The Black Lake
This was written for the SGA Gen Ficathon, but I didn’t finish in time (because I suck at deadlines). My prompt is below. My genre, appropriately, was action/adventure. Combine that with watching Red Dwarf’s three awesome new episodes in early April and this is what you get.
Title: The Black Lake
Prompt: The journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly.
Word Count: ~27,740 (8 Chapters)
Warnings: None that I know of, unless you’re one of those folks who hates a certain canon relationship, then beware, because I reference it.
Notes: Thanks to NotTasha for the late night betaing. This was revised some after she read it, so all remaining mistakes, poor writing and bad grammar belong solely to me. Also, I’m not a doctor and I’m not a biologist, so…yeah. Also, thanks to the amazing AstridV for the incredibly gorgeous illustration! (Astridv is a goddess. Just saying.)
Description: Things go belly up (because they always go belly up) on a rescue mission to save an SGA team stuck deep underground and running out of air. This is a Team story, with Keller along for the ride.
CHAPTER ONE: TELDY AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WELL
“Unscheduled off-world activation!”
Dr. Woolsey’s head snapped up, fear drilling through him from head to toe. He was still getting used to the way his heartbeat skipped a beat every time those words were yelled, the way adrenalin sent his body shooting up out of his chair and into the control room, his fingers shaking with aftershocks as he leaned over Amelia’s chair to see her screen. He really didn’t need to lean over her chair—he could use the main screen—but she had become something of a lodestone: she grounded him, when it felt like his still barely beneath the surface fear would send him screaming and running from the room.
“What have we got?” he asked, hands braced in fists to still the shaking. No sign of quaver in his voice, and that’s all that mattered.
“No IDC,” she answered, frowning as she waited for evidence of where the wormhole was originating. “No radio frequencies.”
“Who is off-world right now?”
“Lieutenant Winthrop’s team, Lieutenant Marks’ team, and Major Teldy’s team with Dr. Beckett.” Amelia looked up as she mentioned the third group, as if she knew already which team was likely to be calling in. It was always the team accompanying Dr. Beckett on his Hoffan virus work. Woolsey sometimes imagined the man’s pompadour secretly emitted some sort of beacon for trouble.
“Open a channel,” Woolsey said, standing up to look in the direction of the open wormhole, grimacing a little at the shield glittering on top of it. Amelia hit a button then nodded up at him. “This is Atlantis. Please identify yourself.”
He waited a few minutes, frowning at the silence.
“I repeat,” he called, “this is the Atlantis expedition. If you can hear me, please respond.”
Rodney McKay took that moment to burst onto the scene from the door leading to the transporters, jogging up to the main consoles. He nodded at Woolsey as he slid into his usual seat next to Amelia, calling information onto the laptop screen in front of him. Almost simultaneously, Colonel Sheppard bounded up the stairs from the gateroom below. He nodded at Woolsey as he stopped near McKay’s station, looking over Rodney’s shoulder in the same way that Woolsey was leaning over Amelia.
“There’s nothing coming in, sir,” Amelia said. “No response.”
“No, there’s something there,” Rodney disagreed, clicking away on his computer. “It’s….” He leaned forward, squinting a little at his screen. “It’s very weak.”
Amelia frowned, checking her own screen again, her fingers flying. Within moments, she was nodding. “Increasing the sensitivity of the comm.,” she informed Woolsey. “It’s a sub-space signal.”
“One of ours?”
“No,” she said.
“It’s not coming from any known ships,” Rodney said, frowning at the screen. “I’m not sure where it’s coming from.”
“Could it be from another kind of ship, one not in the database?” Woolsey asked.
“Either that, or from an Ancient facility.” Rodney’s frown deepened.
“I think I’ve got it,” Amelia said, her finger against the earpiece in her ear. “Yes, I can hear someone.”
“Play it,” Woolsey ordered, and Amelia hit another key on her console.
Abruptly, the control room was filled with a faint static and an echoing voice, as if the speaker were calling out from the bottom of a well.
“…read me-me-me? This is Major Teldy-dy-dy. Atlantis, can you read me-me-me?”
“We can hear you,” Woolsey answered, raising his voice. “Can you hear us?”
“Barely-ly-ly-ly,” came Teldy’s faint reply. “You’re very weak-eak-eak.”
“So are you,” Woolsey replied, raising his voice even more. “Major, can you strengthen your signal?” He looked at McKay, “And can you filter out the echo?” he asked softly.
McKay nodded, rapidly typing away.
“No-o-o.” Teldy replied to Woolsey’s first question. “We’re maxed out-out-out. Sir, we’re in trouble-ble-ble. We need help-elp-elp.”
“I got it,” McKay whispered. “Should be no more echo.”
Woolsey nodded. “What’s the situation, Major?” he called.
“Wraith, sir,” Teldy’s voice was clearer, but still very faint. “An hour after we arrived, the Stargate activated and several Wraith darts came through. A few minutes later, Dr. Porter registered a Hive ship orbiting the planet on the scanner. We couldn’t Gate out, so we escaped using a route that the Durangese have apparently used for centuries: in the bottom of the town halls is Ancient transporter platform capable of transporting up to forty people at a time to an underground facility. We got as many people down here as we could before using it ourselves. We then proceeded to wait a few hours before attempting to return, but something has happened to the transporter. We can’t get back.”
“What kind of underground facility?” McKay called. “The database said there was nothing Ancient remaining on that planet, and no references to anything underground.”
“Dr. Porter thinks it was a mining facility of some kind. It’s pretty stripped of equipment, but they left a few things behind, including a hard-wired DHD and communications console. We’re using that to contact you.”
“Are you safe?” Sheppard asked.
“I believe so, sir. It’s been about six hours, and there’s no sign of the Wraith. Problem is, our equipment can’t penetrate the walls of the facility to confirm that. We also have another problem: we’re almost out of power. Even if the transporter were working, Porter says there wouldn’t be enough to transport everyone back.”
“There’s no other way out?” Woolsey asked.
“Not that we’ve found. The walls appear to be solid. In addition, sirs, we’ve used much of the facility’s remaining power to activate the Stargate remotely in order to send this message. Porter says we’ll be out of power within an hour. Even holding the wormhole open this long to relay this information is cutting into that.”
“Understood,” Sheppard replied. “What’s your status?”
“None of our people are hurt, sir, at least not badly. There are, however, some injuries among the Durangese, and Dr. Beckett is seeing to them with what supplies we have, but he could use some help. All in all, I believe we can last some time without being rescued, but not too long. There are about 350 people down here, and Porter calculates we only have about fifteen hours before we’re out of air.”
“There’s no ventilation?” McKay asked, his surprise clear.
“Yes, but, without power, there will be nothing to draw oxygen down the vents. And the air down here is already toxic. Once the power is gone completely, it’ll get stuffy very fast, sirs. We need help.”
“Where is the facility located on the planet?” Sheppard asked.
“The Durangese don’t know. To be honest, sir, I don’t even know if we’re still on the planet. We just appeared in this place. It’s dark, cold, half-flooded with freezing water, and stripped of anything of use or information other than a few main consoles. It’s like being in a dungeon, sir.”
“Okay,” Sheppard said, frowning down at McKay, who had glanced up at him at the word “dungeon.” Sheppard shook his head. “We’re on our way, Major.”
“Keep power use to an absolute minimum,” McKay ordered. “Tell Porter to direct all power to the air vents. Also tell her to try to reserve some power, we may need a flare. If you don’t hear from us six hours from now, tell her to flash an energy signal and to keep doing so once every hour. You got that?”
“I’ve got that,” another woman’s voice answered, even more faintly than Teldy’s. Porter had obviously been listening in.
“Is there anything else we need to know, Major?” Woolsey asked.
“Not at this time, sir.”
“Well, but…” Porter’s voice was tentative. “What about what that woman saw?” She was clearly talking to Teldy.
“It’s just paranoia, Porter,” Teldy answered. “Too much time in the dark.”
Woolsey frowned, not liking the sound of that. “What is Porter talking about, Major?”
“No such thing as nothing in Pegasus, Major,” Sheppard said sharply. “What is it?”
“Yes, sir.” Teldy sighed, her voice growing fainter now. “There’s a remote possibility that there may be….” She paused and sighed again. “It’s like something out of Red Dwarf, sir.”
Sheppard’s frown deepened. “What?”
“We may not be alone down here, sir.”
Sheppard’s eyebrows lifted. “What do you mean?”
“I…Oh crap.” She sounded angry, and something banged audibly in the background. “Hey!”
“Dusty! Stop her! Close that—“
Screaming filled the room, exploding over the radio, ear-splitting in volume and pitch with the sensitivity jacked up to maximum. Everyone in the control jumped, and both McKay and Woolsey covered their ears.
And then the wormhole cut out.
CHAPTER TWO: WRAITH AT THE GATE
Sheppard cloaked the Jumper the moment they were through the event horizon, the wormhole shutting down behind them. Until they were certain the planet was clear of Wraith, Woolsey wasn’t ready to risk more Jumpers. It meant Sheppard’s Team, with Dr. Keller tagging along, was alone until Sheppard called Atlantis and gave the all clear.
Woolsey wasn’t going to be happy.
“Christ, did it see us?” McKay asked, staring wide eyed at the massive ship now filling the Jumper’s windscreen. A Hive was parked about a mile away from the Stargate, as big as a mountain in the foreground. It looked to be just sitting there.
“I’m sure it saw something,” Sheppard answered miserably, banking the Jumper away from the ship at a quick rate of speed, cutting through the heavy fog and cloud. Rain splattered down the glass, but not enough to be a problem. The HUD popped up as he pointed them straight up in the leaden sky.
“What’s it doing?” Ronon asked, standing next to the bulkhead door. He had one hand on his blaster.
“It’s…,” Sheppard began, and then paused as he studied the HUD. He slowed the Jumper to hover. “Actually, it’s not doing anything. It’s not even powering up.”
“It’s not?” McKay said, scanning the same information as Sheppard. His eyebrows lifted. “It’s not,” he agreed. “That’s weird.”
“Why aren’t they powering up?” Teyla asked, leaning forward in her chair behind Sheppard.
“And why are they still here?” Keller asked, standing against McKay’s chair, her hands gripping the leather. “If there was no one left to cull, why would they stay?”
“Both good questions,” Sheppard said, staring at McKay. The scientist was already calling up information on the console in front of him.
“Maybe they overheard Teldy’s call to Atlantis,” Ronon suggested. “They’re waiting for us.”
“If that were true,” Sheppard said, “they would have started firing the moment the wormhole engaged. They would have known it was us.”
“They couldn’t have intercepted that call to Atlantis,” McKay said, frowning slightly, still working away at the console.
“But they would have seen the wormhole engage when Teldy called us,” Ronon said. “It wouldn’t be hard to guess who was being called.”
“And yet again, we’re still here,” Sheppard said.
“It’s because they can’t see us,” McKay stated definitively.
Sheppard arched an eyebrow. “Yes,” he said slowly, “because we’re cloaked.”
“No,” McKay said testily, “I mean, they wouldn’t be able to see us even if we weren’t cloaked. They can’t see anything, especially in this heavy cloud.” He gestured to the whispy clouds outside the windscreen.
“Fly up over them.”
Sheppard frowned, but banked the Jumper back around, heading back to the Hive, dipping low in order to break through the gray.
“Oh my,” Teyla said quietly as the far side of the Hive came into view.
Over half the massive ship was a black, charred mess, expelling smoke and steam that blended into the heavy, dark gray clouds enshrouding this planet. Flashes of light sparkled inside the darkness, where repairs were obviously underway. The rain made the exposed metal appear almost liquid in the white light of the atmosphere, glittering and alive.
McKay hummed. “From the readings, all their power is being directed to repairing the ship. They’re not paying attention to anything except getting back up into the air.”
“How long?” asked Sheppard.
“A while. I don’t know where they started from, but I can’t see them taking off for a few days.”
Sheppard gave McKay a sharp glance. “That’s a problem,” he said.
“What brought them down?” Keller asked, still gripping McKay’s chair.
“Um…” McKay was tapping away again. After a moment, he snorted. “There’s debris from another Hive in orbit. They must have attacked each other.” He glanced at the Hive filling the windscreen. “Guess this one’s the victor.”
“Some victory,” Ronon muttered.
Sheppard grimaced. “Phyrric.” He glanced at McKay again. “Speaking of, how many--?”
“About seventy five life signs on board. It’s not clear how many are Wraith.”
“The Durangese numbered almost 450,” Teyla informed quietly. “If only 350 made it underground with the major, some of those life signs might be the Durang.”
“Or others,” Keller noted. “From other planets.”
Ronon growled softly at the information.
“Stay focused, Chewie,” Sheppard warned. The colonel looked at McKay, who was tapping away on the console again. “What about—?”
“Still a couple dozen darts in the hold, and….” Rodney’s gaze narrowed. “There’s a handful in orbit. Why—?”
“They’re acting as sentinels, since the ship’s sensors are down,” Teyla said, her gaze slightly unfocused. “I can sense some of their chatter.”
“So why aren’t any watching the Stargate?” Keller asked.
“That’s easy,” Ronon snarled. “They don’t think there’s anyone left on the planet capable of using it.”
McKay’s eyes narrowed, and he typed a different set of search parameters. He nodded after a second. “He’s right. No life signs registering anywhere outside of the Hive.”
Teyla sighed softly, and Sheppard frowned, lifting the Jumper back up into the air and turning it around, heading it towards the village.
“Well,” Keller said anxiously, “that’s because the Durangese are shielded, right? Wherever Major Teldy is, they’re shielded from detection.”
Sheppard grimaced. McKay glanced at him sideways, his expression awash with uncertainty. Keller’s gaze switched back and forth between the two as she waited for an answer.
“Right?” she prompted.
“Right,” the colonel sighed finally. “So let’s go find them.”
McKay frowned, waving a hand at the Hive disappearing from view as he asked Sheppard, “But what about…?”
“One step at a time, McKay. One step at a time.”
“Well, that answers why the transporter isn’t working,” McKay said miserably. John frowned as he settled the Jumper next to the smoldering remains of what had been the town hall. The entire settlement had been wiped out, a charcoaled blight on the landscape, the spitting rain putting out whatever fires still smoked. A few bodies were visible beneath chunks of burning wood and collapsed stone, like something out of an apocalypse film. The Wraith hadn’t come here just to cull the Durangese—they’d come here to eradicate them. They must have found out that the population had been infected with the Hoffan virus.
Keller’s lips pressed into a thin line as she stared at the wreckage, while both the Athosian and the Satedan gazed stonily out the window, clearly reliving memories that neither wanted to relive. McKay stood up, quite deliberately choosing to not look outside anymore, and moved to change places with Teyla so he could work on his laptop. John forced himself to look away as well, to focus on trying to help McKay source out what had happened here. And where the people might have gone.
After a few minutes of negative results from scans for life signs and energy signatures, he turned in the chair to look back at McKay.
Rodney shook his head. “This planet was mined by the Ancients for different building materials, but they tapped it dry long before they left Pegasus. The database back on Atlantis spoke only in historical terms, relating numerous locations where they had once based operations, but, by all descriptions, those locations had all been temporary. There was no indication that they had actually left anything behind. Certainly nothing about a still working transporter, or a console capable of dialing the DHD remotely.”
“Could it have been someone else?”
McKay just shrugged, shaking his head. “Not likely.” He sighed. “It’s more likely that the Ancients just didn’t put any value into what they left behind, so didn’t bother to mention it in the database. To them, leaving a working DHD was probably the equivalent of us leaving a calculator behind in math class.”
Sheppard’s eyebrows lifted, smiling slightly. “You were allowed to use a calculator in math class?”
McKay shrugged. “Well, no, but if I were allowed to use a calculator and I had left it behind one day, I probably wouldn’t have cared too much.”
“I was allowed to use a calculator,” Keller said distractedly, her gaze still locked on the devastated world outside. “I never left it behind.”
“So, now what?” Ronon asked, turning away from the window, his voice even gruffer than normal.
“Now…” McKay said, leaning back, “we go to each of the locations where the Ancients had a base of operations, and hope we find something.” He hit a key on his keyboard, and the HUD popped up, showing a map of the area. Six different locations flashed in red, all within a forty mile radius of the settlement. “These are the locations closest to here. Transporters, especially ones as large as Teldy described, don’t typically have much range. It should be one of these.”
John blew the air out of his cheeks, but said nothing as he lifted the Jumper back up into the solid, gray sky. He pointed the Jumper towards the closest flashing red dot on the map and prayed they were lucky for once.
Teyla examined the ground from the front passenger seat, her gaze on the empty, grass covered plain, looking for something, anything, that explained where the people of this planet had gone. In the background, Rodney quietly tapped commands into his laptop, seeking to find what she couldn’t see with her eyes. John, too, was bringing up the HUD every few moments, to supplement their search. At Teyla’s shoulder, standing over her chair, she sensed Ronon, guessing that his gaze, like hers, was locked on the planet below.
“What about that?” Jennifer’s soft voice whispered, probably to Rodney. Teyla turned, glancing to where her friend was leaning over Rodney’s shoulder, pointing at something on the laptop screen. “Is that something?”
“A heat signature,” Rodney confirmed. “But very faint. Too faint to be anything more than a small creature.”
Jennifer sighed softly, disappointed. They all were.
The people of this planet, the Durangese, were warm and kind…and very tough traders. Teyla had been a visitor here a few times, and had always enjoyed herself.
Her hatred for the Wraith was so profound right now, it was almost consuming.
