning more and more as she took in the state of it and its inhabitants.
Along the right hand wall was a pallet set up off the floor by about three feet. Ronon lay on that, and Jennifer swallowed thickly at the sight of arrows sticking out of his body like Leonidas at Thermopylae. Moving closer, she saw there were only three—one in upper left shoulder, one through his right oblique, and one sticking out of his right thigh. Jesus. She could see that Teyla had done a fine job bandaging the wounds, but they were all heavily speckled with blood. Ronon’s color was poor and he appeared to be deeply unconscious. Not good.
Quickly, she gently peeled up the three bandages, and studied the wounds. She nodded softly to herself, already mentally picking out instruments and medicines from her kit.
Resetting the bandages, she moved over to the pallet along the back wall, which was on the ground like the one Teyla had set Rodney on, and knelt down. John was sleeping, a bandage wrapped around his head. Like Ronon’s, it was mostly clean. He showed no other injuries, other than a pretty deep cut to his left arm, which was also bandaged neatly.
“I have been waking him every hour,” Teyla said, hobbling up next to where Jennifer was kneeling next to John. “His pupils are even, but I was concerned about concussion.”
“You did well,” Jennifer said, checking the pupils herself now with her penlight. John moaned a little, and she shushed him back to sleep. It did seem a little strange that he was still asleep after, what, five hours? More? The wound didn’t look serious enough to have kept him in such a state. She hated that it probably meant there was more to it.
When she stood again, she found Teyla hovering behind her. She was leaning on the crutch, looking at Jennifer with a mixture of anxiety and hope.
“You should sit down,” Jennifer told her.
Teyla gave a quick headshake. “How are they?”
Jennifer grimaced, looking at Ronon. “I can’t say anything for certain yet. Let me work on them a little, and then I can give you a better prognosis. But this much is obvious—Ronon’s clearly lost a lot of blood. He’ll need more.”
Teyla nodded. “Doctor Beckett said we were a close match. I can—“
“Yes, I know. But in your condition…” Jennifer grimaced.
Teyla bit her lip, glanced over her shoulder at Rodney, then back at Jennifer. She stepped forward and lowered her voice to a whisper.
“I am still only a few weeks along. Would it really endanger the child?”
Jennifer closed her eyes, then gave a headshake. “At this stage in your pregnancy, while early, it does pose a risk,” she whispered. “If your iron levels were to drop—“
“Then monitor them,” Teyla said.
Jennifer shook her head, “I can’t. It doesn’t work that way. I won’t be able to tell—“
“How great is the risk?”
Jennifer grimaced. “I don’t know. There are a lot of factors to consider. Truth is,” she shrugged, “you could be totally fine. Or you might not.”
Teyla’s eyes narrowed. “That is not an answer.”
Jennifer raised a hand in a shrug. “It’s all I got. But,” she shook her head, “based on what I know—I’d lean towards there being little risk. At the same time…it’s practice never to allow a pregnant woman to give blood.” God, she hated not being able to answer this question. In any other circumstance, she would never let Teyla give blood while pregnant.
Teyla frowned, looking down at her feet. “So answer me this,” she whispered. “If I do not help, Ronon will die, correct?”
Jennifer gave a nod. “Yes. Of that I have no doubt.”
“Then it is settled,” Teyla said, backing away. Jennifer just shook her head. Just something else to add to the list of things she hated even contemplating. She would never forgive herself if Teyla lost the baby—even if Teyla herself did not seem to have wholly accepted it yet. Of course, she’d also never forgive herself if Ronon died because she was too afraid that her own skills wouldn’t be able to keep both Teyla’s baby and Ronon alive.
She looked down at the colonel again. John was a universal donor, but in his condition, Jennifer wasn’t going to be taking any blood from the colonel until she knew exactly what was wrong with him.
Of course, none of this helped Rodney at all, and her gaze shifted to where he was lying near the door. She just had to hope Rodney hadn’t lost as much blood as she thought he had. At least right now she was sure he hadn’t lost as much as Ronon.
As if sensing her attention, Rodney opened his eyes and blinked muzzily at her. She could tell from the tightness of his face that he was listening to the conversation—though he couldn’t have heard the part that was whispered. She didn’t know why Teyla was keeping it a secret from them, but she would do what she could to honor it.
“What about John?” Teyla asked suddenly, drawing Jennifer’s eyes back to her. The doctor frowned and she turned around to look down at the colonel again.
“I can do a preliminary scan with the equipment I have, but it won’t be as effective as getting him under a CT scanner. I don’t like that he’s sleeping so much.” She grimaced, “Right now, best we can do is keep him comfortable.” Her eyes narrowed, and she looked at Teyla again. “As for you, I really need you to sit down now.”
Teyla frowned, “But I can—“
“No,” Jennifer said, “you really can’t. Do me a favor and sit down on the pallet next to Rodney so I can check your leg.”
