TITLE: THE SEEKERS
DISCLAIMER: Stargate: Atlantis and its characters are the property of Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story was created for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author(s). Thank you to the amazing writers, producers, actors, crew and directors who brought it to life.
CHARACTERS: Rodney, Team, OCs with guns
GENRE/RATING: Gen (Action/Adventure) / K+ (for language and violence)
STATUS: Complete in 12 chapters
SPOILERS: All the way through to the fifth season, with some blatant ones for First Contact and Search & Rescue. I’ve seen ‘em all and I’m going to use them all…well, except for the season finale. This probably happens before that.
A/N: This was written as a Christmas gift for my friend GateBiscuit, who requested a story with “traps, traps, traps!” Combined with my seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark again recently at the Brattle Street Theatre, somehow this became a twisted Indiana Jones homage (or maybe Harrison Ford, since there is also at least one Return of the Jedi reference in there, too). Lots of lanterns hung, folks! Hope you enjoy! (Especially you GB)
A/N 2: I did not set out intending to limit it to the two POVs I did, but that’s how it ended up. Once I’d started down that route, I forced myself to stick with it—just to see if I could.
DESCRIPTION: Originally entitled “the incredibly stupid idea,” this story has a kidnapped (and pissed off) McKay, a determined Team Sheppard, a temple of doom, lots and lots of traps and explosions, and far too many Indiana Jones references.
CHAPTER ONE: THE INCREDIBLY STUPID IDEA
“This is an incredibly stupid idea. You know that, right?”
Raina clenched her jaw, and shook her head. “Shut up and keep moving.”
“Was it yours? Or Harpo’s? Because it’ll answer a question for me that I’ve been curious about: are you the moron who thought it up, or the even bigger moron who agreed with it?”
“You need to shut up.” Raina answered through gritted teeth. It was taking an enormous amount of will power not to pull the trigger. Think of the gold. She delivered a fairly vicious kick to a loose rock on the path, taking out some of her anger that way. “And for your information, I think you’re wrong.”
“You say that because you have the gun. You and Harpo up there. But, since you know who I am, and you know who is probably searching for me right now, then you must realize somewhere in that blonde, pea-sized brain of yours that this is a terrible, horrible, and completely asinine idea!”
“Oh for….What is wrong with you?” she demanded, waving the gun at him. “Do you want me to shoot you?”
“I want you to let me go! And if you do,” his voice changed, from enraged to plaintive in less than a second, “I swear, we won’t come after you. I’ll tell them it was a youthful indiscretion on your parts, two kids out for a joyride, so to speak. I mean, what are you, 18? 19?”
“40?” he squeaked. “Really? Wow, healthy eating, eh? Lots of trips to the gym? Is he older than you? Because, if so, what’s his secret? I mean, seriously, all that blond hair, how is he not losing it? I was almost as blond as him until my mid-twenties, then I started to—“
“Okay, okay, look, I’m just trying to do you a favor here. My teammates really frown on people kidnapping me. The big one? Ronon? He gets really angry, and you don’t want to see him angry. So, how about letting me go, huh?”
“Why won’t you shut up?”
“Not in my nature. Look, I know I keep saying this, but this? This is a really, really bad idea. You need to let me go. It’s in your own best interest, trust me.”
“Not happening! Now shut up and keep moving, or I swear, I’ll shoot something that won’t slow you down but still cause you great pain—do you really need your left pinky for example?”
“Oh nice. Very nice.” The sarcastic anger was back. How did he switch between the two so quickly? “Do they teach you sadism in kidnapping school, or is it just part of your natural charm?”
Raina’s eye twitched, but she still didn’t pull the trigger. That was a miracle, really. She had hated this man from the first moment she’d met him. If she hadn’t needed him so badly…
Dr. Rodney McKay of Atlantis. A man from another galaxy, so the story went, with a knowledge of human, wraith and Ancient technology that defied reason, if not human ability. He’d woken Atlantis, he’d challenged everyone from the Wraith to the Genii to the Ancients themselves, and won, time and time again. He’d destroyed worlds, and created others. There was even a story that he had destroyed an entire solar system. He had all the markings of a god among men.
Not that Raina believed half of it, or even a quarter (a solar system? Come on!). But even if she didn’t believe the stories, she had expected him to be extremely intelligent. There was always a layer of fact underlying every fiction, and he and his team had most definitely woken the sleeping city of Atlantis. That alone set him above everyone else in this galaxy, the Wraith included. So, she’d expected brilliance.
What she hadn’t expected was the arrogance.
Or the smug smile.
Or the sneering tone.
Or the increasingly grating voice.
Or the way she’d wanted to club him with every broken branch she walked passed.
She looked longingly at a particularly stout branch of tenwood as she climbed over another felled tree in this dense forest. Herod lead (or “Harpo” as McKay had dubbed him for some inexplicable reason), McKay was in the middle, and she was last, shoving the Atlantian forward with her weapon anytime he appeared to slow or falter. To be honest, she was beginning to enjoy the minor amount of pain she could inflict with just the right shove. When he stumbled on the far side of the tree, nearly going down on one knee, she caught up and shoved hard enough to earn a pained, “Ow! What the hell? I’m moving! I’m moving!”
She smiled, pleased.
Then the smile fell.
Blood and spit, he really was turning her into a barbarian.
Breathing in slowly, she let him pull away from her, out of shoving distance. And clubbing distance.
He scrambled over another downed tree, still following Herod. She followed a heartbeat later, keeping an eye on his hands, making sure they weren’t reaching for anything that might give them away. But he was keeping them close by his sides, moving efficiently, non-threateningly.
Only his voice made him a threat.
To her sanity.
Seriously, how was he not dead yet?
Oh right. His team.
She glanced down at her watch, checking the time. Nearly mid-morning. Sheppard and the other two would be waking up sometime in the next couple of hours. Kale-fruit juice was strong, but not as long-lasting as would be ideal. But she’d had to use something local so as not to around the suspicion of the villagers when she and Herod had arrived a few months ago, as refugees. Coming to a new place packing packets of strong sedatives would not have been a smart move.
Besides, Kale-fruit juice had the benefit of smelling like what she had been told was “citrus,” which guaranteed McKay would not drink it along with the others, based on the intel they’d received.
Kidnapping him just before dawn, thus, had been fairly easy. The look on his face when he realized the others weren’t going to wake up and save him…
Raina gave herself a mental pat on the back for the simplicity of the plan. Even Herod had been impressed, and she’d long ago thought she would never impress her older brother ever again.
“Are we there yet?” McKay suddenly demanded, sounding like a recalcitrant child. “Because I’m really beginning to hate this walk.”
“Keep moving,” she ordered.
“How come big and silent up there never talks?” McKay asked then, twisting his upper body so he could look at her over his shoulder.
“Herod only talks if something needs to be said,” Raina replied. “And so far, nothing has needed to be said.”
“Nothing has needed to be said?” McKay spluttered, throwing up his arms. “Are you joking? You kidnapped me, are walking me to god knows where, and you have yet to tell me why! I’ve asked, but all I get is a ‘keep moving’ from you, or silence from Harpo up there. I’d even take a horn blat if it’d give me a clue. I mean, if you had marched me through the Gate to the Genii homeworld, I would have had a clue. Or if you had taken me to a Wraith ship or some Ancient facility, I would have figured it out. But this endless walking to nowhere? What the hell is up?”
“You talk too much,” Raina spat.
“I talk too much,” McKay repeated, giving a short laugh. “Well, I should. I’m talking for three, apparently. Look, at least give me a hint. Don’t I at least deserve that? You need me for something, obviously. I’m guessing it’s not to give a lecture on the space-time continuum, so what is it? You need something fixed, possibly, or perhaps broken? Maybe even blown up? Typically, it’s one of the three.” He arched an eyebrow at her, and Raina simply glared in return. He raised the other eyebrow at that, so much so that his brow furrowed like an accordion.
“Just keep moving,” she said again.
“Oh, come on,” he insisted, tripping slightly over another tree root. “You’re going to tell me eventually, why not now?”
“If I tell you,” she asked, “will you shut up?”
“No. But it’ll probably shut me up for a time.”
At least he was honest. Raina sighed.
She pursed her lips, trying to decide if it was worth the risk. If she told him now, and he got away before they got there, he might inform others of its location and the treasures it might hold. At the same time, having him shut up even just for a moment would be wonderful. As she pondered, she leapt over a small patch of mud—one McKay had sloshed through almost deliberately. Leaving a rather obvious footprint.
She stopped abruptly, turning to look down at it.
“Wait!” she snapped, halting both her brother and McKay in their tracks. Herod whirled around, pointing his gun at McKay before the man could even think to use her distraction to some sort of advantage. She smiled as she saw McKay’s shoulders slump out of the corner of her eye.
She knelt down and picked up a nearby stick from the ground, and proceeded to slosh out the bootprint with it. Not that it would make much of a difference. He’d been very good at distracting her, hadn’t he? He hadn’t been chalking rocks, but he was still doing his best to leave as obvious a trail as possible. She should have been paying better attention. She’d taken the time to clear their tracks closer to the village, but in the last couple of hours…
Standing again, she walked up to him, muddy stick still in hand. He watched her come, his lips pressed together in a thin, crooked line, his brow furrowed in annoyance.
Without warning, she smacked him with the muddy stick on his right arm.
“Ow! Hey! I—“
She hit him again, harder this time. It wouldn’t do more than leave a nasty bruise, but his yelp and quick, stumbling back step, landing him on his ass when he fell, was nonetheless very satisfying.
She tossed the stick away and leveled her gun at him, pulling back on the hammer.