“We’re nearly on top of the third location,” John informed the group. “We’re only a couple of miles from—“
“Hey,” Rodney said suddenly, “I think…there’s something here.”
John glanced at the reflection he could see of Rodney in the windscreen. “Define something.”
“I’m not sure. The readings are very odd. For one,” he turned his gaze to the view outside the window, “according to the sensors, there’s no land down there.”
Teyla’s eyebrows lifted as she leaned forward, studying the grassy plain more carefully. The wind was fairly strong outside the small craft, swirling the long grass in ever-expanding ripples. It certainly looked real.
“Are you saying that plain is some sort of cloak?” she asked.
“I would,” Rodney said, “but it doesn’t appear to be powered by anything. There’s no evidence of any energy usage.” He continued to type away. “And that also rules out a hologram and a computer generated illusion.” He stopped typing. “Damned if I know why the sensors don’t think anything is there. I…hang on….” He leaned forward, eyes skimming the screen. “Hey. I just caught another faint heat signature.”
“How large?” John asked.
“Large enough. It’s gone, but I’m sure I saw something. And…” He leaned back in order to see John. “It originated from somewhere underground, in the approximate location of the old mining base.”
“That works for me,” John said. “How do we get down to where the heat signature is?”
Rodney shook his head. “No idea. There’s no evidence of any entrance, which seems odd. They couldn’t have relied on that transporter alone. No one intelligent builds just one entrance and exit.”
“Maybe it’s hidden,” Ronon suggested. “To prevent others from getting in, like the Wraith.”
“Something the sensors aren’t picking up?” Teyla asked, not hiding her doubt. The Ancestors typically did not hide things from their own ships.
She watched John’s jaw tense, and then release. A glance over her shoulder saw Rodney watching the back of the colonel’s head, also waiting to hear the answer. She disliked it when Rodney was out of answers.
“I’m landing,” John announced finally. Rodney sighed and pointed to a likely spot to set down, only because, as he said to Sheppard, the sensors picked up some actual landmass there.
Teyla braced herself as the colonel gently, almost delicately, settled the ship down on top of the plain, sensing a slight sinking sensation as the Jumper powered down. For a moment, no one moved, as if afraid they suddenly start falling into nothingness.
Then John stood up, frowning deeply. Hitting a button on the console as he did so, he strode past the rest of the group to the back, where the back hatch was opening. Rodney and Ronon followed, while Teyla stayed in the front of the ship with Jennifer.
The hatch finished lowering, and a soft breeze blew through the Jumper, soft and pungent with the smell of grass. Wind continued to ripple the long stalks, creating a sound not unlike the sound of waves on Atlantis. It was almost soothing.
The three men stepped down to the edge of the hatch, and Rodney did a quick scan with the life signs detector. John, meanwhile, crouched down and reached out, running his hand over the long, sweeping grass.
“Certainly feels real,” he said.
“The grass is real,” Rodney confirmed. “It’s alive.” He looked up, frowning. “So why didn’t the sensors pick up any landmass? The grass has to be growing on something.”
“Looks like regular dirt to me,” Ronon stated simply, looking down at the ground he could see at the edge of the hatch.
Rodney just shook his head. “This makes no sense.”
“Well,” John said, hitching up the P90 in his arms, “don’t see as we have much choice. We have to find a way to get to our people, if they’re down there, and if technology isn’t going to help us find it….” He waved a hand outwards towards the large plain. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and all that.”
Ronon rested his hand on his blaster, Rodney didn’t lift his eyes from the scanner, and John drew in a deep breath. Almost as one, they stepped off the hatch onto the grassy plain.
“Rodney!” Jennifer screamed, running to the front of the hatch, Teyla at her heels.
The ground had simply disintegrated, crackling like dried paper beneath the weight of the three men, swallowing them whole. Teyla grabbed Jennifer’s arm at the hatch edge to prevent her from falling in after them, pulling her back a few steps. The two women peered down into the rapidly expanding hole as their teammates vanished in a puff of dirt, grass and pebbles.
And then the Jumper began to tilt, slipping forward into the hole as more of the ground disintegrated, and Jennifer screamed.
CHAPTER THREE: RODNEY, JOHN AND RONON DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
He grasped at everything and anything, feeling the brittle, fragile dirt break apart in his hands like thin strands of spun sugar. The ground just fell away, crumbling to fine dust, filling his lungs with dirt. He screamed and coughed, and still he tried to grab something, anything!
His screaming echoed back at him, barely registering above the sound of bodies crashing through this planet’s crust, the surface no denser than a sliver of mica. Rocks, twigs, dirt pummeled his back as he fell, breaking apart, nothing strong enough to hold him, to catch him. God, it hurt! HELP!
His fingers scrabbled, desperate, seeking something to hold onto. Anything! There had to be something real to hold onto! Something!
Cold air blasted him, and he was suddenly falling through nothingness, hands outstretched, seeking any kind of purchase but finding only empty space.
The air was freezing, whistling through his pants legs and arms like ice. It burned his skin.
He thought about trying to right himself. He didn’t want to land on his back.
He didn’t want to land, period! He had to catch on something! He had to—
Water exploded around him, the impact feeling like it had broken every bone in his body. It sucked him down in a vortex, and covered him up, swirling and churning, driving him down into the darkness.
He clawed at the water, trying to figure out which way was up, pushing and pulling, trying to see light, to see anything. It pushed back, confusing and cold.
God, it was so cold!
His hands started to sting, and his legs and arms soon followed. His chest was burning, and his back was on fire from pain!
Up! Which was is up?!
And then the pack started to get heavy. Very heavy. He felt it pull him one way. That was down, that had to be down. That meant the other way was up. He had to go up!
His hands scrabbled at the pack, trying to break the straps, but his fingers weren’t working, the buckles weren’t undoing. His lungs burnt more and he pumped his legs, trying to fight the pull.
But he was getting weaker. The pack was like a lead weight on his back, dragging him down. He needed to get free!
Come on, come on, come on! Undo!
God, he needed to breathe! Steel bands encircled his chest, heavier and heavier, and the black started to flash with pockets of lightning as his brain fought to stay alive.
His eyes started to sting, and his fingers started to ache, more sharp than a sting. He just needed some air. A little air. He reached upwards with one hand, or the way he thought was up, and, for a split second, thought he saw a light.
Then something kicked him in the head.
Sheppard gasped, feeling his foot hit something hard as he kicked around icy lake, seeking his teammates. His eyes widened and he pointed the flashlight into the dark, murky depths.
And saw a hand, just seconds before it was swallowed up by darkness.
Drawing in a lungful of air, he dove down, pointing the flashlight ahead of him into the darkness, trying to see the hand again.
Instead he saw Rodney.
With all the strength he had left, he shoved forward and grabbed at the man’s hand, trying to pull him up. But Rodney was too heavy. He was being pulled down, almost as if he were tied to something. What the…?
Understanding dawned, and Sheppard shoved his flashlight into his vest to free his hand. Using both now, he dove deeper, grabbing Rodney by the front of his vest and scrabbling at the buckles of the massive pack the scientist wore.
When nothing happened, Sheppard reached around McKay’s hip and drew the knife from the sheathe in back. Bringing it forward, he quickly sawed through the belt buckle and the two sides and, like a miracle, Rodney stopped sinking like a deadweight, his pack falling away into the black depths.
Grabbing Rodney’s hand again, his lungs already screaming for oxygen, Sheppard turned and kicked upwards, seeking the surface. Come on…come on….
Breaking the surface, he drew in a huge gasp of air, before coughing and gagging, spitting out water. He pulled up Rodney a second later, pulling his head even with his chest to get his face above water. Wrapping a hand around his chest, Sheppard sought to see some sort of landmass in the darkness, a shadow darker than the rest of the shadows, something dry.
Rodney wasn’t breathing.
“Hold on,” he begged, blinking the water out of his eyes. With his free hand, he pulled the flashlight free of his vest and shone it outwards. Seeking something.
His eyes narrowed as something more than water reflected back. A smooth surface, like glass.
Stuffing the flashlight away again, he started to swim towards the gleaming surface, feeling the ache in his shoulders as he worked, all the while trying to keep McKay buoyed. He gritted his teeth as one of his legs didn’t want to bend as much as the other, trying to force it to behave. The cold helped.
He squinted, focused on getting to the rock, on getting Rodney out of this water, keeping them both alive… and finding Ronon.
He could feel himself shaking, fighting the frigid temperatures, fighting the adrenalin threatening to shake him into submission.
A few feet from what had solidified in his sight as solid rock, he felt the smooth, water worn surface under his feet, under the water. Using it for leverage, he reached hungrily for the dry rock just inches away now, promising safety. His hand brushed the cold, dry surface, and he almost cried.
In moments, he was pulling Rodney up with him up onto the rock shelf, getting him as much out of the water and onto the mostly level surface as possible. Once his friend was all out except for his boots, he turned him onto his back and checked once again for signs of breathing.
Finding none, he pressed his head to Rodney’s chest.
Wiping a cold hand across his dripping nose, he breathed out heavily and reached up to pull the zipper down on Rodney’s vest, and then to rip the man’s shirt open. The skin beneath was pale and slimy with cold and wet, and not moving.
Palms pressed against Rodney’s chest, his arms straight, he started to pump, counting off beats in his head. His eyes, meanwhile, searched the black water for movement.
He listened as the name echoed around the underground chamber, with no response. He tried again.
His brain suddenly tagged the number 30 in his head, and he leaned down to breathe air into Rodney’s lungs.
And then he did it all again. Including….
“Ronon! Ronon, answer me!”
27, 28, 29….
Come on, Rodney!
Damn, he was already getting tired.
He wouldn’t have enough breath to yell soon.
27, 28, 29…
He almost lost count, but his hands didn’t stop pumping. “Ronon?”
“Sheppard! Keep yelling! I’ll find you.”
“I can’t, I have to—“
He coughed, wishing he could wipe his nose again. His arms began to tire.
“Rodney’s not breathing!” he called out. “His heart’s stopped. I’m giving him CPR. I need your help!”
“I’m coming! I can see your flashlight.”
Something splashed nearby, and Sheppard turned his head in that direction, searching the water. His arms never let up as they pushed, pushed, pushed…
“I’m here. I’m here.” The reply was breathless, and filled with pain.
Sheppard tried to see the big man, but the darkness was thick around him. He could really only make out shapes in the dark, black, blacker, and more black. The flashlight was sitting next to him, pointed in the wrong direction. He couldn’t stop to turn it upright and make it a lamp.
One shape moved out of the darkness, sliding up the rock towards him like a seal.
“I’m okay,” the seal grunted, lifting its head so Sheppard could see his face, a pale blur in the almost non-existent light. The fact that a portion of it was covered in blood was pretty clear, however, along with the black eye.
“Yeah,” Sheppard said, smiling weakly, “you’re just fine.”
28, 29, 30…
As he breathed into Rodney’s mouth, he was rewarded by the feel of the body bucking under him as the diaphragm kicked in. He drew back, caring not at all that Rodney spit a little into his face as he threw up water. Sheppard hastily turned him on his side, gripping Rodney’s shoulder as the scientist coughed and expelled water, his whole body shaking with aftershocks.
“Oh, thank god,” Sheppard whispered, rubbing the man’s back vigorously. “You’re going to be okay, pal. You’re going to be just fine.”
Rodney continued to splutter, until the shaking subsided. Eventually, his body sort of relaxed, and Sheppard quickly pressed a cold hand to the side of the man’s pale neck.
Heartbeat. Erratic, but there. Sheppard lowered his head to Rodney’s shoulder, listening to the ragged breathing as if it were music.
“Stay with me, McKay,” he ordered hoarsely.
Ronon had come alongside, sliding the whole way, and, when Sheppard looked up, he found Ronon peering at McKay’s face.
“He’s out,” Ronon declared. “Looks like he got hit in the head.”
Sheppard just grunted agreement, blinking at the memory of impacting something with his foot. Shaking his head, he told himself he didn’t have time to dwell on that now. Instead, he focused his attention on Ronon, grabbing at the flashlight and upending it, to turn it into a lantern. Pale, blue light pushed back the darkness, and allowed the colonel to see Ronon clearly for the first time.
Blood, red and black, coated one side of his face, and one eye was already swelling up grossly. Talk about being hit on the head. On top of that, Ronon was on his side because he had one hand pressed against what was clearly a freely bleeding wound on his thigh.
“I need to wrap that,” Sheppard noted. Ronon just nodded, lifting his gaze from his study of Rodney’s face to Sheppard’s.
“I know.” Ronon’s eyes narrowed. “You okay?”
Sheppard grimaced. “Sprains, mostly. Back and left knee.” Both of which were really beginning to throb now that the adrenalin was fading. “What else you got beside that leg wound and your head?”
“Might’ve cracked some ribs,” Ronon said nonchalantly. Sheppard sighed.
“You and Rodney probably have that in common now. Pretty sure I cracked some of his ribs while I was trying to get him breathing again.”
“But you got him breathing again,” Ronon stated. “That’s good.”
“Maybe,” Sheppard lowered his gaze to the pale face of the scientist. “But who knows for how long. We need Keller down here. Better yet,” he looked up, “we need to get the hell out of here.”
Ronon didn’t answer, he simply looked up. Sheppard followed the stare, spotting the irregularly shaped hole of light far above their heads.
As Rodney would say, not good. There was no getting out of here without serious help. And it was too far for anyone to throw a rope down and climb to their position. He could hear Rodney’s voice so clearly: they were so screwed.
Thank god the Jumper didn’t follow them down. It meant that, at least, Teyla and Keller were safe.
The Jumper had come to a stop after sliding almost two feet, the angle of the small ship only maybe a dozen degrees off-kilter. It still felt like a hard breeze would send them the rest of the way down, but for now they were stable. Teyla had climbed back into the front, clambering up the hard sloped metal floor, and was now trying to reach the three men on the radio. Jennifer was packing items into a couple of medi-packs, preparing to follow them down.
She refused to consider that it was very likely all three were dead; instead, she packed what she’d need to tend broken bones, bad sprains, concussions, blood loss, and all the other standard injuries after hard falls. They were down there, and they needed her. She’d get to them, fix them up, and Teyla would get them home. All of them.
She was grateful that the Jumper was fully stocked, if not over-stocked, with medical supplies. They’d brought the equivalent of the kitchen sink with them because of lack of information about the status of the hurt Durangese. Oxygen tanks, medicines, defibrillators, bandages…everything she could think of was in a set of five orange crates in the back of the Jumper. Everything that could be useful on a rescue mission.
Now the rescue mission needed to be rescued.
She had to work to hold back the tears threatening at the edge of her vision, sucking in a tight breath to calm down.
Static suddenly filled the Jumper and Jennifer’s head lifted, hope flaring through her chest.
“…eyla? Can you…la? This is…pard. Do you….”
“Colonel!” Teyla’s relief was audible, and the grin she threw Jennifer was broad. “Yes, we read you! Are you alright?”
“…eyla? Is that…?”
Jennifer watched as Teyla hit a couple of buttons on the console, trying to improve the reception. Thank god only flying the ship (and firing the drones) required the Ancient gene. Though, right now, Jennifer would have done anything to be able to fly this thing down the hole over which the Jumper was teetering.
“Colonel,” Teyla called again, hitting one more button. “Can you hear me now?”
“Teyla,” Sheppard’s voice was almost a sigh, the heavy static not masking the clear relief he felt. “Thank god. Yes, we read you. I’d say loud and clear, but that would be stretching it. I’ve jacked up the radio to extend its range, but you’re still pretty faint. Besides the distance, I think something in the rock around us in interfering with the signal.”
“As long as we can hear you,” Teyla replied. “What’s your status?”
“We’re all still alive, for now. We hit a large, underground lake in a cavern, and were lucky that it was deep. But we’re still in serious trouble.” He took a deep breath. “Rodney’s pack nearly drowned him; I got him free, but I had to perform CPR. He’s still unconscious, though I’m hoping that might be due to the knock on the head he took rather than hypoxia. Ronon’s bleeding from a shallow wound on his left leg, which might also be fractured, and he’s got a nasty head wound and some broken ribs. I’m suffering a whole mess of sprains, but am otherwise alright. On top of all that, it’s freezing down here. Is Keller with you?”
Jennifer jumped slightly; her mind had been focused on cataloguing the injuries he’d just described. “I’m here,” she replied quickly.
“What can I do for Rodney?” Sheppard asked.
“Not much right now. Keep him warm and keep an eye on his breathing. When you say CPR, do you mean…?”
“Yes, his heart stopped.”
Jennifer swore softly. “Okay. Monitor his heart rate as well. Any idea what the rate is now?”
“About seventy beats per minute.”
Jennifer nodded once. “Good. How cold was the water you fell into?”
“Ice cold. Like being dropped into a frozen pond. And it’s black as pitch down here. No light or warmth from anywhere.”
“Are you out of the lake now?”
“Yes, sort of. We’re on a rock shelf on one side of it. There’s a glass-smooth wall rising up behind us, and I can’t see the top of it without more light, but there’s no climbing it.”
“Okay. Try to get as far from the water as you can. Warmth is a priority for all three of you. Do whatever you need to do to stay warm until I get down there, and I mean that.”
A sharp sigh. “Speaking of you getting down here, I’m thinking that might be a bit of a problem. Just as much a problem as our coming back out.”
Teyla leaned forward on the console. “I take it you are further down than the rope can reach.”
“Two ropes tied together might get you halfway here, but that’s it.”
Teyla lifted her head, meeting Jennifer’s gaze. They only had two coils in the back of the Jumper, and Sheppard knew it.