Teyla’s lips twisted in a wry grimace, but, with a sigh, she turned and hobbled over to the pallet on which she’d laid Rodney. It was barely wide enough for two, but Jennifer didn’t care. She waited as Teyla settled herself, then Jennifer arranged her so that her hurt leg was elevated. The doctor unwrapped it quickly, ignoring the hiss of pain from Teyla, and palpated the swelled limb. Rodney was right—Teyla had downplayed it to him when she’d described it as a sprain. From the looks of it, it was at least fractured. She’d know more once she ran the Ancient medical scanner over it.
“Okay,” she said, pushing herself back to her feet. “No,” she snapped, holding up her hand as Teyla made to move as well, “You’re staying there.”
“Three reasons. One, you need to stay off that foot. Two, I need you to monitor Rodney for me while I work on Ronon. Third, you’re the best thing I have for keeping Rodney warm—he’s freezing and losing blood. So, you’re staying there.”
Teyla frowned and pushed herself up again. “But you need help and—“
“Not right now, I don’t. I’m guessing you haven’t rested since Rodney left. Well, you’re resting now.”
The pout on Teyla’s face was almost comical. “Doctor Keller, I appreciate the concern, but I think—“
“I’d do as she says,” Rodney said softly, cutting Teyla off with a finger to her wrist. “She knows what she’s doing.” He looked up at Jennifer through heavy lidded eyes. “And she’s the best.”
And, strangely, Jennifer didn’t have the slightest compunction to deny it. Since coming into this room, she’d felt calm and totally in control. She wasn’t afraid anymore. She wasn’t even worried.
She had patients she had to take care of.
She shrugged. “He’s right,” she told Teyla. “So, you’re staying there. I’m going to get rid out of this wet jacket, change my shirt and then I’m going to get to work. In the meantime, can you help Rodney out of his wet jacket and shirt? I’ll give you a blanket to cover him with.”
Teyla’s eyes widened slightly, but she didn’t say no.
Jennifer arched an eyebrow at her. “And keep your left leg elevated the whole time, got it?”
Teyla finally relented, and favored Jennifer with an unhappy grimace. “As you wish.”
“I do wish,” Jennifer smiled, and knelt down next to her. “And Teyla,” she said, lowering her voice, “It’s going to be alright. I’m going to take care of all of you. Just trust me, okay? I didn’t come all the way out here through,” she glanced at Rodney remembering his words back in town, “through figurative hell and literal high water to let you down.”
Teyla’s smile deepened. “I know,” she replied, just as softly. “Thank you.”
Jennifer nodded again, and turned to get her things from her pack.
Running the scanner over Ronon revealed exactly what Jennifer expected, and feared. His blood pressure was dangerously low, and his temperature was abnormally high.
Turning to John, she ran the scanner over his head. She frowned at the results—the wound really was shallow. No evidence of concussion. But he was clearly out cold. This didn’t make sense.
She leaned back on her haunches, considering the wound on his arm. Then she remembered that Rodney had mentioned something about a bolas.
Scooting down, she pulled the blanket Teyla had placed over the colonel off his legs, and frowned at the shredded looking trousers. Pulling out a knife, she sliced the fabric up to about mid thigh on both legs, and swore. There were a bunch of nasty cuts, all scabbed up.
“Teyla?” she called out.
Keller pivoted around in her crouch to look at her, “Did Rodney carry him all the way up here with the bolas still around his legs?”
Teyla was propped up on her elbows next to Rodney, and she nodded at Keller’s question. “There was no time to take it off down below. I removed it after we got here.” She pointed to the base of John’s pallet. “It’s there.”
Jennifer stood up, crossed to the bottom of the pallet, and then crouched down again when she saw the bolas curled in on itself at the foot. She grimaced as she lifted it—the iron balls at the ends were barbed, like mace heads. Swearing softly, she grabbed her flashlight and focused it on the barbs.
There was some sort of dry ichor on them. Poison.
“Damn,” she whispered.
“What is it?” Teyla asked.
“He’s been poisoned,” Keller answered, putting the bolas down and looking back at the other woman.
Teyla sat up more, her eyes widening. “I didn’t know.”
“There’s no reason you should,” Jennifer said, standing up to walk to her medical case. Quickly, she pulled out a testing kit. It was for snakebites, but it should at least give her an idea of what she was dealing with.
“He going to be okay?” Rodney asked, his words slurring. Keller looked up, about to snap at him to get some rest, but, when she saw his and Teyla’s faces together…she found she couldn’t.
“I’m going to do everything I can,” she said, and returned her attention to putting the kit together.
Keller set the test running for the poison, then crossed over to run the scanner over Rodney. He just watched her through half-lidded eyes, obviously fighting to stay awake.
His temperature was already rising, despite the cold and clammy appearance of his skin.
Blowing the air out of her cheeks, she gave Teyla some bandages to add to the blood-soaked ones on his legs, and something to help with the infection.
Then she was standing up and quickly setting out what she’d need to operate on Ronon.
The timer on the kit “dinged” and she checked it.
Her shoulders sank in relief. The chemical composition revealed the poison was a sedative, and it was nowhere near overdose level. Just enough to knock him out, probably for another few hours or so. She resolved to keep waking him on the hour, though, just in case the head wound was worse than it appeared.