“You should be more careful where you step,” she hissed, enjoying the quick flash of panic on his face. He held up a mud-covered hand in front of his face.
“Wait, wait,” he begged. “Don’t, please! You need me.” His peered up at her between his fingers with pleading blue eyes. “Don’t you?”
She stared at him a moment, as if considering. Yes, they needed him. Quite badly, truth be told. But he didn’t need to know that.
She feigned hesitation for a moment longer, long enough for him to understand that she wasn’t playing a game here, and then lowered the gun.
McKay released a held breath and lowered his hand to the muddy ground.
She gestured with her weapon for him to stand up. He sighed, and pushed himself to his feet, groaning slightly at the movement. When he was back on his feet, he gave her a steady glare, wiping his muddy hands on his pants as he did so.
“Get moving,” she ordered, once again gesturing with the weapon. Herod had already started walking. McKay grimaced, but didn’t say anything as he turned to follow.
Raina allowed herself a small smile over having won that battle, even if it was small.
She didn’t notice the piece of silver Powerbar wrapper McKay had left on the ground when he’d fallen.
Ronon studied the ground intently, moving with a measured and sure step. Fact was, the tracks were pretty easy to follow, despite someone’s fairly good attempt to cover them up from time to time, like this particular boot print. Certainly, in the beginning, he would have been hard pressed to find any trace without the life sign detector guiding them (especially with his mind still muddled with Kale-juice), but now it was as easy as following an animal cub. McKay had clearly been stomping, enough that his boot print stood out in clear relief more than once along the way.
Ronon was almost insulted that McKay thought he needed to leave such an obvious trail for them.
“Damn it,” Sheppard muttered, shaking the life signs detector for the third time in so many minutes. “This planet is really beginning to piss me off.”
“His transponder signal is gone again?” Teyla asked, peering over his shoulder where he had stopped.
“It’s intermittent at best, now. Whatever is radiating that magnetic energy and messing with it, it’s getting stronger. I’m not even registering us, now.”
“Meaning we’re walking closer to the source,” Teyla said.
Ronon watched as Sheppard looked up from the small hand-held device, squinting into the distance through the trees, as if he would see McKay walking towards them at any moment. But the Runner knew that it wouldn’t happen. This print was dry—a couple of hours had passed, at least. It was already past noon; they needed to move faster. Sure, they were catching up, but not fast enough.
“We don’t need the detector,” he said, kneeling next to the partial boot print in the mud, and then looking up hill following a trail of recently upturned earth. He smiled wryly when he spotted the shiny piece of paper.
Teyla had clearly seen it at the same time, heading across the muddy patch of earth in order to pick it up. She studied it a moment, and then shoved it in her pocket, turning around to look at the two men with her.
“I know you two can track him,” Sheppard acknowledged with a sigh, rubbing his head. “But following his transponder signal would have been faster, had this thing been working properly.” He rattled the detector again, as if shaking it would make it work again. He frowned when, clearly, the screen was just as blank as before.
Ronon didn’t disagree with Sheppard’s statement. McKay, he would have argued with. But Sheppard was just stating fact. Still, Ronon knew how good he was. He might not work as fast as following the transponder signal, but he trusted his skills to keep them moving quickly. Especially now that the lingering effects of the Kale-juice, as the locals had called it this morning when they’d given them the antidote, had finally worn off.
“Just follow me,” he said, standing again and moving to climb over the felled oak tree. “McKay’s leaving an obvious trail.”
“I know,” Sheppard said quietly, frowning even more deeply and switching his gaze to the footprint. “Question is, why are they letting him?”
Ronon didn’t answer. He knew why it worried Sheppard. Either they were being led into a trap, with McKay as bait, or whoever had him would kill him soon—probably long before they could catch up to the scientist. Neither boded well.
“We will find him soon,” Teyla promised, curling her arms more tightly around the P-90 held to her chest. “They could not know that the villagers would aid us in waking this morning. Per the Village Leader’s own words, we would likely still be asleep now if they hadn’t found us. That gives us at least three more hours more than they would have accounted for.” She lifted her chin, her chin set in a stubborn way that was remarkably McKay-like. “We will find him, and find him well.”
Sheppard just grunted. He put his sunglasses on and shifted his gaze to Ronon. The Satedan disliked those sunglasses—they were a way for Sheppard to hide. He didn’t like it when Sheppard hid.
“Shouldn’t you be moving?” Sheppard asked him.
Ronon frowned slightly, turned, and started jogging away from them, following the most likely route that the kidnappers had taken, eyes on the ground for more signs. He heard Sheppard and Teyla move to follow close behind, and trusted them to cover him so he could keep his eyes out for tracks—and traps.
Raina released a relieved sigh when she saw the entrance of the underground temple, now familiar to her sight despite the thousands of years of growth hiding it. They’d made it.
When Herod stopped and turned to look at her, offering a hint of a smile, she found herself smiling back.
“I take it, we’re here?” McKay asked, crossing his arms and lifting his chin arrogantly. “Wherever here is—standing in the middle of a forest surrounded by nothing but trees, rocks and, oh look, squirrels with…wow, really sharp teeth. Not so much squirrels then.” He backed up from the tree he’d been standing next to.
“Yes, we’re here,” Raina acknowledged, pulling the pack off her shoulders. McKay turned and watched her without blinking, his arms not unloosing from the defensive, angry posture he held.
“And here is?” he asked.
She didn’t answer immediately, instead pulling the map from her pack. Unfurling it, she handed it to him.
He stared at it a moment, then, with a sigh and a sidelong glance at Herod (her brother still had his gun trained on the scientist), he took it.
For a moment, he just looked at it, then, slowly, he began to smile. Then chuckle. Finally, he began to laugh, short and ugly and full of mockery. Raina’s eye twitched again.
“Are you kidding me?” he asked, turning the map around so she could see it. It was old, that much was obvious from the fact that it was painted on hide instead of vellum and stained with use. It showed a series of chambers in an underground temple, with arrows and tiny print written in each room. The last room had a big black “X” on it. The text scattered over the map was partly in Ancient, partly in the trader’s language, and partly in Wraith. The last was the reason why most people wouldn’t touch the map even if their life depended on it, even if they could read Wraith, which 99% of the population of this galaxy could not (or would not). But Doctor McKay could. More to the point, he wasn’t afraid to do so.
Even better, he had the kind of mind that would be able to decipher the puzzles, because that’s what was written in each room. They were puzzles, which, once solved, would show them how to get past the traps…
And find the treasure.
“You kidnapped me to read a treasure map?” he spluttered, still laughing, as if it were the funniest thing he’d ever heard. “For real?” He bent over, holding a hand to his chest, gasping for air. “Oh my God, Sheppard is going to love this!”
Raina gritted her teeth, walked up to him, and, when he looked up at her…
Promptly slugged him.
He fell back with an audible “oof,” landing on his rear again, the map landing next to him. Touching a hand to his face, he looked up at her with a bemused expression before it was quickly replaced by anger.
“You hit me!” he declared, as if this were a shocking thing.
“You deserved it,” Herod said, standing by Raina’s side now. McKay’s eyes widened comically.
“He speaks! Quick, someone make a recording for posterity!”
“Shut up and read the map,” Herod replied, walking over to pick up the discarded hide and tossing it to the Atlantian. Rodney flinched, as if he’d expected her brother to hit him, but Raina knew Herod too well for that. Her brother was big in size, tall and broad shouldered, short sleeves revealing corded muscles, but he rarely hit anyone. His size alone was enough to cow most people, and Herod used the threat, rather than his actual fists, to make his point. It made him something of a gentle person as a result.
No, the only one who ever really used violence was Raina. Not pretty enough to obtain a good husband, too blonde to be taken seriously on her home world, and short enough to be ignored, she’d found acceptance in being able to wield weapons very, very well.
She pulled back the hammer on her gun, and Rodney turned his gaze to her, his eyes narrowing.
“You’re both mad, you know,” he said. “You can’t really believe that this…” He picked up the hide and shook it out, then struggled to his feet while they watched, still holding the map. He held it up again once standing. “You can’t believe that it’s real. A treasure map? Seriously? What sort of treasure are you expecting to find?”
“You tell us,” Raina prompted, keep her stare level so as not to give away her excitement. This is what she’d been waiting for, ever since her mother had shown her the map as a child. To be fair, she didn’t really know what the map promised, but everyone who had ever seen it promised that, somewhere hidden in all the text—meaning somewhere hidden in the temple beneath their feet on this planet—was the promise of gold.
“Read it,” Herod said, looming a little.
Rodney hunched away from him, almost like a turtle trying to retreat into a shell. “Fine. Fine. You should really meet my friend Ronon, by the way. I bet you two would have a lot to not talk about.” When Herod loomed again, Rodney cleared his throat and turned the map around to read it again. “Umm…” He pressed his lips together, pushing them in and out, his eyes skimming back and forth. After a moment, he frowned, looking across at Raina. “It’s nonsense. This text, at least, the bits that are written into the rooms, read like bad poetry and riddles.”
“That’s because they are riddles,” Raina explained. “You answer the riddles, and you can get past the traps.”
Rodney glanced at her again, this time favoring her with a grimace. “Traps? What do you mean, traps?”
“Read the text on the bottom,” she said in reply. He frowned this time, but dutifully shifted the hide upwards in order to read the text written across the bottom.
She knew what most of it said—the part in the trader’s language was easy, and she’d had the Ancient text translated by a priest on Keltan (that was where the word “gold” had appeared). The Wraith language, however, she’d never really confirmed. But the one person she’d found who could read a smattering of the language, an old man on Cyrrian who was rumored to be a former Wraith Worshipper, had told her that it said something about power.