“As much as I’d love to see you down here, Doc, I don’t think it’s possible. But I’ve been thinking….” Sheppard paused. “I’ve been thinking that you could drop some supplies down to us, and the life raft. I’ll grab then, and then Keller can tell me what to do.”
Teyla nodded. “What else?”
“That’s it. There’s nothing else we can do until those Wraith leave.”
Jennifer’s eyebrows lifted. “But that could be days!”
“Woolsey won’t send another Jumper for at least 24 hours, if he does at all. Not hearing back from us may force him to wait for the Daedalus, which, as you know, is at least a week out.”
Teyla pressed her hand to her forehead. Jennifer shook her head; she couldn’t accept that.
“Colonel, you know that if Rodney isn’t treated soon, it’s very likely that he could still die. And if Ronon is still bleeding, he’ll need proper attention as well. On top of that…” Jennifer licked her lips, “on top of that, Major Teldy and the others will suffocate if we don’t get to them in…,” she glanced at her watch, “twelve hours.”
“I’m aware of that, Doctor,” Sheppard said quietly. “But we don’t have a lot of options here. As much as I’d love to get out of here, I can’t see a way to make that happen. We’re trapped, and, since you can’t leave the Jumper without following us down here, you’re as trapped as we are. Unless you know of some way to magically get across the surface of that plain, and then past that Wraith ship without them seeing you, and then dialing the gate without them seeing you….” He sighed. “Like I said, not a lot of options. So….” She could almost see him drawing himself up, resigned to his fate, “how about we focus on those medical supplies?”
Teyla was staring morosely at the console, so Jennifer answered.
“Coming down,” she announced. Teyla looked up, sensing something in Jennifer’s voice.
“Great,” Sheppard said. “Call me when you’ve got them rigged up.”
Jennifer nodded. “Will do.”
Teyla hit the communication button to end the call and arched an eyebrow at Keller.
“Coming down?” she repeated. “Was there a silent ‘I’m’ at the beginning of that statement, Doctor?”
“What?” Jennifer asked innocently. “He didn’t say I couldn’t go down there with the medical supplies, just that he didn’t think it was possible. He said himself, they need proper medical attention and, last time I checked, this Jumper was equipped with belay equipment.”
Teyla smiled softly. “I thought you were afraid of heights,” she said.
Jennifer shook her head. “I am. But one of my best friends taught me about what I can endure for my team.”
Teyla smiled more genuinely, and gave a nod. “Well, you’re not the only one.” She hit a few buttons on the console and the HUD popped up. Then she changed seats, so that she could work on Rodney’s laptop, still connected to the Jumper’s mainframe.
Jennifer frowned at the heads up display, a three dimensional scan of the area. “What are you doing?”
“Rodney instructed John to land in this spot because he saw something that suggested landmass, which must be why we’re still above ground,” Teyla explained as she typed. “Whatever this false ground is made of, there must be greater concentrations of it in places, enough to support a person’s weight.”
Understanding dawned for Jennifer as Teyla hit a series of keys, and sections of the landscape on the HUD began to brighten to with a greenish hue. A fairly thick concentration of “land,” or whatever the green patches indicated, lay under the Jumper, but there were other patches. Teyla stood up and studied the map.
Jennifer swallowed. “You’re going to try to make it across this plain, to get to the Gate, aren’t you?”
“If I can memorize this map,” Teyla said, “yes.”
“Memorize,” Jennifer repeated with a frown. Then she brightened, “What about the laptop? You could take that with you. Download the map onto it and…”
“There are a number of places where I’ll need to jump, and I can’t be weighed down by anything extra—not even a laptop. Besides,” Teyla shrugged, “it will not be that useful once I’m out on the ground. It will only have the map fixed from this location. It’s benefit will fade, until it’s nothing more than a burden.”
Jennifer frowned. “But even memorizing it—“
“There,” Teyla said, cutting Jennifer off. The Athosian drew a line with her finger along the map, jumping from green patch to green patch. “If I can follow this route, I should be able to cross the entirety of this plain. It does not appear to be more than a mile to what is clearly solid ground.”
“A mile,” Jennifer noted quietly, “is a very long way.”
“If I run, it won’t be.”
“If you misstep,” Jennifer argued, “it will be. And some of those gaps between thicker patches are really big. If you fall, Teyla, we may not be able to find you.”
“I will not fall.”
“I will not fall.” The look Teyla gave Jennifer was the same one that she had given her on Athos, two years previously, when Teyla save both their lives avoiding the Bola Kai.
“Look,” Jennifer said, “I don’t mean to be, well, the devil’s advocate here, but since can’t take this HUD display with you, you said yourself you’ll have to memorize the map in this form, and then apply it to the ground outside using just what you remember, and—“
Jennifer swallowed. “Yes?”
“I will not fall.”
Jennifer studied Teyla’s gaze, seeing nothing but confidence and determination. Finally, she nodded.
“Okay,” she said. “Say you make it across the plain. What about the Wraith ship? How are you going to get to the Gate, much less dial it?”
Teyla’s lips curled into a small smile. “As John said, Jennifer, one step at a time.”
“Yeah,” Keller replied, “but look at where that first step took him.”
CHAPTER FOUR: KELLER INSIDE THE BIRD’S NEST
Jennifer adjusted the harness around her waist and leg, making sure the buckles were tight and that she had run the rope correctly through the belt. Memories of attempting to learn rock climbing in order to conquer her phobia rattled through her head, mocking her. She’d never made it past the boulder line on the indoor climbing walls. Hell, she’d never made it higher than a foot or two off the ground.
Her hands shook as she tested the knots for the third time, stopping when a slim, cool hand rested atop hers.
“It is secure.”
Jennifer nodded, not looking up from the knot she’d tied. “You…you’re all set?”
“I have done this many times, Jennifer. You will be safe.”
Jennifer nodded again. “Right. I trust you, it’s just….”
“Yes.” She looked up. “But I’m doing this.”
Teyla’s smile lit up her face. “Yes, you are.”
Nodding for a third time, more out of nervousness than agreement, Jennifer walked back to the edge of the hatch and connected her carabiner to the rope hanging over the edge. A large plastic crate of supplies, resting on top of the still undeployed life raft, was already over the edge of the hatch, dangling into the hole formed by the three men’s fall. She studied it a moment, closed her eyes, and nodded again.
Teyla returned to where the other end rope was tied up, double checking her own knots and the anchor around her waist. She then untied the rope, grunting a little as it caught on the belay device. Bracing herself, she turned around and nodded to Jennifer.
The doctor sat down on the edge of the hatch. Closing her eyes, she slipped off the edge until she was standing on top of the crate dangling over the edge, the long plastic box swaying slightly.
It almost felt like she was standing on a swing. Cool air rose up from the hole, rustling her hair and sending chills down her spine.
“Lower me down,” she called.
“Lowering,” Teyla answered. “Take care of them.”
“I will,” Keller replied, turning to look at her friend. “And good luck, though I know you don’t need it.”
Teyla’s answering smile was the last thing she saw as the rope jerked and, slowly but steadily, Jennifer was lowered down into the darkness.
Once she was about a foot away from the Jumper, it vanished from sight behind its cloak, which was incredibly disconcerting. The rope appeared to be feeding out of nothingness.
And speaking of nothinginess….
The air grew colder as she descended deeper into the darkness, and she was able to see what the “ground” was really made of.
Her jaw dropped.
She remember seeing a discovery channel show about how insects build nests for themselves, creating these thin, molded constructs that could be as delicate as a paper lantern but fill a whole wall of a house. What she was looking at was something of that ilk, except on an enormous scale. It must have taken thousands upon thousands of insects to build this “crust,” to make it wide enough to cover several square miles and thick enough for grass to grow on it. Swallowing thickly, she kept her eyes glued on the many tiny holes and tunnels between the thin, reedy walls of the construct.
And realized that she really didn’t want to know what had built it.
When the little black head, no bigger than her thumb, stuck its head out of the nearest hole and peered at her with insect eyes, she felt a little ill.
She continued to descend, deeper and deeper into the dark and cold, surrounded by the shredded edges of the nest. More and more of the scorpion-like insects…or were they arachnids? Christ, you idiot, does it matter?…appeared on the ragged edges, chittering and crawling, slipping in and out of holes in short, rapid movements. Many just watched her, small antennae testing the breeze. Could they smell her? Did insects smell? Did they even have noses?
No, but they had stingers. These had a large, curled tail with the distinct point on the end, just like the scorpions on Earth. Disturbingly similar from the outside, even though, for all she knew, these Pegasus creatures were more closely akin to the dung beetle than the scorpion, but, frankly…she didn’t care.
She hated them on sight. And she didn’t want to find out if that stinger was poisonous.
Despite her acrophobia, she leaned out slightly to see over the edge of the crate she stood on, in order to see how much longer she’d be inside the nest. While she didn’t want to get to the point where she’d have to drop into the lake, she also didn’t want to spend a moment longer surrounded by these creatures then she already had.
The gray light from the foggy sky no longer lit the walls, and the shadows grew deeper. And the scorpions grew more numerous.
She tapped her earpiece.
“Could you lower me faster?”
There was a pause, then, “Why?”
“The ground…it’s a nest. An insect nest. With lots and lots of insects. Ugly, stinging, deadly looking insects. Or maybe arachnids. Either way, they’re creepy, crawling things and I really, really don’t like creepy, crawly things.”
“Calm down, Doctor. Are they attacking you?”
“No. They’re just watching.” Jennifer turned her head, studying the walls behind her. More insects. She drew closer to the rope she was holding onto.
“It’s not safe for me to lower you faster,” Teyla said calmly. “If they are not attacking you, I suggest we maintain this pace.”
Jennifer swallowed, and leaned to look over the edge again. The darkness was growing deeper. Fumbling with the flashlight attached to her vest, she lifted it up and pointed it down into the black.
She sighed in relief when she realized she could see the bottom of the nest, even though the lack of anything beneath it should have been sending her into an even deeper panic. Weird. Apparently, one fear must be canceling out the other. Who knew?
She felt something fall on her shoulder. She froze for a second, and then squealed, using the flashlight to brush it off, and a scorpion fell, landing on the crate a few inches from her foot.
A swift kick, and the scorpion was gone, falling into the black, cold air.
She breathed shakily, tapping the earpiece again. “Teyla?”
“One just jumped on me.”
Another pause, and then the rope jerked. She was moving more quickly. Keller tucked the flashlight away in order to hold on to the rope with both hands.
“Hang on,” Teyla said unnecessarily. “I am lowering you faster. You will be fine.”
Jennifer braced her feet on the crate, shifting closer to the rope, almost hugging it. The descent was jerkier now, as Teyla obviously struggled to run the rope more quickly through the belay device while trying to still maintain control.
But it was worth it. When she breached the bottom of the nest, and Jennifer sighed, closing her eyes in thanks.
Then her earpiece filled with static. “…eller? Is that…?” Sheppard?
Jennifer’s head jerked up, and she peered into the darkness, seeking….there!
Oh my God.
A tiny pinprick of blue fluorescent light was visible in the far distance, a miniscule beacon on a slick, black rock next to the biggest, blackest lake she had ever seen. It was if she had descended into the dead of night—not even the daylight far above her head now could penetrate it.
Standing in front of the tiny beacon, she could just make out a figure standing up. Two other lumps were huddled together next to the light.
“…ller! What are you…?” He was still too far away for her short wave radio to pick him up clearly.
She tapped her earpiece. “Colonel! Yes, it’s me. I’m coming down.” She pulled the flashlight free of her vest, flicked it on, and waved it.
“Damn it! I….oo far! I told you to…”
She didn’t need to hear the end of the sentence to guess what it was. “Actually,” she contradicted with forced cheekiness, “you didn’t. You just said you didn’t think it was possible.”
“…eyla! How could…I specifically…not to...”
“I am sorry, Colonel,” Teyla’s voice came in loud and clear over Keller’s earpiece. “I am afraid you are breaking up. But, if you can hear me, please be aware that Dr. Keller is descending with the supplies. Once the rope reaches its end, I will instruct her to drop the supplies, and then she will jump into the lake after them. You may need to assist her, if you are able.”
Jennifer grinned. She knew Teyla could hear the colonel clearly over the superior long-range receiver in the Jumper.
“…eyla, you are one…! When I…next time we…!”
“Again, Colonel, you are breaking up. May I suggest you prepare to assist Dr. Keller now? I am nearly at the end of the rope.”
That wiped the grin from Keller’s face, and she felt the rope jerk taut. She was no longer descending, but she was also nowhere near the lake, or the pinpoint of light where the colonel was standing. She gazed in his direction, barely able to see the outline of his hair in the blue light, like a shark’s tooth.
Frowning, she turned the flashlight around, trying to pierce the rest of the cavern, but there wasn’t much else to see. It was clearly vast, broken up only by tall pillars of stone which partly held up the “roof” of the scorpion nest. There was one very close to her—it was what was holding up the Jumper. There were others, but not close. No way could Teyla jump from one to the next—if she tried, she’d fall through.
She hit her earpiece. “Teyla, there are pillars of stone holding up the nest. One must be holding up the Jumper—they’re Rodney’s ‘landmasses.’ But I don’t think they’re close enough together to—“
“Are you down yet?” Teyla asked curtly, deliberately cutting her off.
“What? Oh.” Keller suddenly realized Sheppard was listening in. “I just…well, you know....”
“I understand. You need to trust me.”
Keller bit her lip. “Okay. But, just…okay. Remember what I said.”
“I will. Are you ready to drop?”
Keller sighed, and just how high up she was sent a shudder down her spine. “That might be a problem. Colonel Sheppard wasn’t exaggerating the distance. If I land wrong, which I could easily do, I—“
Another scorpion dropped on her shoulder.
With a shout, she brushed it off and looked up.
And screamed. The rope was alive with scorpions, encasing it in a writhing, chittering mass above her head.
“Teyla!” she screamed. “They’re on the rope!”
“Engage the raft and drop the supplies,” Teyla ordered sharply.
Jennifer nodded, even though no one could see her. Hastily tucking the flashlight back into her vest, she knelt down and fumbled with the pull cord to the raft. A harsh tug, a whoosh of air, and the yellow emergency raft deployed, creating a cradle for the single orange crate she was standing on.
Another scorpion landed on her arm, and another on her head.
She shrieked, slapping them away, just as more fell on top of the crate.
She grabbed the buckle attaching the bottom of the rope to the crate, and released it.
She gasped as the surface she’d been standing on fell away, and she fell, only to stop harshly when her own rope attachment caught, the carabiners clinking as she swayed above nothingness. Scorpions fell down around her, into the darkness after the raft and crate.
It landed far below in a massive splash, sending black waves cascading in all directions. For a second, it looked like the water would flood the raft and its precious cargo, making this whole endeavor pointless, but the raft soon righted itself, keeping itself and the crate above water.
Something stung her hand where it was holding onto the rope, sending a creeping numbness through her arm even as it throbbed in pain. She shook the creature off, but another clambered down right next to it, and above it, the scorpions continued to swarm the thick cord.
“Teyla, one stung me!”
“Drop!” Came the ordered reply.
Jennifer looked down. It was too far! “It’s too far! I can’t!”
“Keller! Drop! Now!”
“Oh God,” she whispered. She reached for the lock on the carabiner, her non-bit hand shaking. Oh god, she couldn’t do this! “I can’t!’
“You must!” Teyla snapped.
“I…” Suddenly, the rope jerked, and she looked up. They were eating through it! “No!” she screamed, reaching up, trying to stop them. She didn’t want to die! “Stop!”
The rope jerked one more time, and then she was falling, scorpions falling with her on all sides.
Sheppard swore, running forward into the lake off and diving into the black water. Keller had landed hard next to the raft, without finesse or preparation. He didn’t know exactly what had happened to cause the rope to break like that, but it had been clear that Keller hadn’t intended to fall when she did. Her shriek sent chills through him as she fell, and who knew what was hidden under the water where she fell? What if, like Ronon, she had hit a rock?
Long strokes pulled him forward, surging through the water towards the raft. If she was dead….
He reached the raft just as a flashlight exploded to life next to it, blinding him when it was pointed right into his face. “Keller!”
“Oh,” she stammered, and the light was turned away. “Sorry!”
He gritted his teeth, drifting to a stop and treading water next to where she was clinging to the side of the raft. She looked miserable, but not hurt.
“You okay?” he asked sharply, still angry that she had even attempted this insane idea.
“Yes,” she replied, her bottom lip already shaking with cold. “I got stung. Otherwise, I’m okay.”
She lifted the flashlight up and shone it on the water’s surface. Sheppard shuddered, and not from the cold, at the sight of a half dozen struggling scorpion like creatures attempting to stay above the water. They weren’t succeeding. Good.
Keller shone the light back at him, “So, my left hand is throbbing like a son of a bitch, but, other than a few strained muscles which I’ll probably feel tomorrow because of that nasty fall, I’m okay.” She smiled weakly.
He didn’t smile back.
Her smile fell, and she licked her lips. “Um,” she tugged at the raft. “Can you help me pull this over to where the others are?”
“We’re going to talk about this later,” he stated firmly. “About needing to follow my orders on off-world missions.”
“Uh huh, sure,” she agreed noncommittally. “Whatever you say, but can we move now?”
Grudgingly, he swum around the far side of the raft and grabbed at the thin rope running along the raft’s edge and began to pull it towards where the others were.
Teyla felt the tension on the rope suddenly give, sending her staggering back a few steps, her calloused hands letting the cord go. She slid down to the edge of the hatch, peering into the darkness below, trying to see…anything.