She told Teyla and Rodney, earning her relieved smiles from both.
Then Rodney’s eyes closed—it didn’t look voluntary. Keller sighed, and stood. Teyla stared up at her, her hand gripping Rodney’s by her side. Keller glanced at Ronon, then back at her.
“I will need you in a minute. Stay there until I do, all right?”
Teyla just nodded. “Of course.”
Jennifer gave her a grim smile, then knelt down to pull her instrument, gloves and sterile solutions from her case and backpack.
Time began to blur then. Jennifer knew she was exhausted. Knew she shouldn’t even be working in this condition. Knew that her grip on consciousness was growing increasingly fragile, her entire world tunneling to first Ronon’s wounds, then Rodney’s, then John’s.
At some point, she’d had Teyla helping her, then she’d had Teyla climb up beside Ronon and lie down, so that she could transfer some blood from the Athosian to the Satedan. Teyla had remained awake during the procedure—until Jennifer smiled at her and said she felt like Ronon’s chances were better than 50-50 (which was more than she could have said when she first saw him). At the news, Teyla had fallen asleep almost immediately, finally giving in to her own exhaustion, but there was a smile on her face.
Working on Rodney was harder—partly because the wounds were messier. But they were also fresher, so the signs of infection were not as pervasive. Keller’s vision was so tightly focused, she never even felt the eyes on her until, when she finally pulled back and looked around the room…she saw John had shifted to lie on his side and was watching her through heavy lidded eyes. He looked tired and confused and worried, all at the same time.
Smiling, she stood up to go talk to him, but his eyes closed before she could—the drug was still too strong, though he had clearly tried to fight it. Fact was, he still had hours to go before he would wake. She pressed her lips together in a sad smile, and returned her attention to Rodney.
When she finally got to John’s side, all she did was clean his wounds, using butterfly bandages on his head and swabbing the marks on his legs.
When she finally finished and stood…she nearly fell over, her equilibrium was that shot.
Blinking in exhaustion, she checked once more on Ronon, then stumbled back to Rodney.
Carefully, close to passing out, she settled herself down next to him so that she was sitting by his head, her back to the wall of the hovel. Wiping sleep from her eyes, she reached out and took his hand in hers, just to hold it. Then she tilted her head towards the door, to listen to the rain and wind still battering the walls outside.
Gray started to settle in around the edges of her vision, and she jerked awake. Quickly, she checked her watch, terrified for a moment that she had, in fact, fallen asleep.
Only five minutes. Thank God. She couldn’t fall asleep, not until there was someone else who could monitor them all.
She looked over at her backpack, thinking about the stimulants she had packed inside of it.
She’d taken one, and it had sent her heart hammering, but hadn’t done much for the exhaustion. She hated stimulants—but she wouldn’t deny that they had been part of the reason she’d survived medical school. Still, she’d been eschewing them ever since, even during the long shifts in Glasgow.
It’s funny, considering everything she’d seen and done over the years, the one place she remembered as clearly as yesterday was Glasgow. She’d loved it there, even though the only reason she’d gone was to try and score a fellowship position with Carson Beckett. She didn’t get it, and he’d disappeared barely a year after she’d gotten there, but when he saw her again two years ago in Stargate Command, he laughed, telling her how well he still remembered the young girl shoving her resume in his face all those years ago on the University steps.
She’d loved Carson. Everyone had loved Carson.
Carson wouldn’t fall asleep when his friends needed him.
Resolved, and a little bit desperate, she got up and tottered over to her backpack for a second stimulant.
This was going to be a very, very long night.
CHAPTER EIGHT: THE STORM’S END
Keller was leaning against Ronon and Teyla’s pallet, her hands pressed down on the edge, her arms trembling from exhaustion. Tears ran down her cheeks from yawning so often, and, at some point, she’d given up trying to get rid of them. They at least kept her eyes from drying out.
Her problem right now—was that the hovel was spinning. Every muscle ached. The throb of her strained ankle from falling back in town was insignificant compared to her back, her shoulders, her legs, her head. It was too much. She couldn’t do this. The night just kept stretching longer and longer, until she began to wonder if it would ever be day.
She concentrated on breathing in and out, and getting her focus back.
Swallowing roughly, she turned her gaze to Rodney in the corner, focusing on the steady rise and fall of his chest under the blanket. It was a miracle he was still alive. She’d done all she could, but he was skirting the edge right now, and without the ability to increase his blood supply….
But she knew he was strong. They were all strong. So long as she could keep them stable, she knew they’d survive. They had to.
Pushing herself up, she turned and walked over to his side, kneeling down again to rest a hand on his neck to check his pulse, then his forehead to check his temperature. It wasn’t scientific or even accurate, but she knew the power of touch. Although, in this case, since he wasn’t awake—the touch was for her.
Confident that he wasn’t worse, she seated herself next to him again, then reached out and took his hand.