McKay was still reading it, his brow furrowed, and, for the first time, she saw the scientist behind the arrogant façade. As his eyes shifted across the text, curiosity filled his features, and his back straightened slightly.
He looked up at her after a moment, eyes no longer mocking but, once again, bemused. Slowly, he shook his head.
“Even after reading this, you still want to go down there?”
“Why?” he asked aghast.
Raina arched an eyebrow. “Did you miss the part about the gold?”
McKay just blinked. “The gold?”
“The Ancient text says there is a room filled with gold,” she said, gesturing at it with her gun. “Second to last line.”
He looked down again at the map, and then shook his head. “You really are mad.”
“It is not madness!” she snapped. “Stop saying that! There is gold down there, enough for a whole village to live on without ever having to work another day in their lives, maybe even enough to purchase safety from the Wraith. How is it mad to want to get our hands on it?”
Rodney snorted. “Oh please. It’s mad because this reads like a dime store novel! It’s nonsense, through and through. You can’t possibly believe that you’ll find the most powerful source of energy in the universe down there!”
Raina straightened, and her surprise must have shown on her face, because McKay’s eyes narrowed.
“Wait,” he said slowly, “you haven’t read all of this?”
Raina cleared her throat. “We, uh…we’ve never found anyone who could read Wraith. I mean, I know the Genii can, but they….” She shrugged. “They don’t play well with others.”
He pursed his lips, but didn’t disagree. He looked down again at the map. After a moment, he said, “And you didn’t want to just ask us for our help rather than kidnapping me because….”
“We don’t play well with others either,” she replied, not ashamed to admit it. It was the way of this galaxy. “Whatever is down there, it’s going to be ours alone.”
He snorted, but nodded. “Gotcha. So you need me to…?”
“Read it. Decipher the clues. Get us past the traps and to the treasure room.”
He nodded again, his lips still pursed, once more staring at the map. When he looked up again, his gaze was guileless. “So, you have never actually read this whole passage on the bottom all the way through.”
She shrugged. “We got the gist.”
He stared at her a moment longer, then held the map up in both hands.
“The Wraith are on the verge of defeating the Lanteans,” he read, “overwhelming by sheer numbers the might of the Lantean fleet. The Lanteans’ last defensive strongholds are crumbling; their most secret facilities are being raided and lost. They say the Wraith have learned to use the power of the Lanteans against them, making them all but impossible to stop. And so, the Lanteans have retreated, leaving us until they can return again with greater strength.” He looked up, and Raina nodded. That much had been written in the trader’s language, although “Lantean” was not the word she’d read. She had seen “Ancestor” instead. Still…he seemed to know what he was reading. McKay looked down again at the map. “So,” he continued, “in secret, we have been hoarding what remains of the Lanteans’ gifts to us, and what gold and precious metals we can find of theirs, into the remains of the destroyed facility on this world. We will seal it in, protect it with traps, and hold this secret close until the Lanteans return to claim what is theirs. This map shall be guarded, to be returned when they return, the treasure for them, and them alone, to find.” He looked up again, pausing once more because now he had read the Ancestor’s language. When she nodded again, to show she knew what he had read was true, he returned one more time to the text. “Should this map be found by Wraith hands, know that this map can never be deciphered by you. You will die before its secrets are revealed, and this temple will crush you under its weight. And when the Lanteans return, beside your corpses, they will find within a source of great power, the greatest this universe can hold, and they will take it in hand to destroy what is left of your evil race. This, we promise. Our ancestors be proud. Death to the Wraith.”
When he looked up again, his eyes were narrowed to slits.
Raina was breathing hard, more excited now than she had ever been before. He’d read the Wraith language so easily! No silly superstitious ideas stopping him! She knew they’d found the right person to help them!
“So,” she breathed, practically grinning now, unable to hold it back. “Can you do it?”
“Do what?” he asked, his voice low.
“Read the map,” she said, waving her hand at it. “Help us find the gold.”
He shook his head again. “You’re not serious.”
“Of course I can read it,” McKay snarled, “but what’s the point? It’s a joke.” He looked down at it again. “Gold and precious metals? The Ancients weren’t interested in gold. They didn’t need it! Why would anyone hoard gold for them, or think they would want them too? Anyone who knew them would know that the very idea is absurd. More to the point,” he was staring at her now, eyes fixed and determined, as if he could get her to listen by the mere force of his stare, “if there really is a power source down there as powerful as all that, why the hell wouldn’t the Lanteans have taken it with them? Or, better yet, used it while they were still here? No,” he looked down at the map again, “whoever created this was a blowhard and a nutjob. And if there really are traps down there?” He looked up again. “You can count me out. Indiana Jones, I am not. I’m not even the National Treasure guy.” He tossed the map at her, and it fluttered to the ground at her feet. “Go on your own raid for the lost ark. I’ll wait for the DVD, thank you very much.” He crossed his arms and lifted his chin.
And Herod grabbed him by the back of his neck, neatly lifting him up onto his tiptoes.
“You,” her brother said quietly, “talk too much.”
Raina smiled. She bent down and picked up the map as she listened to McKay plea to be let go. And when he squeaked again, this time with a distinctive underpinning of pain, she knew Herod was gripping even tighter.
And then abruptly, her brother let him go. McKay collapsed into a heap, whimpering slightly and curling forward over his knees, his hands on the back of his neck. Herod knelt down next to him, sneering when McKay finally lifted his head to meet his gaze.
“Are you really that foolish?” Herod asked, his voice barely above a whisper. “Everybody loves gold, Atlantian. It’s the most precious form of currency in this galaxy, has been even before the Ancestors left. Hell, I bet even you like it.”
The scientist shook his head. “That doesn’t mean—“
“Of course it does. Don’t lie about the Ancestors and say they didn’t need it, or liked it. After all, they were as we were, once. Personally, I think you’re just trying to stall, hoping your teammates will come along and save you. But they’re not going to. They’re too far behind, and once we’re in the temple, they won’t be able to follow us. Which brings me to my main point: you do not have a choice here. You read the map, lead us to the treasure, or we kill you. That simple. And if you whine about the idea of it one more time before doing so, I will break something inside you that you need very badly. Do you understand?”
A sort of squeaky affirmative answered him, and Raina smiled. Well, that was fun, she thought.
She walked across to the still sitting McKay and held the map out. He looked up at her with a defeated but still irritated expression, before taking the map with a shaking hand.
Sniffing, he looked again at the map. “I take it…” He stopped talking when his voice didn’t rise above a croak, and Raina waited magnanimously as he swallowed and then cleared his throat. “I take it you know where the entrance is? To this first room?”
“Yes,” she replied, allowing herself a modicum of smugness. “You’re sitting on top of it.”
CHAPTER TWO: THE FIRST ROOM
The “entrance” to the temple wasn’t so much an entrance as a hole in the ground covered by a large slab of rock. Had Raina seen the entrance to the Brotherhood’s sanctuary, she would have known why McKay had muttered that “he’d seen this episode already.” As it was, she just frowned at him.
Herod, with McKay’s reluctant help, quickly cleared away the branches, leaves and dirt that covered the slab, and then, with enough effort to turn McKay’s face bright red, they pushed it up and to the side. In the end, they left just a wide enough gap for a person to slide through. Tying ropes to one of the nearby trees, they descended one at a time into the darkness of the underground chamber, the floor of which was about fifteen feet below ground.
Raina was the last to descend, and, as she set down on the circular floor tile that marked the center of the room, she smiled. She loved it down here. Her brother had lit one of the torches they’d left the last time they’d visited, and golden light reflected off the sandstone walls, showing off the reliefs covering every inch of space. A collection of beautiful paintings that, to her, were all about hope: images of people tilling fields, herding animals, playing in the sun, dancing under the moon, and so on. They were scenes of people who did not fear the Wraith.
The floor was a dark marble, with a three tan circles etched into it for design. Dust was caked on it, kicked up as they each moved away from the center, leaving footprints in their wake.
The last time she and her brother had come down here, they hadn’t made it beyond this room, unable to find the doorway to the second room in the temple. They’d spent a month looking, finally giving up when they couldn’t find it, even with the map’s help.
But this time, they had him.
For a moment, McKay simply did what Raina had done--he studied the paintings on the walls, and then the room itself, dragging a toe through the dust to reveal the pattern on the floor before moving to study the walls more closely. Raina had lit her own torch by now, and the combined light filled the room, making the pictures almost dance. The room itself was a long rectangle, which matched the “blueprint” of it on the map, but it wasn’t exactly clear which wall was shared with the next room. The map didn’t contain any sort of compass, which was frustrating.
“This room has no doors,” McKay finally noted with curiosity.
“It’s the first puzzle,” Raina agreed, pointing to the map in his hand. “If you solve the riddle, you’ll find the entrance to the second room.” There were six rooms altogether, the sixth being the main chamber in which the gold was stored. The map didn’t actually connect the rooms, but laid them out in order—first, second, third, etc.—so once they found the doorway, they could move on. Raina had assumed it was set up that way so that you couldn’t just use an explosive to blow through the walls and get to the treasure room that way.
McKay sighed, unfurling the map in his hand.
Raina knew that, written in the box indicating this first room, was a riddle in all three languages. Each line in a different language, similar to the text on the bottom of the map.
“A box without a cover,” McKay read. “A cell without bars.” His eyes narrowed. “A prison without walls.” He looked up when he was done. “What the hell does that mean?”
Raina’s shoulders slumped. She’d hoped the line in Wraith would explain the other two lines, but it was just as cryptic as they were. A prison without walls?