Her eyes narrowed upon seeing movement on the swaying rope down in the shadows, like a black oil, creeping up and down the strand. But nothing breached where daylight lit the hole—whatever the creatures were, they clearly did not like light. Which wouldn't do her much good once night fell on this planet.
She frowned, and scrambled to the front of the jumper, hitting the communications button.
"Doctor Keller," she called. "Colonel Sheppard, do you read me?"
When no one answered, her panic level began to rise. "Colonel Sheppard," she repeated. "Doctor Keller, do you read? This is Teyla, please respond."
Another long pause, and nerves began to plague at her calm. "Doctor Keller," she implored. "Colonel Sheppard, please respond! This is Teyla, can you hear me?"
She willed away thoughts of Jennifer falling to her death, of insects eating her alive, of anything which could mean that she wouldn't see her or any of her friends again. "Colonel Sheppard, Doctor Keller, Ronon, Rodney, someone please respond!"
"Ronon?" Teyla's back straightened, trying not to react to how weak his voice sounded. "Ronon, are you alright?"
She frowned, not sure how to take that. "Are Colonel--?"
"Yeah. They'll be here in a minute. They're swimming. There’s a lake. It’s black."
Teyla released a sigh. "They're well?"
"Think so. Teyla?"
“Where are we?”
Teyla’s worry heightened about ten notches. “Underground, Ronon. You fell.”
She swallowed. "Please ask the Colonel to update me once Doctor Keller has looked you all over."
"Sure. Where are you?"
Teyla bit her lip. “Getting you help.”
“Oh. Good. McKay’s not doing so good.”
Teyla closed her eyes. Neither are you, she thought unhappily. “Just hang on, Ronon. You’re going to be fine.”
He didn’t answer. Either he’d fallen asleep, or he wasn’t listening any longer.
She sat down then, and rested her head against the back of the chair. The HUD still glowed in front of her, showing the route she planned to take. She breathed out slowly and once again worked to memorize it.
Keller pulled herself out of the water with a gasp, shivering from the frigid temperatures, and took a moment just to breathe, braced on the slick, black stone. Her left hand throbbed, and the back of it was grossly swollen from the bite she had received. There wasn't much she could do about it. The initial sensation of numbness had faded, which was a good thing, and her fingers still worked though her hand felt a little clumsy. As long as it didn't affect what she had to do, it didn't matter.
She turned and helped the Colonel lug the raft up the rock, settling it a few feet from where Ronon and Rodney were huddled together. Her gaze met Ronon's sleepy-eyed one, studying the black eye and wound on his head, before she shifted her gaze to see the wound on his thigh. Blood splattered the wet field bandage the Colonel had wrapped around it, but the bandage wasn't big enough.
She then turned her gaze to the figure Ronon was hugging, holding Rodney's back close to his chest for warmth. Rodney was deathly still and, in the pale light from the lantern, even deathlier pale looking. A reddish bruise marked his forehead, near his temple, but otherwise he appeared unharmed.
She moved quickly to take better stock of their injuries, frowning at how cold both men were, despite Ronon's attempt to share body heat. The wet clothing wasn't helping. Rodney's temperature was dangerously low, and his breathing and heartbeat were still not stable. Ronon wasn't much better, blood loss clearly hampering his ability to stay conscious, and there were clear signs of a concussion. The Satedan’s normally hard head hadn’t been enough this time.
She stood, turning to face Sheppard, who was standing a little behind her. "Can you help me with the supplies?" she asked, pointing to the crate. "There are dry scrubs and blankets in there for you to change into, and you need to help me change them out of their clothes as well. Once you've changed, you can help Ronon; I'll take care of Rodney. First, though, pass me the oxygen canister you’ll find on top."
He nodded, already pulling the plastic crate off the raft and onto the rock. Breaking the seal, he pulled out the oxygen and handed it over. Then he paused a moment, clearly spotting the items besides medical supplies that Teyla had packed for him. He picked up the 9MM and glanced at Jennifer.
"Teyla wasn't sure if you still had your weapons," Jennifer explained, feeling the weight of her own gun still on her thigh. "Or if the water might have damaged them." She rested the oxygen next to Rodney's head. "You'll also find firestarters in there, though I don't know what we're going to find that we can burn."
Sheppard smiled briefly, and placed the gun back in the crate. "She's a very smart woman." He started to pull off his vest and jacket, having come across the dry clothes.
"She is," Jennifer agreed, kneeling down next to Rodney in order to attach an oxygen mask to his face.
"Smart enough not to come down here as well," he noted.
Jennifer didn't answer that, adjusting the flow of oxygen to help Rodney's breathing.
The colonel wasn't an idiot; he read volumes in her silence. "She is going to stay with the Jumper," he said, "isn't she?"
Jennifer brushed back some of the wet hair from Rodney's face, then lifted his eyelids in order to see his pupils. They appeared equal and reactive. No concussion. That didn't make her feel much better—since he was still unconscious. She tried not to fear the worst.
"Doctor?" The colonel wasn't going to be put off. "Tell me Teyla is staying with the Jumper."
"As you said, Colonel," Jennifer replied, pulling her scissors so she could cut Rodney's shirt off, "Teyla is a very smart woman, and you should trust that she'll do what is right."
The colonel's groan was deep, reaching to take the radio from Ronon's hand where the Satedan was quietly offering it to him.
The Athosian stilled upon hearing the shout, and considered for a long moment whether to answer. Finally deciding that she needed whatever medical information Jennifer could provide in order to inform Atlantis, she hit the button.
"Colonel? Are you alright?"
"I was until Doctor Keller here refused to answer my question about whether you were planning to stay with the Jumper!"
Teyla closed her eyes. "Please, John, I'm obviously still here. I realize that sending Jennifer down to be with you was not precisely in keeping with your orders, but it seemed the prudent course once you informed us of the nature of the injuries you have received. Ronon has already informed me that you are both well, so I believe you owe the two of us a thank you."
"I would very much appreciate a report from Doctor Keller, Colonel."
There was a pause, and then Jennifer's soft voice filled the Jumper. "Teyla?"
"Doctor, what's their status?"
"I haven't had an opportunity to do a thorough examination, but there's no question that they all need the infirmary. Rodney's status…," she exhaled heavily, "Rodney's status is poor. He needs to be out of this cavern and in a place where he can be warm and constantly monitored. Ronon is equally badly wounded, and…" she paused as someone said something to her in the background, too soft for Teyla to hear. "And, although he is insisting he'll be fine, he has lost a lot of blood and, in this environment, that too can be deadly. The colonel appears to be in the best shape so far, but I need to examine him, which he hasn't allowed me to do yet."
Teyla nodded. "Thank you, Doctor. I will leave you to finish your examination, then."
There was some fumbling and increased static on the line, before John's voice came back on. "Teyla," he said, "you are not to leave the Jumper. You need to be there to alert anyone sending a rescue Jumper of our location. You're also our only eyes and ears on the surface. You need to stay there."
Teyla pursed her lips, hearing the "you need to stay safe" in his voice even if he didn't say it out loud. She smiled. "I will do what I need to do to get you out of there, John."
"I'm not kidding, Teyla."
"Neither am I," she replied. "Stay safe, John. I will be in touch."
She smiled again as she cut the connection.
It was time to go.
CHAPTER FIVE: TEYLA CROSSING THE PLAIN
The route she'd picked wasn't a straight route, nor was it contiguous. There were points where she'd have to jump fairly large gaps and pray that the nest's surface would hold her weight when she landed. She also had to hope that her memory would be enough to keep her on course once she started serpentining.
She promised Jennifer she would not fall. And she wouldn't. The people she loved were relying on her, and she would not fail.
She climbed up the side of the Jumper and onto the roof, resting a moment on the smooth top, her hands resting against the edges of the grooves, and studied the landscape. She'd been considering the nature of this "nest," and what Jennifer had told her about the pillars of rock holding it up. Maybe there was something more that would help her differentiate the more substantial sections from the weaker sections.
Her lips pressed together thinly as she studied a plain that, for all intents and purposes, was without any discerning features at all. One section looked just like another.
Sighing softly, she drew up a mental image of the map from the HUD in her head, and superimposed it on the landscape.
When she opened her eyes again, she imagined darker patches of green coloring the otherwise monochromatic plain.
The first was a few feet from the front of the Jumper.
She strode across the roof of the ship, sat down on the edge and dropped her legs over the front. Holding the P-90 to her chest, a habit now more for confidence than need, she slid down the windshield, stopping about a foot off the ground, her feet catching on the edge of the Jumper’s “nose.”
“Here we go,” she whispered.
Bracing herself, she knelt…and jumped.
She landed squarely in the middle of where she’d intended, feet together, arms outstretched, ready to jump again if she felt any indication that the ground wouldn’t hold her.
But hold her it did. She had sunk a couple of inches into the nest, the paper thin earth crushed beneath her feet, but there was something solid beneath it. Or, at least, a denser section. She smiled, kneeling a little to study the “dirt,” waiting for her heart to stop hammering.
There were other plants besides the grass growing on the nest’s surface, visible now that she was closer to it. They looked like small, stunted trees, gnarled and miniaturized. There were also what appeared to be cactus plants, huddled together in tiny bubbles of prickliness. She was grateful she was wearing stout shoes—the needles on the plants looked like they could cut through skin without difficulty.
Something to keep in mind.
Drawing in a deep breath, she straightened and looked around, once again holding the P-90 to her chest. The Jumper was no longer visible behind her, its cloak still working perfectly well, but it felt as if she were standing in the middle of nowhere. Alone. Without even trees for protection—completely vulnerable to attack.
Her heart started hammering again, and her hands tightening around the P90s stock as she willed herself to calm down. She could do this. If Jennifer could conquer what Teyla knew to be a fairly paralyzing fear of heights to drop into a black lake dozens of feet below, she could brave being out in the open like this.
She took a tentative step forward, testing the strength of the ground. It held up, crackling but not fully breaking, like stepping on a piece of crusty bread. An odd sensation.
She drew up the mental map in her head again, and took two more steps. Then she stopped.
Took a deep breath.
And jumped again.
Keller finished her examination of Colonel Sheppard, glad that he wasn’t more badly hurt. Despite his apparent lack on injury, once he let her see his hurting leg, she could see his knee was swollen. He seemed almost as surprised as she was to see it that big. The cold had helped to keep the swelling down, but now that he was warming up (and moving less) it was beginning to grow.
She quickly wrapped it, knowing, without asking, that he wouldn’t stay off of it. He’d be up as soon as he could. He’d already told her that he planned to use the raft to try to locate a way out as soon as Rodney and Ronon were more stable, “because the water had to get in here somehow.”
She nodded, and hoped his optimism would find them a way to the surface, and the Jumper.
She glanced at her watch, and then up at the “ceiling” of the cavern. She wondered how far Teyla had gotten?
“Sheppard?” Ronon asked sleepily.
The colonel looked up from where he’d been studying his swollen knee morosely. “Yeah?”
Ronon’s head was lifted, resting on Rodney’s back, and he was gazing up at the cavern wall behind them.
“Just wondering…” Ronon paused, and turned his gaze to meet the colonel’s. He looked confused.
Sheppard made to stand up, but Jennifer held him in place with a firm hand. “A little longer, Colonel,” she said. “I’m almost done.”
Sheppard frowned, but kept his eyes on Ronon. “What is it, buddy?”
“Just wondering,” Ronon repeated, blinking slowly. “Is the wall moving?”
Jennifer instantly turned to look at Ronon. Hallucinations? She tucked the last bit of bandage into the wrap on Sheppard’s knee, and darted over to the Satedan, resting a hand on his forehead. Ronon frowned at her.
“Not that kind of moving,” he slurred, annoyed.
Jennifer frowned again, leaning back on her haunches, and looked up at Sheppard.
Who was on his feet. Staring up at the wall over their heads. A snap, and the P90 at his waist was pointed up at the stone.
A cold dread filled Jennifer’s frame as she too turned to look up at the wall.
Hundreds of scorpions filled the top of the wall in a black, writhing mass, climbing over each other, building what looked like a paper ladder out of their own spit.
A ladder to bring them down to the humans down below.
“I hate bugs,” Sheppard muttered quietly. “I really, really hate bugs.”
Jennifer couldn’t agree more.
Teyla hissed and stood up as one of Jennifer’s “creepy, crawly” things skittered across her hand, disappearing quickly back into its nest. The last jump had landed her in a less substantial section of the plain, and, for a terrifying second, she hadn’t stopped sinking—until she hit something hard about a foot down. She scrambled up out of the hole she’d made, shaking off a bunch of hideous, black arachnids, all of which instantly retreated into the darkness of their nest.
She tried to remember how much daylight she had left on this planet, because she guessed that she wouldn’t survive for more than a minute once night fell.
She needed to get moving.
She stumbled a couple of feet further, and blinked, trying to, once again, remember where the next jump was. Was it left? Or was it right?
She turned, and, for once, really regretted leaving the Jumper cloaked, because it meant she had no way to gauge exactly how far she’d come. The grass was too high, almost tickling her thighs, to see the depression where the small ship was, so she could only guess just how far back it was.
It was getting harder to remember the map, to recall where she was supposed to go, to know which way was safe.
She closed her eyes and lowered her head, trying to regain her calm, to think about the number of steps she’d taken, the number of jumps.
When she thought she had it sorted again in her mind, she realized she’d come to the first really big gap. No wonder she was stalling. Licking her lips, she rocked back a step…then ran three steps and leapt into the air, legs pumping in order to get as much distance as she could.
And pretended she could fly.
“How fast are they moving?” Jennifer asked, backing up to stand next to Sheppard. Ronon had sat up as well, blaster in hand, even though he was swaying slightly.
“Pretty fast,” Sheppard replied, the flashlight on the P90 showing that the scorpions had already coated about a third of the cavern wall with a muddy, sticky mess. They were actually more like spiders than insects, Jennifer knew now, since they were excreting something that allowed them to form the sticky wall covering. It was revolting and terrifying, all at the same time.
And her hand continued to throb where it had been stung.
“Could we use the raft?” she asked, glancing at the yellow floater, half in the water, half out. “Go someplace else?”
Sheppard nodded. “Not a bad idea, though that raft won’t carry four people and the crate.”
Jennifer grimaced, disliking the idea of leaving the additional medicine and blankets behind. Who knew how long they’d be done here.
“Not to mention,” Sheppard continued, “what’s to stop those things from following us? Didn’t take them long to get from the hole we broke through to here.”
“I think the whole ceiling is filled with them,” Jennifer admitted. “Anywhere we go is probably going to be a target.”
“Unless we sit in the middle of the lake.”
“It’d be colder than here, a lot colder. And Rodney and Ronon….”
“Yeah,” Sheppard nodded. “I know.”
“So, what do we do?”
“Fight,” Ronon said, sounding a little drunk.
Sheppard grimaced. “Actually, I was thinking more like, stay here until we can’t stay any longer without fighting, then pile onto the raft and go somewhere else.”
Jennifer nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”
Ronon snorted. “Getting lazy again, Sheppard?”
“You know it,” Sheppard said, smiling affectionately at what was obviously an old joke. “But right now, I just need us to stay alive long enough to be rescued, without wasting too much ammo or unnecessarily risking you or Rodney or Keller, here. Whaddya say?”
Ronon gave him the fisheye. “Like you’re being lazy.”
Sheppard arched an eyebrow. “Well, I’ll try to work on that at our next seminar on ‘how to survive in Pegasus for idiots’.”
Ronon tried to laugh, but ended up coughing. He grimaced when he finished, frowning in a way that spoke volumes to Keller. Pain was written inside every line on Ronon’s face, though he was refusing to admit it was there. His head had to be killing him, not to mention his ribs and his leg. Who knew what else was wrong inside his body? Sheppard relayed Ronon’s story that he’d hit rock somewhere under the water when he fell (probably the edge of the stone “pillar” holding up the Jumper), giving him the massive bruise on his face, while a jagged edge had cut his leg. He was lucky it hadn’t been worse. A few inches one way or another, and Ronon wouldn’t be with them.
She was still staring at Ronon when Sheppard tapped her shoulder. She glanced up at the colonel, not hiding her misery. He met her eyes, then glanced up again at the scorpions.
“One thing we can do before giving up and leaving,” he said, “is see if we can slow them down.”
“How?” she asked.
“Well, here’s one idea.” Sheppard narrowed the flashlight’s beam on his P90, so that the diffuse white was focused on a small section of the nest. The scorpions in the vicinity instantly scrambled out of the brightness.
“They don’t like light,” Jennifer said, nodding. “But we don’t have enough lights to cover the whole wall.”
“No, but it’s something to keep in mind. The more light we can shed the better.” His eyes narrowed. “I also had a second idea.”
“When I was a kid,” Sheppard continued, “we used to burn the wasps’ nests we found in the yard outside the horse barn.” He looked at Ronon when he said that. The Satedan’s answering grin was broadly wicked. Sheppard inclined his head, and Ronon pointed his blaster up at the scorpions.
And fired a single, powerful blast.
Where the ray hit, the “ladder” lit on fire, spreading out from the blast site like a match held to paper. It didn’t do much, but it knocked about two dozen scorpions from their perilous location.
Problem was, despite having fallen nearly fifty feet, they landed without apparent harm on the floor of the cavern.
“Oh, crap,” Sheppard muttered, as he and Ronon started firing, aiming to kill all the insects that were now swarming towards them. “Whatever you do, don’t let them sting Rodney!” he ordered, already moving to get between them and the insects.