All night, after each time she’d checked on the others, she’d kept coming back to sit here and take his hand. She couldn’t really explain why. Only that, each time, it had helped her. Had made her want to do better. To be more like the people she tended. To be stronger.
But she wasn’t. She was so tired. She knew she was flagging, knew she was failing. She couldn’t do this.
The hand twitched in her palm, and she frowned, looking down in time to see his fingers curl around hers.
Her breath caught at what it meant—that he was awake—and she looked down at his face. Rodney’s glazed eyes, darkened to almost black in the low firelight, watched her sleepily.
“Hi,” she said, sliding down a little so that she could see him better. “How are you feeling?”
Rodney’s brow furrowed, then loosened. “The others?” he whispered.
Jennifer smiled. “I think they’re going to be okay. You got us here in time.”
He gave a small smile, then his eyes narrowed slightly. “You look…hell.”
She gave a shrug. “Feel like it,” she admitted.
“You okay? You eat?”
She hesitated, then looked up at the straw ceiling to stop from crying. “I’m fine.”
He hummed softly in obvious disbelief, showing he wasn’t blind. When Jennifer glanced at him again, he deliberately broke his gaze to look up at the hovel’s ceiling himself. He frowned. “Still…hovel.”
“Yeah,” Jennifer said, not hiding her frustration with that. “No word from Atlantis.”
Rodney eyes squinted at that. “Still storming?”
“Yes,” she said, looking over her shoulder through the slats of the wall. The wind still howled outside, and the rain had never let up. When she looked back at him, he looked on the verge of falling asleep again, but he smiled at her.
“It’s a bad storm,” he whispered.
She laughed softly. “Colonel Sheppard did tell me you have a gift for stating the obvious.” She smiled warmly. “He’s not wrong.”
He stared at her for a moment, then his hand gripped hers. “Keller.”
Worried something was paining him, she gripped his hand back. “I’m here.”
“I…if I don’t tell you later…” His grip tightened. “Thank you.”
She let out a surprised breath. Then she shook her head. “Don’t thank me yet,” she said, her voice trembling. And suddenly, she couldn’t hold it back. “Rodney, I don’t know what to do. I’m so tired. I don’t think I can stay awake even though I have to. And if I fall asleep, and something happens to you or the others while…” She swallowed, looking down at his hand in hers. “I’m not like you, or Teyla, or Ronon, or the colonel. You’re all so strong. I’m not like that.” She looked back at him. “I’m sorry.”
His brow furrowed deeply, and his lips darkened into a frown. “What’re you talking ‘bout?” he slurred. “You’re here.”
“I know I’m here,” she said. “But—“
“No,” he said. “You’re here.” He drew in a shallow breath. “Came with me.”
She stared at him, not understanding, and his expression went from angry to annoyed.
“I mean,” he said, letting out a heavy breath, “that…I wouldn’t…made it on my own. They wouldn’t,” he looked out at the room at the others, “be alive.”
She frowned, still not understanding.
He rolled his eyes, then pulled his hand from hers and pointed over at Sheppard. Then he pointed at Teyla and Ronon. Then at her and finally himself.
“We’re strong,” he said. Then he rested his hand on his chest. “I’m not. Not alone. You’re…” He rested a hand on her arm. “Not alone either.” He winced at some hidden pain, then breathed in shallowly. When he looked up at her again, he frowned. “You’re done. Let someone else take over.” His eyes narrowed, “In fact…” He looked across the room, at the pallet on the back wall. “You need…wake up Sheppard. It’s…” Rodney swallowed, “his turn. He’ll hate it if he stays asleep…” he breathed in and out slowly, “He’ll think…feel like he failed the team.”
Keller grimaced, looking at the object of their attention. “But, he should rest, he—“
“No,” Rodney whispered, his hand resting again on his chest. “He’ll wake up. Will…take care of us so you can sleep.” He blinked owlishly and gazed at her through his lashes. “Trust me.”
She smiled softly, and nodded. “I do trust you. More than I can say. But, as his doctor, I—”
“Doctor…shmokter,” he muttered. “If you won’t…” A wicked smile graced his face. He held his hand out, palm up. “Give…something to throw.”
She let out a short laugh. “No! Rodney!”
“Just chicken,” he admonished. “Warning you…,” he quirked an eyebrow, and touched the fabric under his head with his hand. “I’ll throw…pillow.”
“That’s a jacket.”
“Still throwing it.”
“It wouldn’t reach him.”
She sighed, taking his "throwing" hand to hold in hers and shook her head. “I think I’d lose,” she admitted. “Wouldn’t I?” She nodded. “Okay. I’ll wake him.”
Rodney was watching her, but his eyes turned back to the colonel, and his smile deepened. “Actually….No need.”
Keller’s head lifted, and she looked across to Sheppard’s pallet.
The colonel was sitting up, already turned with his feet on the floor. He was rubbing at his neck. He looked up at her, his gaze meeting hers with some bewilderment.
“Doc,” he called quietly. “Is that you?”
Keller couldn’t hold back her relief. “Colonel…” She shook her head. “Yes. It’s me. You’re awake!”