She sighed. Well, it wasn’t meant to be easy, right? She lifted her gaze to meet his, pressing her lips together stubbornly.
“You’re the genius,” she said snidely, “you work it out.” After all, it wasn’t just for his linguistic skills that they had taken him.
McKay rolled his eyes, and sighed again. He looked over at Herod, but, clearly, he wasn’t going to get help from that side. Her brother was already settling himself against a wall to make himself comfortable, sitting down and crossing his legs, his weapon laid across his knees.
McKay looked at Raina again. “So, how long did you spend trying to work this out the last time you were here?”
She arched an eyebrow, surprised he’d guessed that they had tried to do this before. Of course, it wasn’t really difficult to guess. The torches they’d left behind were obviously a give-away. She gave a shrug.
“About a month.”
McKay nodded. “And how long do I have?”
“About half an hour for each room,” Herod replied from his seat, resting his gun on his knees in a subtle threat. “Or we kill you and find someone else.”
McKay’s jaw shifted, but he didn’t seem as bothered as he should have been, Raina noted. As if working under a time pressure was not a new thing for him.
“Fine.” McKay stared at the map again, then once more at the walls. Rolling it up, he stepped away from the center and took more care studying each of the paintings. Then he started looking at the wall joints between the paintings. His fingers traced the edges of the square cut stones, looking for a sign of a doorway. All things she and Herod had done a dozen times, in a dozen different ways.
He stopped when he came across a painting of an Ancestral Ring.
“We tried that,” Raina said matter-of-factly. “A doorway hidden behind the painting of a Ring. Seemed to make sense, but there’s nothing there.”
McKay just hummed, and continued his walk around the room.
When he had completed a full circuit, he turned to study the room as a whole. Then he moved back to the center…and sat down. The dust poofed around up him, like a ripple in a pond, the sunlight streaming through from above making the motes sparkle.
“Do you have any food?” he asked abruptly, looking up at her.
Raina frowned. “What?”
“Food. I think better on a full stomach. You got any?”
She frowned some more. “Do not stall. Your half an hour does not include a break to eat.”
Now it was his turn to frown, an expression she was beginning to find very familiar.
“You don’t understand,” he said snippily. “If I don’t eat, I can’t think. My blood sugar drops; I start to shake; I get a blinding headache, typically right behind this eye.” He tapped a finger on his left cheekbone. “Which I can already feel, by the way. Not long after that, a roaring fills my ears, and, suddenly,” he threw up his hands, startling Raina, “I pass out. My whole body just shuts down. Dead to the world.” He shook his head gravely. “I need food. Do you have any?”
Raina blinked at all that information. “What do you mean, you pass out?”
“Into a coma. It’s pretty serious.” He held out a hand to her. “So, what’s for lunch, Rio?”
“Right.” He shook his hand impatiently.
She blinked again, trying to remember how much food they had. This could be a problem, if true. She shook her head. “This has happened to you before?”
“Well…,” his gaze shifted to Herod and then back again. “Once. For sure. Possibly twice.”
She frowned. “Once. You fell into a coma once.”
“Well, not a coma exactly…”
“Not a coma. You just passed out.”
He grimaced, and tilted his head from side to side. “Well, actually, I didn’t quite pass out that first time it happened. But I was very light-headed. My doctor tried to pass it off as an anxiety attack, but I know it was low blood sugar. I mean, I get anxious all the time. Especially since we moved here. And I’ve yet to pass out from it, or even get light-headed. I went two weeks straight, once, with almost no sleep, culminating in the Wraith bombarding the city, Sheppard on a suicide run, Teyla missing after being attacked, Ford….” He paused, and a shadow crossed his face, revealing something Raina hadn’t seen before. But before she could put a name to it, he had pulled the mask back on and was babbling once again. “Point is, no anxiety attack. So, screw that diagnosis. Doctor was a quack anyway. Did I mention he was the only doctor at this base in Siberia? I’m not even convinced he was an actual MD. Even if he was, what do they really know, eh? This is my body, and, if anyone knows what it needs, it’s me. And I need food. Now. You want me to get you through this place to your mythical treasure? I want something to eat. And drink.” He crossed his arms and lifted his chin, the picture of defiance. “Preferably something without spice.”
Raina released a heavy breath. She hadn’t understood a lot of that, but she had gotten the gist. Shaking her head, she looked across at Herod.
Her brother shook his head in return. He didn’t believe McKay. Right…well…
Grimacing, she looked again at McKay. “It doesn’t change that you have half an hour…,” she warned. She looked down at her watch. “Or, rather, twenty-five minutes, to solve the first puzzle. If I feed you, the clock still ticks.”
McKay sighed. “Fine. Whatever. I still need to eat. Especially after the grueling six-hour trek you forced me to take to get here. I’m already feeling a little out of it.” He waved a hand around his head, and Raina’s eyes narrowed. Still, rather than fight, she pulled off her small backpack and fished through it for some bread. Breaking of a chunk, she held it out to him.
He stared at it a moment, and then sighed. “No butter, I take it? Or cheese? Or chocolate?”
Raina frowned even more. “No.” Nutella? She was sure they were speaking the same language, but, sometimes, it felt like he was using a foreign tongue.
“Fine.” He sighed, grabbing the bread from her hand almost greedily. “Though I ask you, who eats plain bread?” He tore off a chunk with his teeth and started to chew. “If only you’d let me take my vest,” he said, his mouth half full of bread. “I’ve a nice store of back up powerbars in there in case stuff like this happens. Lot better for you—filled with protein and all that good stuff.”
Raina snorted, already squirreling the rest of the bread away for later and pulling the pack back on. McKay continued to chew where he sat, unrolled the map again and laying it in by his side. She could tell he was studying the text in the other rooms. Maybe he thought they could help him with this one? They’d considered that possibility, but, without being able to properly translate the Wraith, it had been impossible to tell.
After about ten minutes, during which he had finished the bread but hadn’t gotten up again, she began to grow frustrated. What was taking him so long?
“What was the second time?” Herod asked suddenly from where he was still sitting, leaning against the far wall.
McKay looked up from his review of the map. “Huh?”
Raina had to agree with that response. What was her brother talking about?
“You said you’d passed out twice,” Herod said, “but that, the first time, you didn’t actually pass out. So, what happened the second time? I assume that was the ‘for sure’ you mentioned before?”
The scientist just stared at him a moment, before frowning and looking down again at the map.
“Manly hunger,” he muttered under his breath.
“What?” Herod asked loudly.
“Nothing. Look, can I have a drink of water now?”
Herod snorted, crossing his arms. “Don’t give it to him.”
Raina frowned. She had already put her hand on the canteen at her waist. “Why?”
“Because it’s a lie. This talk of passing out from hunger? He’s lying.”
Raina was confused. “Why would he lie? He knows it’s not gaining him any time.”
“Because he’s stalling. All that talk about needing something to eat, pretending to read the map—“
“I am reading the map! And I didn’t lie about needing food and… I really need something to drink now. I’m already feeling the first symptoms of severe dehydration.”
“Oh for….” Herod shook his head. “Give him the water, Raina.”
Raina was frowning at her brother now, but she grabbed the canteen from her waist and held it out. She didn’t like being ordered around. McKay accepted the canteen, took a sip, and then handed it back.
She just inclined her head in response, buckling it back on her belt. She continued to frown at Herod, who had his arms crossed, and then turned back to the scientist.
“Have you figured out how to get us out of this room yet?”
He shrugged. “Not quite.”
“Yes, he has,” Herod said. “He figured it out almost immediately, didn’t you?”
McKay looked up, and his expression gave him away. He looked like someone who had just been caught stealing. Raina’s eyes widened. The bastard!
“You know where the next room is?” Raina asked, her face flushing with anger. McKay looked up at her, attempting to look innocent. Oh, but he was a bad, bad liar. His face gave everything away.
“I don’t…I mean…He’s wrong! I didn’t….”
“He’s trying to wait the full thirty minutes,” Herod spat. “That’s why he’s stalling. He’s hoping to be rescued.”
Raina’s eyebrow shot up. “Are you?”
McKay just flushed, but not with indignation—with guilt. “I only—“
“Shut up!” She fought the urge to kick him, gesturing instead with her gun. “Get up.”
He pressed his lips together and stood. With deliberate slowness, he brushed the dust off his trousers, but she could see his hands shaking.
Herod crossed the room to them, and he grabbed McKay’s arm, his grip tight enough to make the scientist yelp. “Show us.”
McKay frowned angrily as he wrenched his arm free. “I’m getting a little tired of being manhandled, you know.”
Herod leaned in again, and the smaller man cowered. “So much anger,” Herod offered quietly, “hiding all that fear.”
McKay’s jaw worked back and forth, but he didn’t answer the jibe. Instead, he reached down and picked up the map, shaking it hard so the dust flew into Herod’s face. After sneezing, her brother loomed even more over the scientist, his hostility palpable, so Raina quietly inserted herself and pressed a hand to his chest. After a moment, Herod stepped back. She looked at McKay, surprised to be the voice of calm.
“Where is the entrance to the next room, McKay?”
He studied her a moment, and then shook his head. “The puzzle was very simple. I assume,” he shrugged, “because it’s the first room. Like the Monday New York Times Crossword.” He waved a hand around the room. “What do the images in this room depict?”
That was easy. “Freedom from the Wraith.”
“Right. Freedom. Which implies what?”
Raina straightened as it hit her, and she nodded at him. Oh, that was simple! “That…we feel imprisoned by them.”
“More specifically, by your fear of them,” McKay said.