Jennifer dove forward, putting herself between the insects and Rodney as well, pulling her 9MM and firing. Her aim was not what could be called precise, but even if it was, the scorpions were also not the easiest things to hit, skittering from side to side like pendulums. Ronon’s weapon was more effective, capturing several at once in each blast, while Sheppard’s almost perfect aim took care of most of the rest. Jennifer really wasn’t doing much of anything except making a lot of noise.
But Sheppard was right. Rodney was allergic to bee stings—and from the swelling on her hand, the scorpion sting was not likely to be much different. He was already hurting, even one sting would most definitely kill him…painfully. She could not let any of them sting him.
She gritted her teeth, trying to make her aim more true…but the scorpions were just too fast! It reminded her of trying to kill flies in her room at night as a child—they just moved too damn quickly. More than half her shots weren’t even close.
Damn it, why was this so hard!
To hell with it! She turned around and spotted the IV pole. Dropping the gun, she grabbed the pole, quickly tucked the saline drip under Rodney’s head, and lifted the pole like a baseball bat.
The first scorpion in range, she sent the sucker flying, smashing into the wall with a satisfying crunch. Two more followed in quick succession, each one a line drive to the center field of Black Lake Park.
She smiled grimly at the metaphor.
One more scrambled towards her, and this one Jennifer didn’t bat away. She simply smashed the pole down on top of it like a samurai sword. “Ha!”
Lifting it up, she grimaced at the ichor dripping off the tip of the now slightly bend metal.
“Gross,” she muttered. Looking up, she saw that the rest of the scorpions were similarly obliterated, a mass of carcasses and ichor lining the black stone shelf not that far from where they were camped. “Grosser,” she said.
“We can’t let them get close enough to hit ground again,” Sheppard said. “We may need to be ready to move sooner.” He looked up again, and swore. Jennifer followed his gaze.
The hole in the ladder Ronon had created was already mostly filled in.
Teyla stood, shaking off bits of filth and broken cactus from her uniform and vest, reveling in the cool breeze on her heated face. That last jump had almost killed her—sinking her down into the nest at least a couple of feet. Only surprise and her speed got her out in time before the arachnids attacked.
Adrenalin still coursed through her veins, almost painfully shocky, even though she was several body lengths away now. Seeing those arachnids up close, she understood Jennifer’s fear. She also hoped Colonel Sheppard would not see them up close. They looked like miniature Iratus bugs—she prayed they were not related.
She wrapped her arms around herself in an attempt to calm down.
She was almost there. A little over a dozen feet, and she’d be at the edge of the plain. A small knoll rose tantalizingly close to her, promising safety after the hellish and punishing distance she’d just traversed.
Cursing her shakiness, she reached down and pulled the canteen off her waist, needing a drink.
She almost wished this dense white cloud cover would break and turn to rain, rather than the misty air she was surrounded by. Talk about useless weather. At least, if it were raining, she could drink it. She’d need the water for later. For the run she was going to need to do to get back to the gate. There were at least a dozen miles between here and there—it was going to be a long run.
She pulled the canteen back from her lips, and wiped the back of her arm against her mouth to dry it off.
The ground in front of her was almost entirely nest. The pockets of more substantial ground ended here. She either tried to jump it, which was probably impossible, or she backtracked and used the route around that she vaguely remembered seeing from the map on the HUD. The latter would add at least a couple of hours more to this.
Hours she didn’t have.
She swore softly under her breath. The gap between this point at the knoll really hadn’t looked that far on the map, but standing here now, she knew she couldn’t make it. With a running start, she might have made it, but with only about six feet behind her to run across…
No. It was impossible.
But she also knew she didn’t have any more time to waste.
Drawing in a deep breath, she moved back as far as she could, shaking out her legs and arms as she did so.
Since meeting Colonel Sheppard that day on Athos all those years ago, she’d learned one thing: nothing was impossible. Not defeating the Wraith. Not coming back from the dead. Not even ruling a Hive.
And not this.
She started running, long measured strides, arms tucked in tight by her sides, and hit the edge of the hard surface with her whole foot as she pushed off…
She was…she was….not going to make it!
She slammed down short of her goal, and the ground disintegrating below her as quickly and as deadly as it had under the men back at the jumper. Her arms stretched, scrambling. No, no, no!
A sound like a muffled boom echoed through the cavern, turning three heads towards an area of the cavern far in the distance. A small pool of light appeared, chunks of nest and something else falling into the darkness.
“Teyla!” Jennifer screamed.
She was still scrambling, the ground not falling away as quickly now that she was further down in the hole, dangling over the black abyss. Her hands bit into dirt—real dirt—seeking purchase. A rock, a root, anything!
She bellowed angrily as it all continued to crumble beneath her attempts to hang on. Come on, damn it, Come on!
And then her hand caught on something hard, her fingers grasping tightly around the unyielding surface without further thought.
She shook dirt and bits of nest out of her face and looked up to see what she held.
Her jaw dropped when she recognized scored edge of an Atlantian-style exterior column. It was almost identical to the ones on the outside of the Jumper Bay, holding up the top of the central tower. She fumbled more, brushing more of the dirt away, and found the edges of a building. She was hanging on to the edge of a metal eave.
Pulling herself up, she pushed more dirt away so that she could stand on top of the eave, or, perhaps, part of the roof of the structure—at least as much of it as she could see. Which wasn’t much.
This explained why they couldn’t find an entrance to it “above ground.” The facility had probably once been open to the air, but had been buried under ten thousand years—or more—of ground movements, insects and, simply, time. They would never have found it without digging. The knoll she had been aiming for was its barrow—she should have guessed it.
She rested a hand against the metal, promising whomever might be inside that she would be back for them, just as she would be back for the others.
Standing her full height, she looked up to see how far below the top she was. Not far. Perhaps three or four feet.
She pulled the small hook off the back of her pack and dug into the earth until it caught. Using it as a lever, she started to climb.
CHAPTER SIX: THE MONSTER IN THE LAKE
The raft provided a poor surface to work on, and Jennifer found herself struggling to shift between Rodney and Ronon without nearly tipping them over several times. Both of them needed to be on warm ground again. Even with the blankets, the raft was ice cold beneath them, doing little to protect them from the even more frigid temperature of the black water. This could not go on much longer. She should not even have let it go on for as long as it had, but….
She knew neither of them would have wanted Sheppard to stop searching.
She glanced down at her watch, facing it towards her to check the time.
An hour. They’d been drifting across the lake for an hour, searching in ever increasing circles from where they thought they had seen Teyla fall. But there was no sign of her. There was no sign of anything.
She studied the area of the lake they were in now: the same black, featureless stone rising on all sides, smooth as glass, the same massive distance to the “ceiling” above, the same impenetrable gloom. Even after an hour, they’d barely covered a corner of this enormous underground lake. But they might as well have not moved at all--nothing about its appearance had changed. The only difference here was that, high above, almost a skyscraper’s distance above their heads, was the tiny hole through which Teyla might have come down.
“Might” being the operative word, in Jennifer’s mind. Teyla had promised she wouldn’t fall. Jennifer had to believe that Teyla had kept that promise, that her eyes had been playing tricks. They’d come across dirt and bits of nest floating on the surface, even some drowned scorpions—what if that was all they had seen? A chunk of earth, falling down? She desperately wanted to believe that to be the case.
But what if she were wrong? What if Teyla had fallen? Teyla wasn’t superhuman, however much she may seem to be. And she and Sheppard had seen something fall—sure, it could have just been dirt, but what if it had been her friend?
No. As much as she wanted to keep searching, she knew they couldn’t keep drifting like this—not without risking the lives of the two men still with them, something she knew Teyla would not want. They needed to stop.
She looked up at the man crouched in the bow of the raft, his back to her, tension visible in every muscle. For a moment, she was reminded of that scene from Titanic, when Ioan Gruffudd returns to seek out survivors, holding his lantern out over the edge of the lifeboat. And they’d found Rose…
She closed her eyes. Her hand was on Rodney’s forehead, and it was so cold…
No. They had to stop. Teyla had made it, and she wouldn’t want them risking Rodney and Ronon’s health for this. Jennifer looked up, squared her shoulders, and…
“I know,” Sheppard said quietly. “We need to stop.”
Jennifer’s words died in her throat. She grimaced.
“I’m sorry.” She didn’t know what else to say.
Sheppard was still leaning over the edge of the boat, shining the light on the black surface, seeking anything that could be Teyla. After she spoke, he lowered his head sadly, before turning to look at her from behind exhausted eyes.
“It’s been over an hour,” Jennifer tried again. “I don’t think she’s here.”
He sighed. “I know.”
“But I don’t mean she’s gone either,” she hastily amended, after replaying her words in her head. “I meant, I don’t think she fell.”
He looked away, back at the water. Jennifer frowned.
“Why don’t you just drop us off?” she suggested, resting a hand on Ronon’s shoulder. He had succumbed to sleep not long after being bundled onto the raft. He was almost as cold as Rodney, which, for Ronon, who was always something of a furnace, was not good. She gripped the Satedan’s shoulder as Sheppard glanced at her again. “Drop us off,” she repeated, “and then you can keep looking.”
Sheppard bowed his head. “I can’t just drop you off,” he said quietly. “You have no protection without me there.”
“Protection from what?” Jennifer asked. “The scorpions? We haven’t seen them since we left the rocks.”
“But they’re still around. They’ve been following our movements.” He looked up as he spoke, and Jennifer did as well, following his gaze. She hadn’t been looking up at the ceiling, in part because she couldn’t see it all that well in the darkness, but…if she squinted….
Sheppard picked up one of the oars and dug into the water, propelling them forward a few feet. As he did so, Jennifer just made out a darker patch of ceiling shift to stay with them.
“Oh god,” she whispered.
“The moment we land,” Sheppard said, “they’re going to start building another ladder to come get us.”
She nodded. But what choice did they have?
Sheppard had returned his attention to the water, and Jennifer started to look around for a good place to land the raft. There wasn’t much around here—if anything, the shelves of rock lining the edge of the cavern were even narrower here than back where they’d started. She was about to suggest they head to a different area when Sheppard suddenly stiffened.
“Keller,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper as he drew the lantern he’d been holding over the edge of the raft back in, “grab your paddle.”
She frowned, “My paddle? Wha—“
“Keller.” Though whispered, the weight of the word was most definitely an order to shut up. Jennifer swallowed and grabbed the paddle she’d tucked under the inside edge of the raft.
“We need to row very slowly and quietly away from here,” Sheppard whispered. He did a quick survey of the area, and then pointed to a nearby shelf of rock. “There. Head there. Keep the strokes as shallow as possible. The less you disturb the water, the better.”
She nodded, and, as he dipped in his paddle, so did she.
Her curiosity was killing her, but she was afraid to look over the side.
Sheppard muttered something under his breath, but Jennifer wasn’t sure what. Curiously, she thought he had said, “like something out of Red Dwarf.”
Having seen some episodes, and the creativity of some of the monsters…she really hoped she’d misheard.
Teyla had been running at a solid pace, eating up the miles at a pace that was close to hypnotic. Not long after leaving the grassy plain, she’d found herself under tree cover, and the comfort of the familiar-seeming terrain had increased her pace and fueled her determination. The hesitancy and fear were gone, replaced by a cool confidence that only being in a forest truly gave her.
It had also allowed her to free her senses, and, for the last fifteen minutes or so, she’d been eavesdropping on the Wraith.
What had begun as a sort of buzzing at the back of her mind had soon resolved into conversations. The sensors were not the only thing damaged on the wrecked ship, communications were down as well—so the surviving Wraith were using their psychic link to stay in contact. From the darts in orbit, to the mechanics working on different parts of the hive, to queen overseeing them all, she was able to hear everything.
With her feet maintaining her rhythmic pace, it had been almost easy for her to find that place in her mind, to focus and find what she needed.
And to form her plan of attack.
Sheppard began to relax as they closed in on the narrow shelf of rock, but Jennifer still saw the tension in his frame. Every so often, he would glance over the edge of the raft, into the depths of the lake, now more deeply shadowed since the LED lantern—which didn’t shed a ton of light even when held aloft—was lying on the bottom of the raft.
Finally, they hit the edge and Sheppard climbed out, pulling up the raft after him. Jennifer was about to jump into the water to help, when he held up his hand.
“Don’t,” he commanded.
Oh hell, the curiosity was too much; she looked over the edge of the raft.
Nothing. The water was as dark and empty as ever. Hmm.
Actually, that thought gave her a moment’s pause. Empty? Back home, even the coldest lakes in Wisconsin were full of life. Maybe because this one was underground, did that mean there was no life in it?
Or was it because…something had eaten everything in this lake?
Staying inside the raft suddenly seemed like a very, very good idea.
Sheppard tugged the raft up onto the rock, the rubber sliding fairly easily up the smooth surface of the slick rock. As soon as about a third of it was out of the water, Jennifer scrambled forward and climbed out to help him.
He kept an eye on the water the whole time, not relaxing until both Rodney and Ronon were on dry ground several yards from the edge. There were outcroppings of rock here and there, and they rested the two men inside the shelter of one of the more substantial groupings.
Jennifer stood up from checking to make sure both men were comfortable and turned to look at Sheppard, her hands on her hips.
“Okay,” she said, “what the hell was in that water?”
“At first,” Sheppard began, his P90 now trained on the smooth surface of the water, “I thought I had seen Teyla. A flash of something pink under the surface, flesh colored. But…” he swallowed, “then I realized that the light colored object I was looking at was too long.”
He shuddered. “It kept moving, long and…tentacle-like.”
Jennifer swallowed. “Oh.”
“So….” She looked up the ceiling. “In addition to the bugs…”
“We’ve got sea monsters,” Sheppard finished, his eyes still on the water.
Jennifer gave a weak laugh. It just kept getting better and better.
Teyla slowed, the muscles in her legs thrumming from the long-distance run, but her senses were in high gear now. She almost felt as if she could be blind, so aware was she of what was in front of her.
The trees thinned ahead, and she slid between them, gliding from trunk to trunk, until she was at the edge of the plain housing the Stargate.
And the Hive.
She was only about a mile from it, and, from this direction, she could see the damage clearly. The Wraith continued to work diligently, trying to repair it quickly. The hive was also gamely trying to repair itself, but the power reserves were severely drained, preventing it from getting very far.
But there was enough power for what she needed.
She closed her eyes and, for a moment, just listened.
The P90 felt heavy on her vest, as did the 9MM on her thigh. Reaching inside her vest, she removed the hand-held Wraith stunner and gripped it in her right hand.
She opened her eyes again.
Here we go, she thought.
And started running towards the hive.
Jennifer checked on Ronon again, smiling as the Satedan sighed softly in annoyance.
“I’m fine,” he growled, pulling away from her as she tried to check on the bandage covering his head. One eye was still swollen shut, but the other met her gaze proudly.
“I know,” she said, smiling teasingly as she reached for it again. “Just a flesh wound, right?”
He snorted. “Bite your kneecaps off,” he replied seriously. Jennifer looked up from the bandage, and when he smiled crookedly, she laughed.
“I take it Rodney made you watch the Holy Grail?” she asked. In general, the swelling was receding. That was good. The cold had some benefits. Between that and the rest, he was much more alert now, more like his old self.
“Not McKay,” Ronon said, glancing at Sheppard’s back. “Not alone.”
“Guilty as charged,” the colonel replied from where he was still studying the water like a sentinel.
“Seen it four times now,” Ronon said then. “He and Rodney compete over who knows the most lines.”
“Well, I’ve only seen it in chunks,” Jennifer admitted. “Never the whole thing.”
“You should join us for one of our movie nights,” Sheppard said. “We’ve been educating Ronon and Teyla on the classics.”
“Like Monty Python and the Holy Grail?” Jennifer asked, smiling.
“Absolutely. Its right up there with Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, Star Wars, Caddyshack and Lord of the Rings.”
“Ah,” Jennifer laughed, “the true classics.”
“Yes, that and—“ He stopped talking abruptly as something splashed. Instantly all three sets of eyes were on the water.
Ripples lapped at the edge of the rock. No one moved.
After a long moment, Jennifer stood and walked over to where Rodney still lay unconscious on his side, bundled up in his blankets. Kneeling down next to him, she checked to see that the oxygen was still flowing steadily from the canister, and then picked up the P90 she’d placed on the ground next to him.
Standing again, she turned to face the water.
“Sheppard,” Ronon called, his voice a warning. “The bugs are getting closer as well.”
Jennifer turned and looked up the wall behind them, lit effectively by three lanterns at the base. Sure enough, the scorpions were about a third of the way down the wall again. She breathed out heavily.
“When do you want to throw the bombs?” Ronon asked the colonel. “How close?”
By bombs, Ronon meant the home-made molotov cocktails the colonel had fashioned from what Jennifer kept in her medical case. There hadn’t been much in the way of alcohol, but she’d had some bottles, and, if it worked…. The colonel was hoping a slow burning of the nest ladder, caused by soaking it in alcohol, would drive the scorpions back more effectively than just using Ronon’s blaster. But as their supplies were limited, it was something they were holding off on until the scorpions really began to become a threat. And now that going back out onto the lake was no longer really an option….
Sheppard was studying the wall, his brow furrowed. “At the rate they’re moving, not much longer.” He shifted his gaze to Jennifer, and then down to McKay. “How is he?”
Jennifer sighed, shaking her head. He was still out. There wasn’t much more that she could do than what they had already done – he was as warm and dry as they could get, and his breathing was steady with the oxygen still flowing. He just hadn’t woken up.
“Try to stay by his side,” Sheppard said, “whatever happens. Ronon and I will cover you, you cover Rodney, okay?”
She nodded. She put the IV pole, another 9MM and a couple of spare magazines next to Rodney, for when she’d need them.