“Yeah, well,” he grimaced, and blinked some of the drug-induced haze from his eyes, “couldn’t let Rodney throw anything at me without being able to retaliate.”
Her eyes widened. “You heard that?” she asked. Rodney had been whispering. She had barely heard him herself.
Sheppard blinked again, then his eyes narrowed and he seemed to look around for the first time. His eyes widened when he got a good look at the rest of his team for the first time, and at their surroundings.
When he looked back at her, his eyes were sharp and clear. “What the hell happened?” he demanded.
Keller just shook her head. “Long story. Maybe I should let Rodney….” She stopped when she looked down. Rodney’s eyes were closed, his hand limp in hers. He didn’t even look like he’d moved or spoken at all.
She blinked and looked up. Sheppard was standing now, and, after a few staggered steps, he made it over to Ronon and Teyla’s pallet. Resting Rodney’s hand back down on his chest, she checked his pulse and temperature one more time, then stood up, using the wall as a brace. Halfway up, the world began to spin again.
Sheppard looked across at her, and his eyes widened. “Doc?” He started towards her, reaching out a hand. “You okay?”
Jennifer opened her mouth to answer as she pushed herself off the wall towards him…and promptly passed out. She didn’t even feel him catch her.
It was the change in the weather that woke her, though she didn’t know it at first.
Jennifer reached up a hand to wipe at her face, moaning slightly at how still tired she felt. She was lying on her side, and something scratchy bit into her arm through her thin shirt, like straw, and it smelled sickly. She wrinkled her nose, and shifted slightly, leaning more into the warm shoulder she was using as a pillow and wrapping her arm tighter over his chest. Hang on…a warm shoulder? Oh God, how much had she drunk last night?
Her eyes popped open in terror as she suddenly remembered, and she sat up abruptly—something she immediately regretted as her head started to pound mercilessly.
“Ow,” she groaned, pressing a hand to her forehead. Blinking more, she tried to calm down and look around. Oh God—she’d passed out. What if they’d needed her? What if…
The thought died as she saw Teyla sitting next to the fire, tending it. The Athosian looked up at her gaze and smiled gently.
“How are you?” Teyla asked. “Colonel Sheppard has been most worried.”
Keller blinked a few times, and looked over at the pallet at the end of the room, expecting to see the colonel sleeping on it. Oh…no, that was right. He’d woken up, hadn’t he?
“I’m here,” a voice called, and Keller twisted in her seat to look across Rodney—whom she’d been apparently been sleeping next to—to the colonel. He was standing by the door, leaning against the slats by the handle, munching on what looked like a fruit—the one from her pack.
Keller gave a smile, feeling confidence returning at the sight of him looking well and, hell, rested.
“Colonel,” she said, grinning now. “I’m so glad to see you awake. How are you?”
“Fine, thanks to you.” He glanced at Teyla, then back at her. “Actually, I think the reason we’re all still alive is thanks to you.” He gave a shrug, “And McKay.”
Keller’s smile grew and she looked down at Rodney. His head was turned away from her, and she reached up to check his pulse. His color looked okay, and he wasn’t warm. He wasn’t cool either. Just normal. He looked like he was sleeping. She then looked towards the pallet on the far wall.
“Ronon is well as well,” Teyla assured her, her eyes full of understanding. “His temperature is not high, and his blood pressure is normal. His wounds all appear to be clean. ”
Keller grinned some more, and tucked her legs under her in order to sit up further. “And you?”
“A little groggy,” Teyla admitted, “but well, much better now that I have eaten breakfast. You should eat something as well. There is still bread and cheese left from the provisions you brought.”
Breakfast? Keller’s eyes widened slightly as she realized that gray light was pouring in through the gaps between the slats of the walls. She looked up at the ceiling, at the bright gray sky she could see through the smoke. She smiled anew.
“It’s morning?” Finally.
“Just,” Teyla nodded. “Maybe an hour since dawn.”
Keller was about to ask if Atlantis had contacted them, when lightning suddenly flashed through the walls. She jumped, and her mouth opened slightly as thunder quickly followed it.
“The storm has not abated,” Teyla told her, frowning. “I fear that—“
Lightning flashed again, but this time, when the thunder followed, Keller was not only expecting it—she welcomed it.
“As I was saying,” Teyla continued, grimacing towards the ceiling, “I fear that the storm—“
“No, no, no,” Keller said, lifting herself up so that she was on her knees, smiling still. “This is good!”
“Come again?” Sheppard asked.
“Thunder and lightning,” Keller said, pointing upwards. She just couldn’t stop smiling as she explained, “That was how it started. Then the storm turned really nasty, and there wasn’t any. But if it’s thundering again,” she looked up again, “maybe this is how the storms on this planet end.”
Sheppard’s eyebrows lifted and he looked up at the ceiling. “You think?”
“I do,” she said. “I really, really do.” Lightning flashed again, and Keller almost laughed. Why had she never noticed how cool lightning was before? It was beautiful. If she was right—she would never hate thunderstorms again.
As if reading her thoughts, the radio in her ear came alive.