“A prison without walls,” she said, nodding again. Then she frowned, not sure how this helped. “But what does that do for us? If the Wraith are the prison, but there are no images of Wraith on these walls….” She looked around, just to confirm it. She saw her brother doing the same.
“You’re making an assumption that the entrance to the next room is located inside one of the walls.”
Raina frowned deeply this time, turning sharply to look at him again. “What?”
“The next room is not besides this one. It’s beneath it. The entrance is in the floor. Probably a trap-door of some kind. Trigger it, and stairs will probably appear or something.”
Herod instantly danced back, looking down at the floor. Raina did the same, but still saw nothing there but the patterned marble. Three lighter colored marble circles inside a darker marble setting. No Wraith images there either.
“You’re still missing the point,” McKay said. He walked over and stood inside one of the circles, and gestured for them to join him. When they did, Herod with skepticism and Raina with confusion, the scientist sighed again.
“What do you do when the Wraith come?” he asked then. “What is it you fear more than anything?”
“Being culled,” Raina said instantly. “You seek to hide, so as not to be beamed aboard their ships.”
And he pointed upwards. Raina looked up.
“Oh!” Her eyes widened in surprise. She had never even thought to look up! After all, why look for an entrance in the ceiling? But, sure enough…
A picture of the underside of Wraith ship filled the ceiling, like looking up at the belly of a beast. She shivered; it was that real looking. Herod stepped a little closer to her.
“And that,” McKay continued, pointing up at a spot directly above where they were standing, “is where the culling beam is emitted from. And I would presume, if we got a stick and poked.…”
He stopped talking abruptly, and for good reason. Something flashed inside the picture in the spot he’d pointed at, a tiny little white light. McKay tilted his head.
The next thing they knew, the three of them were falling into nothingness. Raina screamed.
Ronon heard the screams in the distance, one of which he was certain was McKay’s. Without thinking, he began to run.
“How far away was that?” Teyla shouted breathlessly, catching up to him easily.
“Not far!” Sheppard shouted in return, a little further back.
Ronon spared no breath on words. His legs pumped, his eyes watching the ground for traps and holes. He leapt over logs and dead trees, circled around boulders, and just kept running, even after the screams were abruptly cut off.
He had his gun out, an extension of his arm, ready to bring it up at a moment’s notice.
He just hoped they wouldn’t too late.
If they had hurt him…if they had so much as touched him….
They were dead.
CHAPTER THREE: THE SECOND ROOM
The fall was mercifully short, landing them onto a lumpy, hard mattress that jarred the air out of Raina’s lungs. She bounced and rolled a bit, stars filling her eyes when her head impacted something hard. Dust and mold clouded the air around them, too thick to see through, and it sent her into a nasty bout of coughing when she drew in her first breath.
Through the haze of her own agony, she thought she heard McKay groan in pain and then Herod tried to say something, only to also end up coughing violently. Like a floodgate opening, harsh coughing filled the chamber as she and McKay joined in.
She waved at the dusty air, trying to break through. She couldn’t see, damn it!
Eventually, she was able to breathe in the stale air without hacking, though her throat still felt like it was on fire. She struggled for the canteen on her hip, wincing at the wetness she felt when she pulled it off. She could tell it was too tacky to be water—the metal edges of the canteen had sliced her hip on impact. Great.
Coughing less, she managed a sip without her lungs burning from lack of oxygen, and it helped some.
Turning over, she realized she smelled more than mold—something was burning.
She sat upright quickly, and grabbed at the torch, pulling it away from the object they’d fallen on. It wasn’t really a mattress, just a cloth tarp covering up dry straw—and it was going up like tinder! With a yelp, she tried to bat out the rapidly growing flames with her foot.
The next few minutes were spent in a haze of smoke and dust, with the other two diving in to help, battering out the smoldering tarp while still coughing, now from smoke inhalation. Herod even dumped his canteen on some of it, resulting in a fantastically awful smell, like burnt rubber. Although she didn’t see it herself, McKay apparently tried to use the map to bat away at the flames, because Herod was suddenly shouting, “Don’t use that!” and wrenching it away from him. Raina shook her head, still stamping, trying to stop more of the tarp from burning away.
Once the fire was out, the smoke quickly dissipated, rising up through the large hole in the ceiling through which they had fallen. Raina coughed the last of it from her lungs, and turned burning, watering eyes on the man puffing next to her. He was blinking rapidly, staring at the tarp as if it might suddenly burst into flames again.
“You said stairs!” Raina finally yelled, whacking McKay on the arm. “Stairs!”
The scientist coughed harshly into one hand, but waved the other in dismissal, his brow furrowing angrily as he glared at her.
“I said, probably stairs!” he snapped, his face reddening under the dirt. “How was I…” He coughed wetly again. “…Supposed to know?”
“You could have killed us!” she charged, hitting him again.
“Me? I warned you that the map makers were nutjobs! And stop hitting me!” He backed up a step in response to her raised hand. “I’m not a piñata!”
Raina stuck a finger in his face. “I am so going to make you regret—“
“Enough,” Herod snarled, grabbing her arm and pulling her away from McKay. “We’re here. We’re not badly hurt. Move on.” He stared hard at Raina when he said that, and she glared back.
By now, she was managing to take a breath more normally, and it was helping her calm down some. Wiping away some of the sticky grit from her face, she finally looked around the dark, gray stone room they were in. No paintings on the walls here—the stone was featureless, what she could make of it. She took another sip of her canteen and wiped away some more of the grit.
McKay was moving now, struggling a little on the uneven surface, clearly intending to step off of it. He stopped abruptly with a squeak, his arms windmilling as he backpedaled; Herod grabbed the back of his black jacket, drawing him back into the middle of the mattress.
Raina, taking a few steps to her side of the mattress, quickly understood why.
“Blood and spit,” she swore.
They was standing on top of what appeared to be a stone island in the middle of a pit, a very dark, bottomless looking pit. The island was about ten feet wide and ten feet long, the whole of which was covered by the mattress. On all sides, the floor just fell away, and no amount of peering down over the sides into the black nothingness below gave them any sense of just how far down they would fall if they left the island.
“Oh great,” McKay muttered, rubbing a hand across his sweat, smoke and dust streaked face. “A bottomless pit.” He shook his head. “I’ve seen this movie, too. Time Bandits. I hated that movie. I was terrified of dark holes in the ground for years after I saw that.”
Raina frowned at him, but didn’t respond to his nattering. Herod, however, apparently felt compelled to answer.
“No such thing as a bottomless pit,” her brother said, peering over the edge. “There’s a bottom down there somewhere.”
“Oh, thank you for that,” McKay said, sitting down heavily on the mattress. “That makes me feel so much better.” He buried his face in his hands.
“There’s a way out,” Herod said then.
“Yes, probably,” the scientist agreed, his voice muffled by his hands. “But I’m still recovering from the fall, nearly choking on mold and dust and smoke, nearly going up in flames, and nearly falling off the edge into oblivion. So, if you don’t mind, I could use a moment before you start the clock.”
“No,” Herod said, his tone more deliberate. “There is a way out. Over there.”
Raina turned around, looking at the wall opposite where Herod was standing. He’d been blocking her sight of it before, but he shifted sideways and stretched his torch towards it.
A door. His torch revealed a wide stone entranceway, and what appeared to be a heavy metal doorway, set into the wall about fifteen feet away from them.
But no way to get over to it.
“Too far to jump,” Herod noted, looking at the dark expanse between them and the doorway. “Even with a running start, which we don’t have enough room for.”
Raina frowned, rubbing at her own head, trying to get it working. She looked down at the smoldering cloth tarp under their feet. “Maybe….” She wiped her running nose with her hand and looked at the edges of the mattress, to see if they could pull the tarp off the straw underneath. “Maybe we can fashion a rope out of this tarp. Throw it across….”
“And catch it on what?” McKay asked. He was on his feet again. “The walls are sheer.”
“Um…” Raina looked up, trying to see the ceiling overhead, but it was too far up. If she squinted, she could almost make out the stone up there, but it was too dark to tell how far or whether there was anything up there that could be used to hold a rope.
“I could try climbing down,” Herod suggested, peering down into the darkness again. “Maybe I can climb up the other side, and you can throw the rope to me.”
McKay snorted at that. “Oh please. Even if you could free climb down sheer, vertical rock, you’ve no idea how deep it is.”
Herod shrugged still looking down. “Can’t be that deep.”
McKay stood up then, walked to the edge of the stone island a little unsteadily, and picked up a piece of loose shale from a worn corner. Looking at Herod, he tossed it off the edge.
Raina leaned forward, as did her brother and McKay, waiting to hear it hit bottom.
After what felt like a ridiculously long time, something down there burped.
McKay’s eyes widened, and he backpedaled again.
“No climbing,” Herod said quickly, swallowing. “Right.”
“Look,” McKay was looking up at the hole in the ceiling, his body visibly trembling from fear “How’s this for an idea? My teammates will be looking for me. They’ll track us here, and probably into the room above. We just have to wait until they figure out where we are, then they can….” He trailed off when he spotted Raina glaring at him.
“Not an option, Doctor,” she said quietly. It wasn’t. They weren’t giving up.
“But…look, nobody said anything about a pit with something that gurgles and burps when you drop a stone on it. What if it’s…” He waved a hand about. “Alive?”
“Nothing could live down there,” Herod said, peering over the edge again.