Another soft splash of water echoed through the massive underground cavern.
“So,” Jennifer said nervously, trying for bright but knowing the quaver in her voice ruined it, “you’ve shown them lots of movies, what about TV shows?”
Sheppard glanced at her. “TV shows?”
“Yeah, you know – stuff like sitcoms and old westerns and…stuff. You been showing any of those?”
Sheppard shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Why not? You can get them in box sets these days. I got my father a whole set of The Deadliest Catch for Christmas last year.”
The colonel gave a short laugh. “Yeah, that’s a good one. I saw an episode of that last time I was stuck in Colorado, in that awful Holiday Inn near the mountain. Only thing that saved me from complete boredom.”
Jennifer smiled. “Yeah. So, how come you haven’t introduced them to stuff like…,” she tilted her head, “Red Dwarf?”
Sheppard gave a short, humorless laugh. “You heard me say that, did you?” At Keller’s nod, he grimaced then, pursing his lips. “It was something Major Teldy said. I didn’t know what she meant until I saw that thing in the lake. I’m really hoping it stays there. Let’s not talk about Red Dwarf right now, huh?”
Keller bit her lip, but didn’t press. Shaking her head a little, she changed the subject.
“Then what about Star Trek?” she asked.
“That’s the one with Kirk and Spock?” Ronon piped up. “Seen that one.”
“He’s seen Wrath of Khan and some of the other movies,” Sheppard explained. “Not the show.”
“It was based off a TV show?” Ronon asked.
“Yeah,” Sheppard shook his head. “Movies are easier.”
Jennifer frowned at that. “Easier?”
“Two hours, no need for backstory, no need to get invested, no need to know so much about Earth culture….” The colonel shrugged.
Jennifer frowned. “Oh.”
“Teyla really likes Star Trek,” Ronon noted. “She’d probably like to see more.”
Sheppard glanced at him. “She does?”
“It’s really hopeful,” Ronon said. “I think it reminds her of what she hoped for when she first met you and McKay.”
That earned a long silence from the colonel, and Jennifer found herself looking away at the regret and remorse that filled his features. She knew what he was thinking. It was what everyone in the expedition felt: that they’d come to this galaxy and made it worse. But they weren’t Star Fleet. She wasn’t sure they would ever be.
And even if they could, Teyla may no longer be around to see it happen.
Without warning, the profundity of what it might mean to lose Teyla hit Jennifer like a punch to the chest, and she found herself kneeling next to Rodney again. Under the pretext of checking on his breathing, she sought out his hand under the blankets and gripped it as tightly as she could.
He didn’t grip back, and the blackness in her chest grew.
What if she’d lost them both? Her best friend and the man she loved, all in one mission?
“Sheppard,” Ronon’s call was a warning again. “They’re up to something.”
Jennifer’s head snapped up, looking up at the wall. The beam from Sheppard’s P90 glided across the moving surface, studying the movements of the scorpions. They did seem more excited, having reached the halfway point. More were swarming down from the nest above.
“What are they doing?” Jennifer asked putting Rodney’s hand down so she could stand again. “They’re not all the way down yet.”
“Don’t think they need to be,” Ronon said, straightening up from where he’d been sitting on a rock. He had three small bottles by his right leg, wicks made from bandages sticking out the top, ready to be lit and thrown.
Sheppard continued to monitor the bugs, watching them as they suddenly began to really agitate, a sound not unlike a waterfall filling their ears.
“Sheppard…” Ronon had his blaster raised, pointed up at the skittering creatures. “Sheppard, I think they’re about to—“
Without warning, a sea of black jumped off the wall towards them in a tidal wave, streaming strands of what looking like webbing behind them, aiming straight for the four people on the ground. Jennifer shrieked, letting loose a barrage of gunfire at the dropping scorpions, blasting as many as she could out of the sky. At the same time, flashes of red filled her vision, as Ronon fired blast after blast at the same cascading bugs.
The first few landed, and Jennifer grabbed the IV pole and started swinging, sending the insidious creatures flying. They were not getting to Rodney!
Next to her, Colonel Sheppard was still firing, a thick staccato rhythm that had to be capturing most of the bugs, since not that many were landing near her and her helpless charge.
“Ronon!” the colonel shouted. “Now!”
Jennifer looked up from her bug squashing in time to see Ronon lob a flaming bottle of alcohol up at the “ladder.” It caught the bottom edge, splashing across the papery-substance with a blast of hot air. Like magic, the fire spread. Before she could see if it worked, though, Sheppard suddenly swore angrily and his P90 fire stuttered. Glancing his way, her eyes widened.
She saw him throw off a scorpion, leaving behind an ugly red mark on his neck. Two more were on his arms. “Colonel!” She wanted to help him!
“Stay there!” he ordered sharply, turning his weapon back on the wall. But there were more crawling up his legs. “Stay with Rodney!”
She stopped, backing up so that she was next to Rodney again. Ronon and the colonel were doing a good job of keeping most of the bugs away from her and Rodney, but they couldn’t cover themselves at the same time.
Sheppard swore as he was bitten again. Shit! She couldn’t let him get stung more. Multiple stings from these things would kill him! “You have to move, Colonel!” she shouted as she swiped at two more bugs about to get Rodney. “Get back into the water!”
He nodded, walking backwards as continued to fire at the bugs. As he hit the water, the scorpions that had been tracking him stopped, and he was able to swipe the others from his pants legs.
Jennifer had been so intent on him, she’d forgotten to keep track of her own position, but a flash of red near her right foot had her looking down. Two still simmering scorpions had almost reached her.
“Thank you,” she shouted to Ronon, who merely nodded in return, his attention already back on the bugs still swarming towards them. There were fewer scorpions near her now, and she traded the IV pole for the P90, shooting at anything crossing the rock towards her and Rodney. Either her aim was getting better, or the creatures were getting slower, because she was hitting most of them.
“Throw another!” Sheppard shouted, and Jennifer risked looking up. The first “bomb” had successfully burned away a large amount of the “ladder.” She silently cheered, seeing that some of the scorpions higher up were retreating back to the nest.
Ronon tossed the second bottle, and Jennifer and Sheppard continued to kill anything that moved on the ground. The stone was quickly becoming a sticky mess of green ichor and blood. She’d switched back to the IV pole when the numbers slowed down, finding it more effective at close range. And more satisfying.
“It’s working!” Ronon shouted proudly. Jennifer had just swung the pole and sent three scorpions flying into the water, so she looked up at the wall to see what Ronon meant. Sheppard stopped firing.
Fire was lapping away at more of the ladder, and the scorpions were retreating in droves now, disappearing in the shadows of the nest. She grinned, returning her attention to the still skittering beasts near her. “Bastards,” she hissed, swiping several more to oblivion. “Back off! Don’t even….”
She trailed off, suddenly acutely aware that she was getting wet, as if standing outside in a soft rainstorm.
Why was it raining inside?
“Ronon?” she called softly.
He was several feet away, not really looking at her, but at her call, he turned.
His eyes widened, and he suddenly turned the rest of the way around, to find the colonel.
“Sheppard!” Ronon started firing and Jennifer turned the rest of the way around. Sheppard was being pulled backwards into the water by about three tentacles wrapped around his neck and upper body. His P90 was pressed against his chest, the muzzle pointed up at his chin—no wonder he’d stopped firing.
Jennifer dropped the IV pole and fired her P90 at the monster, cutting through the tentacle around Sheppard’s throat, while Ronon fired on the other arms. The tentacles reacted by jerking and stuttering, but, by then, the colonel had enough freedom to pull his knife.
“Jennifer!” Ronon shouted suddenly, “Behind you!”
She whipped around in time to be slammed sideways by a massive tentacle, and she hit the rock hard on her back, sliding several feet. The P90 went with her, and she pulled it up in time to fire on the huge octopi-like tentacles reaching for her. They shuddered and retreated, and she scrambled to her feet, trying to get back to the others.
The giant squid, or whatever the hell it was, had to be huge! She wasn’t that close to the colonel, and yet he was clearly being attacked by the same monster. She continued to fire, trying to get back to the others from where she’d been thrown, but the tentacles were getting in her way.
Sheppard’s P90 erupted back into life just as she jumped over another arm, the suckers smacking into the stone where she’d just been, releasing with soft pops as it pulled up. She rolled under another arm aiming to take her head out, and ended up a few feet from Rodney. The IV pole she’d dropped was there, and her eyes widened upon seeing a scorpion just a few inches from Rodney’s shoulder.
“No!” she yelled, grabbing the pole to smack away the scorpion. At the same time, something grabbed her ankle and her legs were pulled out from under her. She screamed as she was pulled away from Rodney, and she twisted, trying to hit the tentacle holding on to her legs with the IV pole. “Let me go!”
The P90 still attached to her vest caught, and she dropped the pole and pulled up the machine gun. A spat of fire, and the tentacle let go. She pushed backwards up the rock, and raised the gun to fire again as another massive tentacle rose over her, looking for all the world like it was about to slam down and flatten her like a pancake.
And the gun jammed.
Her eyes widened at the terrifying way the machine gun shook in her arms.
The tentacle slammed down, and Jennifer rolled sideways, barely missing being hit. Her hand grabbed the IV pole, and she brought it around, clubbing the tentacle with it as it came at her again. She slid backwards, pushing with her feet and swinging the pole with everything she had. She was screaming furiously, her voice nearly drowned out by Sheppard’s machine gun and Ronon’s blaster. If she could get back to Rodney, to the 9MM she’d put next to him, she—
Another tentacle grabbed her leg stopping her, and she looked down, and then up. Another huge tentacle hovered in the air over her head while the first held her in place.
Oh God. Oh God, Oh God, oh God.
She brandished the IV pole in front of her like a sword, her arms shaking from exhaustion. The tentacle lifted even higher, and Jennifer pulled the pole back to drive it into the damn thing as soon as it got close. If she was going down, she wasn’t going down without a fight!
“Come on!” she yelled. “Do it, you son of a--”
The tentacle jerked as gunfire exploded near Jennifer’s head, the massive thing convulsing from bullets, each hitting their mark on its scaly hide. As it fell back, more bullets hit the tentacle holding her leg, and she pulled free, backing up the rock. She twisted onto her front, expecting Sheppard or Ronon…
And found Rodney, sitting up and firing the 9MM. His eyes found hers briefly, a quick check to see if she was alright, and then he turned away, firing at the tentacles attacking Sheppard.
Jennifer scrambled, getting out of the way of his aim and climbing back to his side. Rodney continued to fire, freeing Sheppard from another tentacle wrapped around the colonel’s waist. Jennifer’s gaze switched to Ronon, and found he was fighting for his life against the remaining scorpions.
Her hand tightened around the IV pole, and she went to help Ronon, swinging at anything still moving on the ground.
Behind her now, she could hear Rodney’s gun run out, and she risked a glance over her shoulder. He popped out the spent magazine, grabbed another from where she’d put them, slammed it in place, and continued to fire.
Sheppard, free again, was firing at the giant octopus full throttle with his P90.
Jennifer slammed down the IV pole on scorpion after scorpion.
Ronon continued to fire, roasting the tiny bugs alive on the ground. There weren’t many left now.
Sheppard’s P90 stopped firing, and, a moment later, so did Rodney’s gun.
Jennifer turned around again, fearing the worst, but Sheppard was still standing, staring at the now empty-seeming black lake, while Rodney fell back on his elbows, raising the back of his arm to his forehead and coughing harshly.
“Go,” Ronon said then, still firing on the bugs by their feet. “I got this.”
She gave him a grateful smile and stumbled back to Rodney. Sheppard had moved closer to the scientist as well, grinning stupidly when Rodney looked up at him. The scientist turned his head more when Jennifer settled down next to him, touching her hands to his face. He blinked up at her.
“You’re awake,” she said gratefully. He snorted, his brow crinkling.
“You were being kinda loud,” he whispered, “with the screaming and the gunfire and the…the screaming.” He grimaced in pain then, a hand drifting to his throat. "Ow."
"I know," she said. "It's going to hurt for a while." Her brow knitted. “How do you feel?”
He puzzled that for a moment, as if uncertain how to answer, before looking past her to Sheppard.
“Seriously?” he asked softly, his voice weak, “We’re fighting giant squid-monsters now? What’s next? Polymorphs?”
Sheppard laughed, a little too loudly. Jennifer knew it was out of relief and gratitude. Rodney’s gaze was on her again, his eyes searching her face.
“You okay?” he asked her. He waved a finger at her face, which was stinging from where the squid had hit her. “You’re bleeding.”
She nodded, unable to hide a smile at the way he looked up at her—full of concern. He tried to smile back, but it didn’t quite happen. His eyelids fluttered, as if whatever energy he'd used to shoot at the squid fading quickly.
"No, no," she urged, "not yet. Stay with me a moment.”
He grunted, but his eyelids cracked slightly to look at her.
She smiled again. “I need you to answer a few questions first. Can you do that?"
He sighed, ending in a soft cough. "Yes," he whispered, his voice hoarse. “Two plus two is four. My name is Rodney McKay. And, no, I don’t want calamari for dinner.”
Jennifer smiled dryly. "Nice try. Do you know where you are?"
He blinked slowly, and looked around. The annoyance on his face faded into a frown of uncertainty, before he smirked slightly to answer, "Someplace cold, damp, dark and, apparently, monster riddled.” He lifted his eyebrows. “The inside of Sheppard's gym locker?"
She smiled again as Sheppard snorted a laugh behind her, but she shook her head. "What's the last thing you remember?"
He stared at her for a long moment, blue eyes shifting back and forth between hers, vulnerable and intelligent and scared and proud, all at the same time. Finally, he shook his head. "We were in the Jumper, on Durang, looking for Teldy. And…I don’t know." He frowned, eyes losing their focus.
“You don’t remember what happened?”
His eyelids fluttered, and he touched the back of his hand to his forehead again. He clearly had a bad headache.
He coughed hoarsely and met her gaze. “There was…um…falling. I think I fell.”
Jennifer bowed her head, relief washing through her so strongly, it was almost overwhelming. Breathing in deeply, she lifted her head, smiling once more, and nodded.
"Yes, Rodney," she said, "we all fell, and you were hurt, but I think you're going to be okay."
“All?” His eyes opened wide and shifted away from hers, seeking. He could clearly see Sheppard a few feet away, watching them, but he pushed up at not seeing the others, his breathing speeding up. " Ronon? Teyla? Where are--?"
"It’s okay. It’s okay,” Jennifer promised. “Calm down. Ronon is just a few feet to your right, see?" She helped Rodney sit up slightly, so he could look in that direction. Ronon was still sitting on the rock, his blaster still pointed up at the cavern wall, waiting for the next wave of scorpions. The first wave were all dead by now.
"And Teyla?" Rodney asked worriedly, bringing Jennifer's gaze back to his. "Where is she?"
Jennifer's smile faltered slightly. "She's above ground still," she answered. "She didn't fall."
"She's safe? Is she getting help?"
Sheppard's head lifted slightly and Ronon looked away.
Jennifer couldn't lie. "I hope so, Rodney," she said. "I hope so."
CHAPTER SEVEN: JENNIFER AND THE GIANT SQUID
Sheppard’s P90 pointed towards the water; she could see him visibly trembling from the exertion of staying focused, of keeping his weapon trained for the return of the giant squid like creature.
She could do nothing for the bruising on his throat or the pain he was in, since he’d refused the morphine. She was also concerned at how loud his wheezing was. He’d been bitten three times, and his neck had swelled where he’d been bitten by the first scorpion. He was on the verge of collapse—how he was even still standing was beyond her.
Ronon had slid down off his rock to sit on the ground, leaning his back against it now as he gamely tried to keep an eye on the wall for scorpions. They’d begun to gather again, though more slowly, as if more cautious.
Rodney was asleep again. He’d slipped under almost as soon as he’d been told Teyla was safe.
Jennifer paced, holding the 9MM close to her. Sheppard had tried to repair the jammed P90 she’d had before, but the firing mechanism inside had busted. All she had now was the Beretta. It felt too small.
Hell, who was she kidding.
If that squid came back, or if the scorpions attacked, it wouldn’t matter if she had the P90 or not—they wouldn’t survive another round.
She stopped next to Sheppard, glancing up at him. He didn’t look back. God, he looked horrible, almost zombie-like in pallor.
“Colonel…,” she began. She wanted to ask him to take a rest, to sit down and let her keep watch.
“I’m fine,” he whispered. “I don’t need a rest.”
Damn. She hated being that obvious. “Five minutes,” she suggested. “I’d feel better if you used some of the oxygen. It’s not helping your concentration being like this. It’ll help clear your head.”
His eyes pinched.
“I can watch the water,” she promised. “Go sit with Rodney.”
“He needs that oxygen.”
“He’ll be fine for a few minutes. Plus, he’s resting. You’re not. You need it more right now.”
He glanced at her askance.
“Besides,” she said, gesturing towards the water, “it might not come back.”
His eyes narrowed. “It’ll come back.”
She frowned. “Not necessarily. We hurt it pretty badly. Any rational creature wouldn’t return for more abuse.”
He snorted. “Doc, there’s no life in this lake other than that thing. I don’t know what it’s been eating, probably dead scorpions, but I’m thinking we have to look pretty good right now compared to such mean pickings. There’s no rationality when you’re that hungry.”
Jennifer looked down, not disagreeing. If he was right, they were screwed.
But, even so, that didn’t contradict the fact that he needed rest.
“Say you’re right,” she said, lifting her chin, “odds are it won’t come back in the next five minutes. You need a break.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them again. “Fine.” He unhooked the P90 from his chest. “Trade.”