“Doc…Kay. Doc…Kell…me? This…orne. Come…”
Sheppard straightened immediately, tapping his radio before Jennifer even understood what she was hearing.
“Major Lorne, this is Colonel Sheppard. Do you read?”
“You’re breaking up Major. We’re up on the side of the tallest mountain. Where are you?”
“Over…Jumper One. The storm is…inter…”
“Causing interference, understood.” Sheppard pressed a hand to the door handle. “What’s your position?”
“Nearly…your position. We’re alm …top of you, sir.”
The signal was getting stronger as Lorne obviously flew the jumper closer.
“That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time, Major. We’re all in pretty bad shape, here. Doctor Keller has performed miracles, but I know she’s dying to get us back to her infirmary.” Sheppard smiled at her. “You should see the way she’s gripping McKay’s hand. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was afraid he was going to float away.”
Keller’s eyes widened, and she looked down. She hadn’t even noticed that she was holding Rodney’s hand—apparently, it had become habitual. She blushed and put it down. A second later, she was standing up and stepping over Rodney to get closer to Sheppard.
“Understood, sir,” Lorne’s amused tone echoed over the radio. “We’re closing in on your position now. The storm has cleared out of the town, but it looks like its lingering up here. “
Sheppard nodded, “We noticed. By the by, reading you loud and clear now, Major.”
“That’s good, sir. And…oh. What the hell…?” Lorne hesitated. “Uh…one problem, sir.”
Sheppard grimaced. “No place to land?”
“No. I think I can get the ship down close to you, but,” there was a pause, “sir, there are a significant number of life signs converging on your position. Probably this planet’s rebels, sir. Helenans called them Auggies.”
Jennifer’s eyes widened. “Oh God,” she said, then tapped her radio quickly. “Can’t you do something about them?”
Sheppard’s eyebrows lifted, and he tapped his own radio again. “That was Doctor Keller, Major. She has a point—we’re in no shape to fight our way out of here, and I’d rather avoid any more casualties, ours or theirs.”
“Understood, sir. Any suggestions?”
Jennifer frowned. “You’ve got a ship, Major!” she snapped. “Can’t you, you know, scare them off? Blow something up or something?”
“You want me to blow them up?” Lorne repeated, sounding a little shocked.
She frowned, squeezing her eyes shut. “I didn’t say blow them up, Major. I said blow something up. You people do it all the time! Can’t you use your drones to, you know…“ She waved a hand around because she’d run out of words, clearly not in her element. “Be mariney!”
“Mariney?” Lorne said then, and there was the amusement again. "If I weren't air force…." Keller’s eyes narrowed in annoyance.
“You know what I mean, Lorne,” she snarled. “And if you want me to keep scheduling your physicals with Doctor Cole, you’ll stop making fun of me right now.”
“I think he gets the idea,” Sheppard said with a smile before Lorne could retaliate. “Major, her idea sounds good to me.”
Lorne sighed. “Yes, sir. Only problem is, the ground is sort of unstable around you, sir. The area is awash in landslides. I’d be afraid to cause another.”
Sheppard rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, as if he had a headache. “Damn,” he muttered. Jennifer frowned, and shook her head at him.
“Rodney said that we weren’t in danger of landslides on this side of the ridge,” she said. Sheppard looked up at her, and frowned.
“He did? Was he sure?”
She nodded. Of course, Sheppard might not trust Rodney’s assessment, but she’d be willing to vouch for him if—
But Sheppard was already speaking. “Use the drones, Major,” the colonel said. “Scare em off. We’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure, sir?” Lorne was clearly less certain. “I heard what Doctor Keller said, but Doctor McKay might not really know the extent--”
“Keller said he was sure, Major. It’s good enough for me. Go ahead.”
There was a pause, then, “Yes, sir.”
Sheppard looked at Keller, gave a half smile, then covered her ears. “Might want to do this,” he noted.
Keller’s eyes widened, and she quickly covered hers as well…just as the world around them seemed to explode.
CHAPTER NINE: A CLEAR DAWN
Keller yawned through her hand as she walked towards the infirmary, intending only to grab her laptop from her desk and head back to her room. She was behind on her paperwork, having spent most of the last three days sleeping—one of them as a patient in her own infirmary (which was pretty embarrassing), and two alone in her room. She’d liked the solitude after what had happened on Helena—although, since she’d woken this morning to the sun shining brightly into her room, she had begun to wonder if she was hiding.
As the doors opened to the main infirmary hall, she heard laughter.
And she knew whose it was as well.
For a moment, she didn’t move, feeling oddly out of sorts. For reasons she couldn’t explain, she hadn’t been to see them since she’d been back. She answered questions, had done some follow up, but she’d pretty much left it to Cole and Marie to take care of Colonel Sheppard’s team after both Ronon and Rodney woke up.
Even after everything, she just didn’t want to intrude. They were as close as family, and, when she was there, she was there as their doctor, not as one of them. They needed each other more than her now that they were recovering, and so she’d wanted to leave them be.