“Oh, you’ve no idea what sorts of creatures we’ve found in the dark and nasty. The aquarium where I grew up has this display of creatures pulled up from places like the Java Trench and the Mid-Atlantic Rift, and, believe me, they’re not pretty. Really, really sharp teeth. Pointy, like needles. And they live in the darkest places on Earth. True bottom dwellers. They make piranhas looks like kittens. No, no, no….” He waved his hands and shook his head. “Not happening. I did not sign up for this.”
Raina frowned. “Sign up?”
“Right, right.” McKay was hand-waving again. “Kidnapped. Forced. Coerced. Whatever. Point is, balancing the threat to death ratio, I went along with it. But scary, dark, gurgling beasts of the pit of despair are something altogether different from just being forced to work out some puzzles on a treasure map. I mean—”
“You make absolutely no sense, you know that, right?” Herod interrupted, staring with genuine bewilderment at the scientist. “You shift moods faster than a—“
“The map,” Raina said suddenly, looking around. “Where is it?”
“Uh…” McKay looked genuinely confused by the question, looking at his empty hands.
“Here,” Herod said, handing it over. Right—Raina had forgotten he’d taken it from McKay. And so had the scientist, apparently. Raina grabbed it and unfurled the hide, looking at the text of the second room.
“Right,” she said, studying the language. “It says…um…’an Ancestor’s welcome, completely by design, and, um…?” She trailed off, trying to translate the Ancestral characters. She knew one word. “…Home?”
“Yes, yes.” McKay snatched it from her and rolled it up. “I know what it says.”
Raina waited, and then frowned at him when he didn’t elaborate immediately. He had squished the rolled hide in his grip and was now looking up at the hole in the ceiling, as if for help.
“Well?” she demanded.
“What does it say?” Raina demanded.
“Oh, right.” He shook his head and unfurled the map. “It says, ‘a Lantean welcome, completely by design. A place to come home to, a place to hold onto.” He sighed before reciting what had been in Wraith. “Failure to see true beauty will bring about your fall. Death to the Wraith.’” He shook his head. “Reminds me of trying to read the free verse my girlfriend wrote in college. It was so god-awful, it made Vogon poetry seem pleasant.”
“Failure to see true beauty?” Raina repeated, determined to ignore his nonsensical asides. “A place to come home to.” She ran a hand through her hair—it had come loose of the tight bun, she realized. She quickly set to pulling it back again. “What does it mean?”
McKay sighed, then shook his head. “Smoke and mirrors, I suppose. At least the first part.”
Raina frowned again. “Smoke and what?”
“Uh,” McKay groaned, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “Right. Not from Earth.” He lowered his hand and looked across the yawning black pit. “It means, there may be a way across, but we can’t see it. An optical illusion hiding the bridge from sight. Very Last Crusade, really.”
“An optical illusion,” Raina repeated, shaking her head. “And last crusade? I still don’t—“
“Okay, see this?” McKay held his hands up to her, then clasped them together quickly, hiding them from her for a moment by turning sideways. When he turned around again, he was holding his left hand awkwardly, the fingers of his right partially obscuring his left thumb. He appeared to be holding it. “Watch,” he said.
And proceeded to pull his left thumb off his left hand. Raina couldn’t help it—she gasped.
“Optical illusion,” McKay said then, showing that it had been a trick by waving both hands at her again. “Used to entertain not too bright children.” She blinked, then frowned.
“So..,” she ground out, deciding it wasn’t worth it to rise to his bait. “There is smoke involved? We can light the tarp again. Will that help us see it? I am afraid I do not have a mirror.”
“No, no, the smoke and mirrors are what hide the….” He stopped abruptly, then sighed, lowering his head and shaking his hand at her in exasperation. “You know what? Forget it. Just accept that you can’t see the bridge to the doorway, but it’s there.”
Raina’s eyes narrowed, and she crossed her arms. This man made absolutely no sense. “If it’s hidden by smoke, shouldn’t it be smoky in here?” she demanded. “And you didn’t use either smoke or a mirror when you pulled that thumb trick.”
McKay just stared at her for a long moment. “Wow,” he said finally. “You’re really not getting this, are you?” He turned to look at Herod, but her brother was also frowning in confusion. He didn’t understand either.
“This is not my last crusade,” Herod stated firmly, crossing his arms.
“Oh my god, seriously?” McKay blurted. “No wonder you two need me,” he muttered, rubbing at his neck. Releasing a heavy breath, he shook his head. “Just forget the smoke and mirrors and crusades and everything else! All you need to know is that there is a way across, but we can’t see it. What that means is that we need to figure out how to find it without using our eyes!”
Raina shook her head, still not wholly getting this. “How? If we can’t see it…?”
“We can guess where it is,” McKay replied. “If we can guess what it looks like, we can probably locate it. The puzzle is obviously a clue. Now, when I first read it,” he grimaced slightly, “I thought it meant this room might be of Ancient design, which it is clearly not. They don’t exactly have bottomless pits on Atlantis, or completely featureless stone walls.”
“Not bottomless,” Herod said again. McKay gave him an acid stare.
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Obvious,” the scientist snarled. “My point is that I don’t see why this would represent ‘home’ for an Ancient. I mean, nothing in here even remotely appears….”
He paused suddenly, his eyes widening slightly, and then he rolled his eyes. “Oh. Great. I see. Huh.” He dragged a hand down his face. “The problem is, which design did they use?”
Raina’s head was throbbing. Following this man’s line of thinking was like trying to follow the flight of a snareflu. It was all over the place.
“What are you talking about?” she asked, trying to keep the frustration from her tone. “How are we supposed to help you if you do not finish a sentence?”
“Oh yes,” he muttered, “because you’ve been such a great help up to now.” He crossed his arms and sighed. “Okay. Finishing my sentences.” He took in a deep breath and looked at the both of them. “The map seems to suggest that something in here would remind the Ancients of home, but, clearly,” he looked around at the walls, “nothing even remotely Ancient is visible. Which means,” he returned his gaze to Raina, “the Ancient design is what we can’t see.”
Raina nodded, though she didn’t know what she was nodding at. “Meaning?”
“Meaning,” McKay continued, and his voice was starting to sound very strained, “if there is a bridge we can’t see, it’s probably in the shape of a pattern used in Ancient architecture. Maybe like the Frank Lloyd Wright windows they favored, or the boxy, cubist pillars they liked, or the spoked wheel set into the marble in front of the Gate on most worlds.”
Raina tried to picture what Rodney meant, but she had to admit—she’d never really looked at the platform the Ancestral Rings were set on. If there was a pattern there….
“Thing is,” McKay said, “I can think of at least a dozen different architectural designs that the Ancients favored, just in Atlantis alone. In our Isolation Room, for example, the walls have this fat arrow being slid into a dustpan design. In our infirmary, there is a sort of blocky antennae like design on the walls. In the five main pier corridors, there are metal reliefs with concentric circles on them. In the room we use as a gym, there are these—“
“That’s enough,” Raina said, raising a hand. “I get it.” And, amazingly, she did. “Lots of possible designs.” She sighed, looking around the room. “So, which would fit best in this room? Assuming, as you say, that it’s even here.”
McKay grimaced, twisting his lips in thought as he obviously considered the fairly narrow shape of the room—it was rectangular, just like the room above, with the entrance set inside one of the short sides. He brought his hand to his lips, and chewed on the thumbnail for a moment.
Finally, he shrugged. “The antennae, I guess.” He lowered his hand, “it’s sort of this straight, narrow line, and then it stops and breaks to the left and right, forming blocks.” He tried to show them the design with his hands, and then gave up. “If I’m right,” he stepped to the “front” of the island and looked down, “there should be a narrow but straight line of stone extending directly out towards the doorway.” He crouched down and felt along the stone.
“Wouldn’t a straight line be easy to follow?” Herod asked as McKay searched. McKay looked at him over his shoulder, eyebrows raised.
“Just, if they’re trying to fool us, making a mostly straight line from the front of this island directly to the doorway wouldn’t work.”
Rodney frowned, but didn’t disagree. He stood again, brushing his hands off.
“What if it’s not an architectural design,” Raina suggested suddenly. McKay and her brother both looked at her curiously.
“What do you mean?” McKay asked.
“What if….” She licked her lips. “What if it’s a sigil?”
“Like a gate symbol. Specifically, the symbol for Atlantis?”
McKay’s expression morphed then, from patronizing to…impressed. His eyebrows lifted. “Oh,” he said, nodding, “that actually makes sense. The symbol for ‘home.’ Or at least,” he bobbed his head, “what was the symbol for Atlantis when this was built.” When he glanced at her again, she couldn’t help smiling. “You’re not as dumb as you look.”
“Thank you,” she said with a touch of sarcasm.
“What’s the symbol?” Herod asked.
“Um…” McKay touched the tip of his fingers together to form a triangle, “a triangle with no bottom, and a circle on top.” He looked towards the doorway, and then into the darkness on either side.
“Do either of you have a stick or something?” He turned to look at them.
Raina shook her head. “We could make the tarp into a rope,” she suggested again.
Herod frowned. “What are you thinking, McKay?”
“Well, if I’m right,” he said, then glanced at Raina, “Or, rather, if your sister is right…” He turned and pointed into the darkness. “Taking into account the width and size of this room, there should be a hidden stone bridge about two feet from the corner of this island, right about there.” He lowered his hand. “The clever bit is, it’s not attached to this island. You have to jump over to it. But two feet…we could almost just make a really big step.”
“How wide is the bridge?” Herod asked.
“Maybe a foot? If I had a stick, I could—Hey!”
Herod had stepped off the platform, and Raina shrieked, jumping forward to catch him before he fell.
But he didn’t.
His right leg looked like it had been lopped off at the knee, but he was clearly standing on something. Still straddling the island and the “bridge,” he turned to look at them and grinned.