She nodded, taking the machine gun and handing him the 9MM. He had another Beretta strapped to his thigh, but he obviously felt better with two. Jennifer clipped the P90 to her chest and rested it on her arms.
Sheppard patted her shoulder before moving to settle down next to Rodney, sharing a little of the other man’s body heat to keep them both warm. Keller watched for a moment, making sure the colonel did in fact close his eyes, and then turned her gaze to the black lake.
She lost track of time a little bit then, her eyes never leaving the water, looking for anything that might signal another attack. Fairytales of kraken and giant squid monsters filled her head, despite her commanding her mind to stay on what was real.
Christ, real? She was trapped between a giant squid and a ceiling full of scorpions in another galaxy…what the hell did real even mean anymore? Homer had nothing on this Scylla and Charybdis.
Although, wasn’t Scylla a kraken of some kind?
She tried to remember how Odysseus had made it through the straits. She had a terrible feeling that he did so only by losing all of his men. No, no, no--she had to be remembering it wrong. After all, she had read the Odyssey in high school, and that mostly via cliffs notes. Maybe it was only a few….
To hell with that, she wasn’t losing any. This wasn’t an epic. This was happening. Focus, Jennifer! It’s just a big squid. And those are just bugs. They’re as real as you are and they can be beaten.
Why didn’t that make her feel any better?
Probably because beating them seemed impossible with just one machine gun.
She sighed. Maybe there was something useful about squids she could remember from that marine biology class she’d audited. Let’s see….squids are supposed to be highly intelligent and….yeah, that’s about all she could remember. Oh. And they have ink sacs. Most of them. They’re also peaceful creatures…on Earth.
This wasn’t Earth.
She wondered vaguely if this creature had an ink sac. Of course, it was so dark down here, it probably wouldn’t do it much good if it did.
The thought of how dark it was had her considering what sort of battery life the lanterns had. They were LED flashlights that converted into lanterns, and, presumably, they had a long life—but how long was long? They were doing their part to keep the scorpions back—she didn’t want to think what might happen if they went out.
They also only had one small bottle of rubbing alcohol left, to act as a bomb. It had taken two alcohol bombs to hold them off last time, and one of them had been a pretty large bottle. All they had left was the equivalent of a travel sized bottle.
She turned and looked up at the cavern wall, studying the movements of the bugs. Not as many…but they were definitely preparing to try again. They’d been repairing the ladder while Ronon was watching.
Her gaze shifted to the Satedan, expecting to see him alert as ever.
She frowned when she saw his blaster loose in his hand.
When she didn’t get a response, she jogged up to his little perch…
“Oh crap. Ronon?”
He was unconscious. There were several bite marks on his arms, all swollen. Oh god. Why hadn’t he said anything about being bit? Stupid question, she realized, because he was Ronon. She pressed her hands to his neck, relaxing only when she felt the pulse. Weak, thready, but there. His breathing was shallow, however—like he was struggling to breathe.
“Ronon,” she called, gripping his upper arm, “wake up.”
He didn’t respond. Her brow knitted. “Ronon!” Nothing.
“Colonel!” she called, standing up and looking back to the water’s edge. “Colonel, I need….”
She trailed off, her jaw opening in shock.
The squid loomed up out of the water, staring down at her. It was absolutely enormous, more so now that she could see its massive head. Its head alone was as big as UPS truck—it could probably swallow all four of them whole without chewing.
“Shit,” she whispered. How did she not hear it? Or see it?
Slowly, quietly, she stepped away from Ronon and closer to the creature, gripping the P90 tightly in her arms. Her finger ached to pull the trigger, but knowing it wouldn’t be enough…she had to find another way.
The squid’s eyes, if that’s what you could call them, contracted and turned, following her every move.
Trying to breathe as quietly as possible, she sidled over to where the colonel and Rodney were. She frowned to find both of them asleep. Rodney she could understand, but Colonel Sheppard? He hadn’t stirred at all when she’d called—something was very, very wrong.
Still watching the creature, who was still watching her, she knelt down and pressed a hand to the colonel’s shoulder and shook him.
Nothing. He was out. He hadn’t even managed to slip the oxygen mask on – it was loose in his hand, unused.
The scorpions venom, it must have had a soporific effect as well as paralytic. It was the only explanation. She’d only been stung once, and though it had made her tired (something she’d attributed more to the aftereffects of adrenalin shock), she’d recovered fairly quickly, being healthy. Ronon and the colonel….
She was really, really hating those bugs right now.
The squid shifted slightly, and she watched in horror as the tentacles closest to her started to snake forward. They did so slowly, as if testing her.
She couldn’t fight it off on her own.
“Rodney,” she called softly, reaching over to touch his shoulder as well. But he didn’t answer. He’d probably wake up again once she started firing, but what could he really do? It had taken all three of them before to…
Horror filled her as a new sound grew in intensity behind her. Chittering.
She turned on her haunches and glanced over her shoulder at the wall. Little black bugs were scuttling down the ladder, more and more of them pouring out of the nest from the ceiling.
The scorpions—they knew.
She let out a trembling breath and returned her attention to the kraken. It stopped moving when it saw she was looking at it again, but the tentacles were closer, quivering with anticipation. And she knew, staring into its blank “face” that Sheppard was right: this creature was starving. It had probably been living on carcasses of dead scorpions for years, once it ate everything in this underground cavern. Before the scorpions had finished their nest, it had probably been someplace else, someplace more alive, but, for whatever reason, it had found its way in here, and it had run out of food.
Jennifer licked her lips and pulled off the small bandage she’d put on her face after the first attack.
It was up to her now. The four of them had held off these monsters before, but this time it was just her.
And she only had one idea.
She glanced at the bandage, at the blood on it, and prayed to god that this worked.
Her free hand found the oxygen canister, and she taped the bandage to it, inside out. Standing, she hugged the canister close, then bent over and rolled it towards the squid.
The chittering behind her was getting louder. She didn’t dare look.
Tentacles tested the cool metal container. The kraken was clearly not pleased…until it touched the still warm bandage. She didn’t know exactly how octopi and squid found food, but she hoped, prayed…that this one had never been introduced to the concept of bait.
She stood completely still, trying to blend into the rock behind her.
The squid played with the canister for about ten seconds, then, in a sudden movement that caused Jennifer to flinch, it grabbed the canister and drew it close to its head, as if to eat it.
And that’s when Jennifer opened fire.
John jerked awake at the massive explosion, covering his head as chunks of something wet and heavy landed on top of him at the same time that someone threw themselves over him. Keller was using her body to protect both his and Rodney’s heads, but he couldn’t breathe! He pushed up.
“Doc! Doc, get off!”
She was shaking.
“Doc!” he called, pushing up at her thin frame. “Doc, enough!”
And that’s when he realized that she was laughing. Hysterically. As she slid off him, bits of slimy and bloody chunks of squid falling off of her, she pressed a hand to her chest, laughing so hard she didn’t look like she could even breathe.
“Keller!” Sheppard shouted, grabbing one of her wrists. “Keller, snap out of it!”
She blinked, laughing in hiccups now, and still grinning like an idiot. Tears ran down her face, and she hastily tried to wipe them away.
“Colonel?” she asked, staring at him in wonder. “Are you okay?” She sniffed as she spoke, wiping pink goo across her face. She reached a hand forward. “You were out cold.”
He backed away from the slime covered appendage, nodding. He didn’t deny her statement—his head felt like someone had packed it with black wool—but whatever was dripping off of her was not something he wanted to come into contact with anytime soon.
Of course, as he said that, he realized he was mostly covered with the stuff himself. Only his head was free of gook—because Keller had dived on top of him and Rodney to protect them.
Rodney…glancing to his right, he found Rodney blinking up at them both, looking thoroughly confused.
“One hell of sneeze,” the scientist said cryptically, before closing his eyes again and apparently going back to sleep.
John snorted a laugh. A sneeze. He would say that. He looked again at Keller, who had managed to get to her feet, though she was swaying dangerously. She was looking up at the cavern wall.
The colonel followed her gaze, and lifted an eyebrow. Chunks of squid were dripping down the slick black rock….but there wasn’t a scorpion in sight.
His brow furrowed in amazement, and he looked up at the doc. “What did you do?” he asked.
She smiled dreamily. “I blew it up,” she said. “Rodney and Ronon would be so proud.” She blinked slowly…drunkenly…and popped open her hands. “Boom.” She grinned. “Instant calamari.”
Sheppard pushed his aching body to stand, just as Keller started to list strongly to the left. Catching her, he helped her sit down on a outcropping and turned to survey the area.
Sure enough, the water was filled with dead squid, a messy, smelly, floating pile of dead flesh. Lovely.
Keller didn’t protest as Sheppard unclipped the P90 from her chest and then handed back the 9MM. She just blinked slowly again. How close to the explosion had she been?
“I think it’s your turn to rest,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “You did good, doc.”
She smiled. “I blew it up,” she said again.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, you did.”
Her smiled faded then, and she blinked some more as he brow knitted. “But there was something else. Something….”
“The explosion scared off the bugs as well,” Sheppard said, thinking that must be what she meant. “We’re good for now.”
“No,” she frowned. “No. You were out cold. You and…,” she blinked and her eyes widened. “You and Ronon. Is he okay? Ronon!” She tried to stand, but her legs gave out, and she ended up in a heap at Sheppard’s feet. Holding out a hand to stop her from trying to stand again, he sought out the Satedan.
Ronon was still sitting against the rock, facing the wall. He didn’t look like he’d moved.
Frowning, Sheppard climbed up the rock to his friend’s side, kneeling down when he found Ronon completely relaxed. Too relaxed. Only the weak rise and fall of Ronon’s chest stopped him from freaking out.
“Ronon? Can you hear me?”
“He needs to be watched if he won’t awaken,” Keller said, pushing back to her feet. “He might stop breathing because of the venom.”
John frowned. “Ronon,” he cajoled, touching Ronon’s arm. “Wake up, buddy. Come on.”
Still nothing. John’s frown deepened. Fine.
“Ronon!” he barked. “Wake up!”
Ronon’s breathing hitched, his body flinching, and then his brow knitted in annoyance. With obvious reluctance, his eyes opened to narrow slits. “Go away, Sheppard,” he muttered.
John smiled goofily. “You doing okay?”
Ronon just frowned, and gamely tried to open his eyes wider. He succeeded when he saw where they were, stiffening and bringing the blaster up. His jaw dropped much in the same way John’s had when he saw the bits of squid sliding down the wall.
He turned big eyes on John. “What…?”
“Keller blew up the squid.”
He absorbed this with a slow blink, and then his face screwed up in disappointment. “And I missed it?”
John just grinned.
CHAPTER EIGHT: TEYLA BRINGS THE LIGHT
John rubbed a hand down his face, trying to fight the drag of exhaustion plaguing him. Falling asleep was dangerous. If either he or Ronon fell asleep, they might not wake up again, and Keller would be alone keeping watch against whatever might still be hunting them. The lake had been quiet for the last fifteen minutes, as had the scorpions, but John never trusted anything in this galaxy. He’d bet even odds that there was more coming.
Rodney was also fighting to stay awake, propped up against a rock, trying to cobble together a radio that could penetrate whatever was blocking the signal. His color was still very gray and his coughing was painful to listen to, and the way Keller’s face hardened whenever she checked his vitals, John knew he was worsening.
But what else could they do?
He headed over to Rodney’s side, glancing at the radio in the scientist’s hand. Rodney was piecing it back together, hands shaking as he worked the tiny parts into one whole.
“Is it going to work?” John asked.
Rodney didn’t even look up. “Not enough.”
John waited for more, for a patented Rodney tirade, but Rodney didn’t oblige. Finally, John just nodded and turned away, to head back to his watch from the section closer to the water.
“The lights,” Rodney said quietly, stopping John mid-step.
“The lanterns you have placed around us,” Rodney continued, his voice still a low croak, “I assume it’s to keep the scorpions at bay.”
“Yes. They don’t like the light. Anything we can do to hold them up.”
Rodney snorted. It sounded vaguely disdainful, so John arched an eyebrow and asked, “You have a problem with our being able to see? I thought you liked seeing.”
Rodney lifted a trembling hand to wipe across his forehead, and then looked up at John with sunken eyes. He shrugged and shook his head once.
“I do. Doesn’t matter. Rock and a hard place. Better to have light.” He looked down again at the radio.
John frowned, not understanding. “Explain that.”
Rodney sighed, coughing slightly at the end. “Just…,” he coughed again, “Earth squid are attracted to light, particularly flickering light—like flames. The burning nest was probably like a great big ‘come and get ‘em while their hot’ sign.” He coughed vigorously, covering his mouth with his elbow.
John huffed a disbelieving laugh. “Oh, great,” he replied. “Really great. That is so information I could have used an hour ago.”
Rodney snorted again, smiling faintly, and returned to fiddling with the radio. Keller chose that moment to slide down next to them, and she rested a hand on Rodney’s forehead. He didn’t duck away, which showed just how tired he was. John backed away before she could do the same to him—he was beginning to grow paranoid with the attention. Climbing back to Ronon’s perch, he grabbed a sack and started sorting through what they had for food.
Keller’s tone was scared, and John hated himself for being right about this lake not being done with them yet. Standing, he looked in her direction. She was on her feet next to Rodney, staring out across the black lake. Rodney was looking the same way, his shoulders bunched.
For a moment, all John could see floating on the lake were the dead bits of squid.
Then a piece disappeared.
He flinched. Something had sucked down a piece of dead tentacle. He tapped Ronon’s leg with his foot, and his friend twisted around from his watch on the scorpions’ nest, already pointing his blaster towards the water.
Another piece of squid disappeared. Hunh. Funny thing, it was nowhere near the place where the first piece had gone under.
“Hang on,” Rodney croaked, obviously questioning the same thing. “Why grab a piece so far away from—“
More dead squid disappeared, sucked down in two completely separate locations simultaneously.
“Oh god,” Keller muttered. “Do you think…,” she paused to lick her lips nervously, “do you think this one is bigger?”
John shook his head. “No.” He already knew. He’d finally caught sight of what was eating the squid.
“No?” she repeated, looking at him.
“No,” John said, swallowing thickly. “There’s more than one.”
Keller’s response to that was almost amusing—her mouth worked, but no sound came out.
“I hate this place,” Ronon growled.
“Couldn’t agree more,” John nodded. “Any luck on that radio, Rodney?”
“Not so much,” Rodney said, reaching a hand up to Keller, so she could help him stand. “I think I just made the static louder.” Keller grabbed his hand and, with a grunt, helped the scientist to his feet. He still leaned against the rock, looking as weak as a kitten, but he had put the radio down and was checking the magazine in his 9MM.
Keller sniffed, holding the other 9MM tightly in a white knuckled grip. She stayed right next to Rodney, almost touching his arm with hers, and John suspected that she wouldn’t leave him, or he her. As if to prove the point, Rodney bumped her arm softly and smiled faintly in encouragement, earning a sweet smile from her in return. Yeah.
Ronon breathed out heavily, coughed, and lifted his blaster to point more directly at the closest point where the water was being disturbed.
“Ready?” he asked the colonel. John shook his head, but lifted his P90 to point towards the other location.
“Let’s see,” he said. “We’re facing certain death for the third—“
“Fourth,” Ronon corrected.
“--Fourth time in a matter of hours,” Sheppard continued, “and we’re all dying slowly by degrees at the same time.” He smirked. “Who wouldn’t be ready?”
“I’m not,” Rodney snorted, his voice a froggy croak. “I hate certain death. Have I ever mentioned that before?” He coughed slightly, before continuing. “I’d really like to stop facing it every day, if you don’t mind. Can you do something about that, Sheppard? I’m thinking we should ask Woolsey to write a letter. Dear Pegasus, enough with the certain death already, how about a nice plate of cookies instead?”
“Chocolate chip,” Ronon said.
“Peanut butter,” Jennifer added.
“Molasses,” Rodney whispered longingly. “Honestly, would that be so hard?”
Sheppard had to laugh, resulting in a harsh coughing fit. He was wheezing like an old bagpipe, and his throat felt like it was on fire, but he was still grinning when it was over.
He caught Rodney’s eye, and gave a nod.
Rodney gave him a single nod in return, and the ghost of a sad smile.
It was a goodbye.
Suddenly, the radio next to Rodney burst into life, causing the scientist to jump. At almost the same time, a massive gray colored tentacle burst out of the water, followed swiftly by several more, all diving for John and Ronon.
John started firing, his ears filling with the screaming of Ronon’s blaster, his machine gun fire, and the loud clap of a 9MM….and Rodney’s hoarse voice yelling, “Yes! Yes! GET DOWN HERE NOW!”
And then there was light.
“Get down!” Keller shouted, her voice somehow carrying over all the noise and almost blinding sunlight streaming from above. John immediately ducked, grabbing Ronon by the shoulders and pulling him down and around a rock.
The whine of a drone screamed overhead….
And the black lake exploded over them, sending water and squid bits everywhere.
John breathed hard, holding Ronon down as he waited for his ears to stop ringing.
His head lifted at the clear transmission over the radio on his shoulder, and of the beautiful voice. He fell sideways and scrambled to grab the walkie talkie, pressing the response button almost too hard.
“Colonel!” she sounded relieved and elated. “Colonel, are you and Ronon alright?”
“I…” he looked down at the man lying next to him, and found Ronon grinning back. “Yes,” he said, grinning himself as he stood on wobbly legs. “Yes, we’re fine.” He looked out across the black lake, which looked a lot less black now that almost a third of it was open to the blue sky above. Bits of nest and drowning scorpions floundered on the surface.