More laughter. Jennifer sighed, shook her head, and walked forward, pasting a smile on her face.
Coming around the corner, she stopped for a moment to take in the scene.
Ronon and Rodney were both lying in beds situated next to each other. Teyla was sitting cross-legged at the end of Ronon’s bed, while Colonel Sheppard sat on a chair between them, his feet up on Rodney’s bed.
Rodney was scowling, his arms crossed over his chest, while the other three laughed. He must have seen her enter, because his head turned towards the door.
As soon as he saw her, his expression lit up. “There you are!” he exclaimed. “Quick, quick, come over!” He gestured frantically with his hand, beckoning her closer. The other three, still smiling, turned to look at her as well.
Jennifer’s eyebrows lifted, and, for a second, she almost looked over her shoulder to see who he was talking to.
“Why aren’t you moving?” McKay was looking annoyed again. “Come on!” Jennifer blinked, and headed over to his bed, while Rodney refocused his scowl on Sheppard. “Now, see, Keller will back me up.” He looked up at her as she reached his side, and he pointed at Sheppard. “Tell them that Aliens is better than Alien.”
Jennifer’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Sheppard insists that Alien is better, and Ronon’s agreeing with him. Teyla’s pretending she didn’t see it, but we all know she did, because she was there when we played the DVDs of both movies for Ronon last week, even though she’s claiming she left early.”
Teyla frowned. “I did leave early. I do not enjoy those sorts of movies.”
“So?” Rodney asked, lifting his eyebrows. “Alien or Aliens?”
Keller actually didn’t have to think about it. “Aliens.”
“Yes!” Rodney grinned smugly and crossed his arms. “Ha!”
Sheppard’s lips quirked. “She likes it better ‘cause she’s a girl.”
Keller instantly crossed her arms. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Guys like Alien better, because of all the suspense and Ripley in her panties,” Sheppard explained, as if he were lecturing a class. “Girls like Aliens better because not everyone dies in the end.”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Rodney looked affronted. “I’m a guy!”
Sheppard’s eyebrows lifted. “Really? Are you sure?”
Rodney’s eyes narrowed, “Oh, ha ha.” He crossed his arms again. “Fact is, Alien was great as a horror flik, but Aliens had horror and it had action, adventure and superior acting. You think all those Academy Award nominations were a fluke? There were lots more cross plots and baddies and the dangers were greater, because more lives were at stake. And it had Ripley with a gun. A really, really big gun. “ He smiled brightly, confident in his answer. “Seriously, can you get hotter than that?”
Keller cuffed him on the back of his head.
“Ow!” Rodney looked up at her, not hiding his astonishment (and hurt). “What was that for?”
“Because I wasn’t close enough,” Teyla said, her own arms crossed.
“But, but,” he pointed over at Sheppard, “he talked about Ripley in her panties!”
“She was in her panties,” Ronon noted. “He was just stating fact.”
“Unfortunately, you also added the bit about it being ‘hot’,” Sheppard said, clicking his tongue and shaking his head as if disappointed in Rodney. “Not a smart move, buddy.”
“What? You’re kidding!” Rodney looked wide-eyed up at Jennifer for rescue.
“No, he’s not,” Keller said, feeling a little contrite. She nodded quickly. “It was pretty much the hot thing.”
Rodney’s jaw dropped, then he pouted angrily. He turned to glare at Sheppard. “I hate you.”
Sheppard just grinned happily and put his hands behind his head.
“Seriously, how is this fair?” Rodney demanded. He looked up again at Keller. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”
She smiled crookedly at that. “I am?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Isn’t that why you agreed with me?”
Jennifer didn’t hide her surprise. “No,” she said. “I genuinely think Aliens was better. Though…” She shrugged, then lowered her voice and looked down to pluck at his blanket, “mostly because not everyone dies in the end.”
Sheppard and Ronon laughed, and Rodney sighed heavily, leaning his head back to stare up at the ceiling.
“I hate you all,” he moaned. He shifted his gaze to focus on her. “Can you at least agree with me that the third movie sucked?”
“Oh, yeah,” she nodded vigorously, “no question.”
“Thank you,” he said, closing his eyes.
“Hey,” John said suddenly, standing up and looking at Jennifer, “Want to sit down?”
Keller eyes widened. “What? Oh,” she stared at the seat, then back at him. “No, no, that’s okay. I was just going to grab my laptop and go back to my—“
“Oh, come on,” the colonel said, “sit. I’ll get another chair. You’ve hidden enough.” And with that cryptic statement, he grinned and headed off to find another chair.
“What does he mean?” Rodney asked, looking as puzzled as Keller felt. He looked up at her, “Were you hiding? From what?”
She opened her mouth to answer, then shut it again. Finally, she shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Then sit down,” Ronon said from the other bed, sticking his thumb in the direction of Sheppard’s vacated chair. He smiled, and Jennifer melted slightly. “Unless you have better things to do?” he asked.
“No,” she said, pretty much without thinking. Damn he was pretty. “I don’t.”