“Are you insane?” McKay demanded.
“You said it was here,” Herod replied.
“But…,” McKay blinked. “What if I’d been wrong?” As he spoke, he abruptly let go of her brother’s sleeve, as if he’d been touching something plague-ridden. He had grabbed at Herod to save him, Raina realized. Odd.
“You said it was here,” Herod repeated, smoothing down his crumpled sleeve. “And I get the feeling you’re often right. How else could you get so arrogant?” He smiled slightly.
McKay’s eyes narrowed. “Thanks,” he sneered.
Herod grinned, shifted, and held his hands out as if to help them across to whatever he was standing on. “You two coming?”
Ronon slowed down, feeling the strain in his chest as he looked around the clearing. At some point, he’d lost his sense of where the screaming had originated from, but he knew, as Sheppard had said, that it couldn’t have been far. He’d generally followed a straight line.
He had stopped in an area slightly less dense with trees than the rest of this forest, which wasn’t saying much. The trees were more crowded than people in a Belkan marketplace.
A couple of minutes later, Teyla and Sheppard caught up, spreading out to scan the area. Ronon kept his weapon raised, moving in a circle and covering them.
“Over here!” Teyla called, jerking Ronon’s head to the right. She was about twenty yards away, her P90’s aim locked on something out of sight. Sheppard reached her first, sidling behind her like a predator, and then moving circuitously towards what she was aiming at.
Ronon quickly took up a position opposite Sheppard, never taking his eyes off the woods around the other man. Teyla, he knew, would be covering them both.
When Sheppard disappeared into the brush, Ronon turned his attention to their goal: three loose black ropes tied to a large, sturdy tree, disappearing into a hole in the ground.
Sheppard appeared a minute later around the back of the large tree, indicating that they approach. There was no one guarding the area.
When they were close enough to cover him, Sheppard knelt and swung his P90 into the hole, scanning it with the flashlight. Teyla pulled a pair of glo-sticks from her vest, cracked them, and tossed them down. They didn’t shed much light, but it was enough to confirm that the room below was empty.
Ronon, meanwhile, had been reading the ground, discerning that there had been a scuffle, but that, sure enough, the footprints he’d been following since the village stopped here.
They’d gone down there.
“Guess we’re going rabbit hunting,” Sheppard said, standing again. Teyla was already testing the ropes, to make sure they’d hold their weight.
“Do you wish to try to contact Major Lorne again?” she asked, looking up at the colonel. “He and his team must be growing rather anxious waiting back at the Gate.”
“We moved out of radio range about a mile back,” Sheppard replied with a shake of his head. “Lorne knew we’d probably end up out of contact at some point. He’ll follow SOP and come after us if we don’t report in two hours.”
Teyla inclined her head in understanding, and shifted to looked down into the darkness.
“I’ll go first,” she offered.
“No,” Sheppard said, shaking his head. “I’ve got it.” He picked up a rope to tie around his waist.
Ronon had already tied a rope around his waist. When Sheppard looked at him, Ronon grinned, walked right past his commanding officer and jumped into the hole.
Once Raina was standing on the hidden walkway, she could actually see it. It was apparently only invisible from the stone island. What an amazing feat of magic to hide this from view!
The “bridge,” if you can call it that, was indeed one of the arms of the Atlantis symbol, set at an angle to the central island. A matching arm was on the other side of the room. It was about a foot wide, and, at the top, where the two arms met, there was an open circle, the circumference of which they’d have to skirt to get to the door.
She pressed a hand to McKay’s back, who was shaking badly now (he had frozen upon reaching the bridge). For a brief moment, she was worried that his threat about not eating was coming true, but he soon explained.
“Afraid of heights,” he offered weakly, keeping his eyes focused at a point above the doorway they were sidling towards. Unfortunately, the pit was not an illusion—it was as dark and as “bottomless” as before.
She didn’t deny that it had been somewhat terrifying reaching the bridge, even though the couple of feet they’d had to cross was not a huge gap. But, looking down into the nothingness below, that two feet had felt almost terrifyingly wide. And Raina wasn’t afraid of heights. She pressed her hand deeper into McKay’s back, feeling an odd urge to comfort him as his trembling increased.
“Come on,” Herod ordered, taking hold of McKay’s wrist. With a tug, he started dragging the scientist behind him along the bridge.
It soon became obvious that it would take both of them to generate any kind of forward movement from the scientist—Herod pulling and Raina pushing. Forcing McKay to move, combined with their own less than confident balance, made the crossing doubly difficult.
But after what felt like years, they finally made it to the doorway. And none too soon.
Whatever was down in the pit…was gurgling now. The stench of sulfur began to fill the room.
McKay pressed up against the metal door, almost hugging it. Herod looked for a door handle. Raina just turned in the remaining space and stared into the pit.
What had McKay said? Something about sharp teeth? She swallowed, trying to quell her growing fear.
It was really, really dark down in that pit.
Something suddenly glittered in the black depths, and she jumped, pressing her back into the wall. Ancestors Above, had that been an eye?
“Oh for…” McKay’s tone was both impatient and scared. “Why isn’t this opening?” He banged on the metal.
Raina turned to look at him, and then at the still closed door. Herod was running his hands down the edges now, still looking for some sort of catch or panel.
The space they were standing on – a shelf of rock not much wider than the three of them combined – was really beginning to feel too small. She pulled her gun, pointing it into the darkness.
And now the gurgling was getting louder.
Oh please…please…Raina turned and started examining the sides of the entranceway with her free hand, the other still holding the gun.
The pit groaned.
“Oh God,” McKay muttered.
“There has to be something,” Raina insisted, still searching the sides, running her hand up and down the stone. There had to be something! “Come on!”
Another burp. More like a belch. A long, hungry belch.
McKay was watching Herod now. Her brother was feeling along the bottom of the door.
Why wasn’t McKay helping?
The pit let out a yawn. Ancestors, whatever was down there was waking up!
“Blood and spit!” she cursed, and she grabbed McKay, pushing him up against the side of the entranceway. “Do something!”
His eyes were side. “What? Like what?”
“Get the door open!”
“Figure it out! That’s why you’re here!”
“Because if you don’t,” she hissed, not caring that her voice was cracking as she got right up into his space, “we’re dead. And I will make certain you die first.”
McKay swallowed. “Oh yeah,” he said weakly, tipping his head back on the rock and closing his eyes, “I’ve definitely seen this episode before.”
CHAPTER FOUR: THE THIRD ROOM
A tiny white light flashed near McKay’s elbow where she had him pressed to the wall, and Raina stopped moving.
“What is…?” She trailed off as it grew brighter.
The scientist frowned, and then looked down at the portion of the wall she was staring at. A whole square of stone was now glowing with a soft, white light. No, that’s not right, Raina corrected herself. It wasn’t stone anymore. Was it?
McKay’s expression relaxed into something akin to surprise, and, when she let him go, he turned and crouched slightly to see the portion of the wall better. A section of stone had slid away at the touch of his elbow, revealing a blocky looking sort of panel.
“It can’t be,” he said softly.
And, without any further explanation, he waved his hand over the panel.
The metal door exploded upwards, disappearing into the ceiling with a “whoosh.” Herod, who has still been feeling along the doors edges, fell forward into the next room, while McKay did the opposite, falling away from the doorway and towards the pit. Raina grabbed his arm before he could fall off and pulled them both through the entranceway after her brother.
Herod was standing up cautiously on the far side of the threshold, eying the room suspiciously as he brushed off his trousers and picked up the torch he’d dropped. Halfway to fully upright, he stopped.
“Herod?” Raina called softly, noting the tense shoulders. His expression…he looked…scared? She couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked scared.
“Something moved,” he answered with a whisper, staring out into the gloomy, dark room.
Raina raised her own torch, but she was looking at her brother. “What?”
Herod glanced at her and cleared his throat, quickly schooling his features to hide the momentary panic, and pushed his torch further into the darkness.
Something splashed, and Raina raised her own torch higher, to expand the circle of light.
Suddenly and completely without warning, the foulest stench Raina had ever smelled raked over them, watering her eyes and instantly causing both she and McKay to cover their mouths.
“Oh my God!” McKay groaned through his hands. “What the hell is that? It smells like—“
“Rotting corpses,” Herod finished darkly, pinching his nose shut. And Raina realized he was right. She knew this smell. Too well.
McKay’s eyes were watering as well, giving the blue irises a washed out appearance as he looked at her brother. “Dead people?”
“Dead somethings,” Herod replied, shrugging. He grabbed the scarf around his neck and pulled it up, covering his mouth and nose with it. Raina wished she were wearing hers. Instead, she kept one hand over her mouth as Herod moved forward, followed closely by the Atlantian scientist. After she stepped out of the entranceway, the door behind them slammed shut with a clang.
She saw McKay jump at the loud noise, and she couldn’t blame him.
“Ugh,” her brother muttered, when the source of the stench was finally revealed by the torches.
“Oh, that is just gross,” McKay mumbled. He had his hand over his mouth again.
In front of them, lit mostly by Herod’s torch, was a pool that appeared to run the full length of a this room—which was at least twice as long as the previous two rooms. The water was black with muck, and it was the water that smelled so fetid. Bits of white floated in the murk, and it didn’t take much to discern that they were bones. Too small to be human, thankfully, but fish and small animals, probably rodents. It was a death chamber.
Herod quite suddenly, and with no warning, threw up.
Thankfully for her poor brother, he’d removed his scarf first.
Raina just resolved herself to not breathing too deeply.