The Jumper had clearly just crashed through the nest somewhere in the middle of the lake, taking a huge chunk down with it, and it now hovered directly in front of the shelf of rock he, Ronon, Jennifer and Rodney were standing on. That, and the woman beaming at him through the front window, were two of the most beautiful things he had ever seen.
He glanced across at Rodney and Jennifer, both of whom were standing as well, though Jennifer was clearly holding Rodney up. The scientist raised a hand and waved at Telya, who waved back.
“We’re going to swing around and pick you up,” Teyla said then, still speaking through the radio.
“No arguments here,” John said. As he watched, the Jumper pulled a one-eighty and backed up, the rear hatch lowering and hitting the rock within moments. Sheppard was about to reach down to help Ronon when a posse of marines and medics boiled out of the small ship and descended on him and the others. Before he knew it, Teyla was hugging him and helping him settle on a bench.
“You’re okay, too?” he asked, noting the scratches on her face and filthy uniform. She nodded.
“I am fine.”
“She’s better than fine, sir,” Major Lorne called back from the pilot seat, “she’s a big damn hero.”
John smiled, nodding at Teyla, who had blushed at the compliment. “Well, she sure saved our asses, Major.”
“Oh, not just you, sir,” Lorne said, “she rescued nearly fifty people off the Hive as well.”
John’s eyebrows lifted, not sure to be worried or impressed. Teyla shrugged.
“I will explain later,” she promised, before he could ask. “But first….” She turned to look at Rodney, who was sitting opposite them, being forced to wear an oxygen mask again by Keller. “Rodney,” Teyla called. “I think I found the edge of the Ancient mining facility you were looking for before, or, rather, the roof.”
Rodney looked up, blinking back tears of exhaustion. He tried to pull the mask off to answer her, but Keller slapped his hand away.
“You can speak with it on,” she said. He gave her a small glare, which turned to chagrin when she simply arched an eyebrow in return. He sighed.
“What do you mean, a roof?” Rodney asked Teyla.
“I fell on it,” Teyla said, pointing generally upwards. “I believe the structure was overgrown and buried over time, but may have been partially above ground at one point. The roof I found was not unlike some of the larger storage facilities on Atlantis.”
“It’s near here?” Rodney asked.
She nodded, and gestured for him to stand and join her in the front. With Keller’s help, Rodney did so, followed closely by John, who leaned heavily against the bulkhead as Rodney slipped into the front passenger seat. Ronon tried to join them as well, but was held down by the medic working on his leg.
Teyla stood between Lorne and Rodney and pointed upwards, to the small hole that John and Keller had seen Teyla create, but apparently, hadn’t fallen all the way through.
Rodney followed her finger, and then leaned forward and started to key in commands on the console.
The HUD popped up, alive with color and light. Rodney grinned behind the oxygen mask, and turned to look at John.
“The entrance is down here,” he said. “She’s right. This cavern must have been a canyon before the scorpions hid it. The facility is right in front of us, and so is the front door.”
John straightened. “Life signs?”
If possible, Rodney’s grin grew even wider. “Almost 350. All human, and all still very much alive.”
Teyla turned to look at John, as did Keller. Rodney lifted his eyebrows, waiting. John had to lower his head to hide the grin of relief on his face.
“So,” Ronon called gruffly from the back. “What are you waiting for? Break the damn thing open already, Sheppard, and let’s get the hell out of here!”
God, he loved his team.
John awoke some time later to the soft beep of the infirmary and the quiet hum of familiar voices, feeling comfortable and warm and dry. He blinked his eyes open and looked to his right, where he could hear a heart monitor steadily beeping. Rodney slept in the next bed over, his head turned away from John. The colonel smiled warmly. His sense of well-being grew as he tuned in more to the soft conversation going on nearby—it was that conversation that had really woken him up.
“Seems like a good thing to me,” Ronon was saying. “I think you should take it.”
“I do not need it,” Teyla replied. “I do not do what I do for accolades.”
“So what? None of us do. Doesn’t mean they’re not nice to get.”
Teyla sighed. “I’m not denying that it is nice of Mr. Woolsey to offer it. I just don’t like to be singled out.”
“You’re already singled out.” Ronon shifted on the bed, probably shrugging. “If it does anything, it’ll help you fit in better with them.”
“Fit in? But—“
“You also sort of deserve it.”
Teyla sighed again. “Now, that I do not believe. Why do I deserve it?” she asked. “The people here risk themselves every day. I am no more special than anyone else.”
“I think you are,” Ronon replied, and John could hear the small smile in his voice. Teyla laughed softly.
“Of course you do. It’s just that…oh…hang on….”
John opened his eyes more and tilted his head towards the voices. He was in time to see Teyla lift Torren up on her shoulder and burp him while Ronon watched. The baby dutifully gurgled, and, when it spotted John looking at him, smiled brightly. John smiled back and waved. Torren watched him a moment longer, then ducked his head, burying it deeper into the crook of Teyla’s neck, though his eyes remained fixed on the colonel.
Ronon caught the wave and sat up more in his bed. He grinned.
John smiled. “Hey, Ronon.” His throat felt like sandpaper, and his whole body ached, but he was too happy to care. “Hey, Teyla.”
She turned around and faced him, still bouncing Torren on her shoulder. “Colonel.” Her smile would have melted mountains. “It is good to see you finally awake. We had begun to grow worried.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Have I been asleep for a while?” As he said the question, he realized it was partially answered by the fact that Ronon’s face was no longer half pulverized. Just the faint edges of the bruising he’d received still remained. That meant it had to have been--
“A few days,” Teyla filled in. “All three of you developed terrible fevers, which only broke last night. It was…not pleasant.”
John had no real answer for that; he could hear the strain in her voice. It was the strain of someone who had been terrified, but had kept a brave face. Teyla smiled and moved closer, loosing a hand from beneath Torren to reach down and grab John’s.
Then she squeezed tightly, almost painfully. “Do not do it again,” she ordered in a low hiss.
“She already commanded the same of me,” Ronon noted cheekily. “I think she means it.”
John breathed through the pain of having his hand crushed. “Ye…ah. Okay. Got it. Ow! Hand?”
Teyla abruptly let go, and John’s hand pulsed in pain as the blood rushed back into it. He breathed out heavily, shaking the hand out. In the meantime, Teyla hit the button next to his bed to call for the doctor. Her sweet smile was back as she settled down on the side of his bed, adjusting Torren again on her shoulder.
“So,” John said, still flexing his hand, “what was this about an accolade? And Woolsey?”
Teyla blushed slightly. “Um…”
“Woolsey wants to give her some sort of civilian medal,” Ronon supplied, “for bravery or something.”
“For bravery?” John repeated, his brow lifting. “Well, if it’s for what you did on Durang, Ronon’s right. You deserve it.” He arched an eyebrow then. “Speaking of,” he began, “what exactly did you do? There was a Wraith hive. How did you get past it?”
“She didn’t,” Ronon said, sporting a huge grin. “Tell him, Teyla.”
Teyla gave Ronon a wry look, and sighed. “It really wasn’t—“
“If you don’t, I will,” Ronon warned. Teyla arched an eyebrow at him in annoyance, and turned back to John. When he gave her an encouraging nod, she withdrew her hand and adjusted Torren again before starting her story.
“After clearing the plain,” she began, “I ran back to the gate. I used the time, well over an hour, to listen, to learn as much as I could about the Wraith in that Hive. I was lucky, in an odd way: because they were exclusively using their psychic link to communicate with each other, they were wide open to me. And I learned a great deal.” She rested a hand on Torren’s back, gently rubbing it for comfort. “As you know, Rodney told us when we first arrived that he was able to pick up about seventy-five life signs on the Hive, but he did not know how many were Wraith. But after listening to them talk over that hour, hearing their thoughts, I was able to determine that only about twenty-five Wraith were still alive. The remaining life signs were humans, some of them the Durang, captured, apparently, to be experimented on, sitting in cells to avoid contaminating the Hive. The Wraith, too, are seeking a cure for the Hoffan virus.”
“Makes sense,” John said. Teyla just nodded, looking up at Doctor Cole appeared in the doorway. The young woman silently came over to check on John as Teyla continued.
“After that discovery, I used my connection with them to learn what I could of the ship’s defenses, to understand what was intact and what was not. Many of their food storage compartments were damaged,” she shuddered slightly, and Torren dug his head a little deeper into her neck, “so they had also moved many of their other prisoners to cells as well, almost cramming them in. And the location of the cells,” she glanced at Ronon, “is something I am very familiar with.”
John just smiled thinly. Yes. They all were by now. Cole handed him a glass of water, which he took gratefully. “Keep going,” he told Teyla.
“Using the holes I knew of in their defenses, and their natural arrogance,” Teyla said, “meaning I knew they had not posted guards because their main concern was repairing the ship—it was not difficult to form a plan. I went on board, convinced the prisoners in the cells to join with me, armed them with what we found in the ship’s armory…” She smiled grimly. “And took the ship.”
John’s eyebrow lifted, impressed. He doubted it had been as easy as she had described. Convincing terrified people to even take on one Wraith was a battle, but twenty-five? He wondered how many she had taken care of before even reaching the cells. He guessed quite a few…if not all of them. This was Teyla after all.
She shifted Torren again, blushing a little as if guessing what he was thinking. “The only thing that still concerned me,” she said then, “were the Darts in the sky. Several were orbiting the planet, as you know, acting as sentinels. Of course, as soon as they sensed the attack, they flew home to help. But by then, they were too late to do anything. I had already dialed the gate from the Hive and informed Atlantis of what was happening. Mr. Woolsey sent three Jumpers through, and that, combined with my controlling what was left of the Hive’s weapons, allowed us to destroy all the Darts without anyone else getting hurt.”
John realized he was staring slack-jawed, so he quickly closed his mouth. That had to have taken precise timing—the mark of a great general. A moment later, he cracked a crooked smile.
“You know,” he said, “when you disobey orders, you make it very hard for me to come down on your for it.”
She had the wherewithal to blush again, and her free hand reached down to pluck at the blanket. “I am sorry about that, John, but you had to know I could not—“
“Teyla,” John said, taking her hand this time. “It’s okay.”
She looked down at his hand, and turned hers so she could grip it. She lifted her gaze then, to meet his.
“No, it’s not. I could not stay with the Jumper, John. What I did,” she gripped tighter, “I did what I had to, to save my family.”
John swallowed, wanting to reply, to tell her he knew what she meant, and that he felt the same way. But, as always, he couldn’t. So he just gripped her hand and nodded. “I know.”
Teyla just smiled.
“So what happened to the Hive?” a new voice croaked from John’s right. Teyla’s smile returned to full wattage, and she bounced off of John’s bed to walk around to his neighbor’s. Cole was already there, offering Rodney a glass of water.
“Rodney,” Teyla said, reaching now to grab his hand. “It is good to see you awake. How are you feeling?”
“Like my head’s going to explode and my body doesn’t have the strength to care,” he replied, taking a sip of the water and watching drowsily as Cole buzzed around him, checking monitors. “Jennifer okay?” he asked the doctor. When Cole nodded, and said that Keller was just getting some lunch, Rodney relaxed slightly and refocused on Teyla. “So what happened to the Hive?” he said again. “Is it still there?”
Teyla shook her head. “No.”
“No?” John said. “Why not?”
“Because she blew it up,” Woolsey said, coming in from the other room. “Per my orders. I don’t want any other Wraith looking for the Durangese, and if they think they all died with the Hive, all the better.”
Torren took that moment to come to life, burbling loudly and twisting in Teyla’s arms…and reaching for Woolsey. For a moment, the expedition leader just blinked, but when Teyla sighed and held Torren towards him, he took the baby. He cleared his throat, blinking some more as Torren latched tightly about his neck.
“Um…” he lifted his eyebrows at Teyla. She just shrugged in return.
John shifted up higher on his bed. “Hello, sir.”
“Colonel,” Woolsey’s voice had dropped a decibel, clearly in an attempt to sound manly while bouncing a baby. “Ronon, Doctor McKay,” he bobbed sideways, “I’m glad you’re all up. I’d like your help.”
“Our help?” Rodney moaned, his eyes already closing again. “Are you kidding? We’re barely healed from our last mission. Can’t someone else do it?” He yawned.
Woolsey snorted a laugh, smiling slightly. “Not that sort of help, Doctor. No, I’d like you to help me convince Teyla to accept the Civilian Medal for Valor for what she did on Durang.”
“Oh.” Rodney frowned then. “What did she do again? I only heard a little of it.”
“Besides rescuing you and your team, Doctor,” Woolsey explained, “she helped rescue Major Teldy and her team, who were being menaced by the same squid-like creatures as you, as well as over three hundred Durangese trapped underground, and everyone onboard that Hive ship.”
“Oh,” Rodney said again. “That.” He looked up at Teyla. “Accept the medal, Teyla. It’ll look good on the wall.” He yawned again and closed his eyes. “Wake me for the ceremony.”
John shook his head. “Hang on, McKay. Don’t go back to sleep yet. I don’t think it’s that easy.”
Rodney cracked an eyelid again, but didn’t look happy. “Why not?”
John looked to Teyla to answer that question. She sighed heavily, settling on Rodney’s bed this time.
“I do not believe that a medal is appropriate. What I did, I did for selfish reasons. I cared primarily about saving my team. That I was lucky enough to rescue so many was…” she frowned, “unexpected.”
Rodney snorted derisively. Teyla frowned at him.
“What?” she demanded, sounding a little miffed. “You disagree?”
“Oh please,” he muttered. “You’ve saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives since I’ve known you. It’s about time you got recognized for it.”
“But I don’t need recognition, I—“
“Sure you do. Don’t be stupid. A medal like this is long overdue.”
“I’m not being stupid, Rodney,” Teyla said, frowning. “I just do not think that I—“
“Oh, stop thinking about this in terms of you,” Rodney snapped. “It’s not just about you, is it? This medal? The ceremony that goes with it? It’s about hope, about showing how we can beat the odds, how we can excel despite everything we face.” He frowned. “Why would you deprive people of that?”
Teyla frowned. “Deprive people? I didn’t think—“
“And you know what?” he said, interrupting her again. “This is kind of a big deal. You tell us over and over how we need to respect other cultures. Well, this is a big deal in ours. We don’t give out this medal lightly, or often. It’s an honor. You should accept it.”
Teyla’s eyebrows had lifted high on her head.
John was grinning, and when Teyla looked at him, he just grinned wider. McKay was probably the only person in the world who could successfully bully someone into taking an award. He was also, as usual, right.
“What?” John asked Teyla innocently. “I agree with Rodney.”
She tilted her head. “Of course you do.”
“He’s not the only one who agrees with McKay,” Ronon asserted. “Not taking the medal is stupid.”
Rodney smiled at that, and John laughed. Teyla gave them all dark looks.
“Well?” Woolsey asked, still bouncing Torren. “Will you accept it?”
She sighed, and stood up to take Torren back. Woolsey looked almost reluctant to give the baby up, but did so with only a minimum of fuss from the baby, who reached for Teyla as soon as she was in his line of sight. His eyes closed sleepily as she started rocking him.
“What do you think, little one?” she asked quietly.
“Sounds like a yes to me,” Rodney said, yawning again. His eyes closed. “Like I said, wake me for the ceremony.”
Teyla sighed, but she nodded at Woolsey. “I would be honored, Mr. Woolsey. Thank you.” In return, the expedition leader straightened in his uniform and smiled.
“Wonderful. I’ll just go submit the paperwork.” He said the word “paperwork” almost as if relishing the prospect, which, John thought, he probably was. As Woolsey turned to leave, he almost hit Keller coming in, nearly knocking the cloth covered tray she was carrying out of her hands. He apologized quickly, tripped over a small table, and stumbled out of the room in a confusion of awkward waving and smiles.
As soon as he was gone, Keller finished coming into the room and set the laden tray between Rodney and John’s beds.
“Good to see you awake, Colonel,” she said, sitting on Rodney’s bed.
“He’s awake, too,” John said, indicating Rodney with a nod. Jennifer’s eyebrows lifted, and she looked down, finding Rodney’s tired eyes blinking up at her. She grinned, and shifted to take his hand.
“Hi,” she said happily.
“Hi.” Rodney’s brow knitted. “You okay?”
She rested a hand lightly on his cheek. “Yeah. We’re all okay.” She looked up at John then, and past him to Ronon. Teyla had moved to stand at the end of John’s bed, rocking Torren again.
“Speaking of, I was hoping you would still be here,” Keller said to Teyla, “and that the rest of you might all be awake by now because….” She reached over and whipped the cloth off the tray with a flourish.
Cookies. A whole bunch of different kinds, but mostly chocolate chip, peanut butter and, sure enough, molasses. John laughed.
“You may not get cookies on your next mission,” Keller explained, “but cookies are really what you have at home anyway, right?” She stood and picked up the tray and held it out to John. “I couldn’t remember if you said what your favorite was, Colonel, so I asked for a mix. I’d recommend small bites, since I’m sure you all still have very sore throats.”
John took chocolate chip. Really, there was no contest. It was the king of cookies.
And, hell, it was still warm.
As the chocolate melted in his mouth, he considered how it was probably going to hurt like hell going down his throat, but, right now? He really didn’t care.
With the smell of warm cookies drowning out the infirmary smell, John opened his eyes and looked at the people around him, at the family and home this place had given him, and smiled.
Dear Pegasus, all of Rodney’s hated certain death moments aside, thank you.
And thank you all for reading!
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