A second later, she realized what she’d said (and that she was now just staring blissfully at Ronon), and blushed. Rodney sighed.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he groused. “Just sit down already. And remember,” he pointed at her as she smiled at him, “You’re on my side, okay? It’s us against them.”
“Rodney,” Teyla admonished. “I am never against you.”
He gave the Athosian a narrowed look. “Oh, you say that, Stands With Sticks, but I see the small smiles. ” He pointed a finger at her. “You think I didn’t see those same smiles from my sister growing up? I know what they mean!” He crossed his arms again, “And let’s not forget you calling my nightmare about Carter serving me lemon chicken a ‘delusional male fantasy.’ I have a perfect memory for insults and—“
“Oh,” Keller feigned a grimace as she sat down, “actually, that was me.”
Rodney’s accusing look at Teyla fell, and he turned to look at Keller with open eyes. “It was?” he asked pathetically.
“Yeah,” she gave a shrug, “sorry.”
In return he just groaned and his head fell against the pillow. “Why can’t I win?”
“Because you like Aliens better than Alien,” Sheppard replied, having returned with another chair, “and because you walk right into it, every time.”
Jennifer gave a weak smile, “He’s right.”
“No,” Rodney scowled, “he’s not right. Not anymore. From now on,” he pointed at Keller, “you’re on my side. All that came before is forgiven.” He drew his hand across, as if wiping a slate clean. “It’s you and me against them, and that’s the way it’s going to be.” Ronon was laughing again, and Teyla was sighing softly even as she smiled. Sheppard just put his hands behind his head again—and turned so he could put his feet up on McKay’s bed as he’d done before.
Keller couldn’t hide her smile at their antics. “Me and you,” she said to Rodney, “against them.”
Rodney gave a nod. “Yes. We geniuses have to stick together. So, what do you say?”
Keller pretended to think about it, tapping her finger on her chin. Fact was, her mind was already made up, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t milk it. After a moment, she nodded seriously. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Rodney said, his eyebrows lifting. Apparently, he was surprised she’d agreed—and he wasn’t the only one.
“Yeah,” Sheppard said, looking equally surprised, “okay? Really?”
“On one condition,” Keller said, her eyes narrowing.
“Oh,” Rodney groaned, “here it comes.”
“I want you to help me prank Major Lorne.”
For a moment, Rodney said nothing—and neither did the other three.
“Major Lorne?” Rodney said finally. “Why?”
Jennifer shrugged, “Because he annoys the pants off of me.”
Rodney’s eyebrows lifted. “What, literally?”
Keller gasped, and she smacked him on the arm. “No! Not literally! Get your mind out of the gutter!”
“Why don’t you like Lorne?” Ronon asked.
“Yes,” Teyla said, her brow furrowed in bewilderment, “I find Major Lorne to always be a perfect gentleman and a good man. I thought everyone liked him.”
“Not me,” Keller crossed her arms. “He treats me like I’m twelve.” Her eyes narrowed, “I want to take him down.”
“I’m not sure I should be here for this,” Sheppard said, although he didn’t look like he had any intention of moving.
“Okay,” Rodney said then, sounding oddly happy. Jennifer turned to look at him, her eyes wide.
“Really? You’ll help me?”
“Of course, totally,” he said dismissively, not even looking at her. She could almost see the wheels turning in his head. “Actually, this could be a lot of fun,” he mused, his lips curving in a half smile. “I have something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but it’d need to be in a pretty open space…”
Keller grinned, sitting up straighter in her chair.
“An open space? But I’m guessing we can’t do it someplace where he would see it coming—like the outside,” Sheppard said then. “Maybe the mess? He’s got that thing for enchilada surprise.” Keller’s eyes widened further as she turned to look at him. She hadn’t expected the colonel to join—
“Too messy,” Ronon said. “Plus, I hate wasting food. What about in the gym?” Keller’s wide eyed stare turned to the Satedan. He grinned at her.
“Eh, too much foot traffic, plus, the marines would all do anything for him,” Sheppard said. “Might end up protecting him, which wouldn’t be good.”
“What about right here in the infirmary?” Teyla asked then. And Keller fell back against her chair in complete shock. Teyla was looking at her, her eyebrows lifted in question. “Or would you be against using this place for the prank?”
Jennifer just shook her head. “No. No, not at all,” she managed to stutter out. Then she smiled broadly. “Quarantine room is free.”
“Ooh,” Rodney’s eyes lit up and he looked across at Sheppard, “Quarantine room! That’d be perfect.”
Sheppard grinned back, leaning forward on his knees. “So tell us your great plan, oh brain the size of a planet.”
Keller just sat there, listening in awe as Rodney started whispering hurriedly a plan involving pulleys, a winch, several yards of fabric, and a bucket of pickles. Her eyes roamed from Rodney to Sheppard to Teyla to Ronon then back to Rodney. Rodney suddenly looked at her.
“It’ll take some creative lying on your part,” he said to her, stopping mid-description. “You still in?”
“Oh yeah,” she said, smiling warmly at him. She was never more certain of anything in her entire life. “I’m in.”
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