That was when she realized…
The doorway out of this new chamber was on the far side of the long, narrow pool, and there wasn’t a way to avoid the pool to get to it.
“Oh, Ancestors Above,” Raina whispered, “please tell me we don’t have to swim in that.”
“I think that would be a really, really bad idea,” McKay said. He was standing closer to it than she was, though still not too close, and was staring at something in the murk.
Raina stepped forward, holding her torch out. She danced back when something inky black broke the pearly black water and disappeared again.
Herod watched it move, his eyes tracking the sinewy beast. After a moment, he groaned.
“There’s more than one.”
Sure enough, more inky black creatures crested the surface of the scum-covered pool, but they never saw their heads. Like eels. Really fat, scary looking eels. Raina shivered.
“Throw them some bread,” McKay suggested then.
“Why?” Herod asked.
“Just…” he shrugged, “to see what happens?”
Herod’s brow furrowed, but Raina was already pulling the bread from her pack. Breaking off a hunk, she tossed it into approximately the center of the pool.
For a second, nothing happened. It just floated there.
Then the pool erupted, as the inky black creatures, too many to count, exploded out of the water and converged on the bread, pulling it down into the inky deaths. Raina gasped, taking an involuntary step back.
“Did you see those teeth?” McKay squeaked. She nodded. Herod just frowned, looking at her.
“We touch that water…” he began, shaking his head.
“I think I liked the other room better,” McKay said, crossing his arms tightly and crushing the hide even more tightly in his hand. “At least there, we couldn’t see what was going to kill us.”
Ronon studied the pattern of the footprints, following them to the point he figured to be the last place all three stood—inside one of the three circles on the floor.
“These paintings are wonderful,” Teyla said, and you could hear the smile in her voice as she ran her flashlight over the walls. “They depict a future where we would not fear the Wraith.”
“Yeah,” Sheppard said, standing in the middle of the room. “But then what’s up with the Dart painted on the ceiling?” He pointed his flashlight straight up.
Ronon looked up at the unexpected painting, shuddering despite himself. No one could look at the underside of a Wraith ship and not shudder. It was part of growing up in this galaxy.
“They stood here,” he told Sheppard, looking down at the circle but being careful not to step inside it. “There’s a lot less dust on this space.” He looked up again at the Dart. “It’s located directly below where the culling beam would be emitted.”
“Strange,” Teyla said, shaking her head, walking over to his side. She too looked up at the painted Dart’s underbelly, not hiding her discomfort. “Perhaps…” she pursed her lips in thought, “Perhaps it is a transporter beam of some kind? Emitted from this portion of this ship over whomever stands within this circle? It transports you somewhere?”
“Would explain the lack of dust,” Sheppard said. “But not the screaming we heard. Transporters don’t hurt.”
“Nor do culling beams,” Ronon said. At Sheppard and Teyla’s look, he smiled slightly. “Well, not when you’re being culled, they don’t.”
“Well,” Sheppard frowned, “I don’t see that we have much in the way of options here.” He handed a coil of rope over to Ronon, one of the three they’d found above. Ronon took it and hung it off his shoulder.
Teyla sighed and stepped into the circle. “I will go first this time,” she said, and closed her eyes.
When nothing happened, she opened them again, frowning slightly. Then she looked up at the Dart.
And then she was gone.
“Whoa!” Sheppard said, diving forward to look into the hole as Teyla fell away from him, her surprised shout already fading. “Teyla!”
The stone slid shut before either he or Ronon could follow, nearly taking off Sheppard’s fingers where he’d gripped the edge of the hole. “Yah!”
Ronon was already moving, to open the trap door again, when Sheppard slammed a hand on his chest to stop him.
“Wait!” he ordered. Sheppard tapped his radio. “Teyla!”
Nothing happened for a moment, then, softly and with a lot of static, she answered. They could hear her coughing. “I’m here. I landed on…something. A mattress of some kind.”
Relief was clear on Sheppard’s face. “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” She coughed some more. “There is a lot of dust and it reeks of smoke and mold. I…” She coughed again. “I do not see Rodney, or his kidnappers.”
“We’re coming.” Sheppard said, and looked at Ronon. “We’re blowing that floor open and rappelling down. Teyla, you get that? Can you get out of the way of any falling debris?”
“Not easily. There is not much room; however….” She coughed again, almost hacking. “However, I agree that is the best option. We will need a secured rope to get to the doorway.”
Sheppard frowned at that. “Meaning?”
“Meaning,” Teyla sighed, her coughing finally subsiding, “That there is a wide gap between here and the doorway to the next room, and I cannot see the bottom. I…wait.” There was a pause, accented only by a small crack. After a moment, she started again. “I tossed my last glo-stick down into the darkness. From what I can see, the bottom of the gap, or pit, is filled with a black sludge of some kind. Possibly tar. It’s bubbling quite actively. There is a faint smell of sulfur underneath the stench of smoke.”
Sheppard sighed. “Great. Alright. I’ll warn you before we blow this trap door.”
“I will be prepared.”
Sheppard smiled tightly, tapping his earpiece to cut the connection.
Ronon stepped away when Sheppard pulled the C-4 from his vest, and a new thought came to mind.
“What if McKay’s kidnappers hear the explosion?” he asked.
Sheppard glanced at him. “You have a better idea?”
“We could try to break the mechanism. Stop the door from shutting.”
“Wedge something in it?”
Ronon frowned, thinking of their options. “A rock.”
Sheppard chuckled then, shaking his head. “Can’t believe you’re trying to stop me from blowing something up.” He was already cutting up the C-4 into a smaller piece. “It’ll be a small explosion. They won’t hear it.”
Ronon frowned again, but he believed in Sheppard. As soon as the C-4 was set, the two backed away from the trap door to the farthest corner of the room and turned their backs on it. Pulling out the detonator, Sheppard glanced at Ronon and smiled. Cueing his radio, so Teyla would hear, he announced, “Fire in the hole!”
The faint explosion rocked the room, and the eels (or whatever they were) in the water went nuts, churning the water as if it was boiling.
Raina whipped around, staring up at dust falling from the ceiling and the closed metal door behind them, expecting…
Well, she didn’t know what she was expecting. Was it the temple coming down, too old to handle the motion of the doors and traps? Was it the monster in the pit behind them?
She looked at McKay, and found him wearing a expectant expression, staring at the door behind them with something akin to confidence. He’d straightened slightly, lifting his head.
While Raina might not have known what to expect exactly, he clearly did. He was expecting rescue. Blood and spit, could it be his teammates? How was that possible! They should still be asleep!
“They’re coming,” Herod said dully, mirroring her thoughts. Raina shook her head at him. No! It was too soon! They weren’t even halfway done!
“How?” she demanded.
“Villagers,” Herod shrugged. “They might have helped them. Or their own people may have come through to find them. Whatever happened, they’re here…” He looked at McKay. “For him.”
The Atlantian scientist didn’t reply, but she knew the beginning of an “I told you so” was forming on his lips.
Something inside Raina snapped. She wasn’t even aware she’d hit him, knocked him down, until her brother was pulling her off the obnoxious man.
“You’re not going to be rescued!” she yelled, trying to break free of her brother’s hold. “You’re helping us!”
“Raina…” Herod tried to placate. “Let him be. It’s not his—“
“No! This doesn’t change anything,” she snarled, pulling out her gun to wave at the still prone scientist. “You will finish this for us.”
McKay was breathing hard, staring up at her with a frown and a bloodied lip. “You really think you can stop them?” he demanded furiously. “They’ll get to us before we--”
“Not if you work! Get up!” She pointed the gun barrel at his leg. “Or I’m shooting you in the leg.”
“Raina,” Herod tried again. “Perhaps…?”
“My plan, Herod. We’re finishing this.” She cocked the gun. “Get up, Doctor.”
McKay’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say no. With obvious reluctance, he stood up and Raina shifted the gun’s aim to his upper right shoulder.
“What’s the next puzzle?” she demanded.
“They’re right behind us,” he said again. “They’ll be here before we can—“
“Maybe,” Raina snapped. “Maybe not. But if you want to stay alive long enough to prove me wrong, you will do what I say. Now tell us the next puzzle!”
He took in a deep breath, glanced again at the metal door, then nodded. “Fine.” He crossed his arms, not opening the map he had partially crushed in his hand. “’Water,’ it says, ‘brings life, it creates and sustains the true. Water also brings destruction, it drowns and sweeps away the false. ” He sighed. “For the true, step down, and you will survive. For the false, step down, and you will perish.” He waved a hand. “They got one thing right—the Wraith are not overly fond of water.”
Raina shook her head. “Step down?”
“There are steps leading down into the bottom of the pool,” Herod said, looking at the water. “Think it’s that simple?”
“I’m sure there’s a trick, but….” McKay stopped, then blinked rapidly as he looked at Herod. “Wait, what did you say?”
“Steps,” Herod said. “I can just make them out through the scum. They lead down.”
“Oh no,” McKay took a step back, waving his hands, “I’m not stepping down into that. With those…,” he cringed, “things.”
Raina trembled with anger and frustration. “You don’t have a choice,” she said fiercely. “Do it. Or I swear…”
“You’ll shoot me,” McKay said, nodding. “Yes, yes, I’ve heard that before. I’ll take a bullet before I go swimming with the eels of death, thank you ve—“
Raina’s shot was deliberately wide, but close enough that he had to feel the breeze on his face. His eyes widened.
It wasn’t hard to be a good shot at close range.
“Want to try that again?” she asked.
He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he was furious. “What the hell is wrong with you!”
“To hell with this,” Herod spat. He grabbed McKay’s arm and basically threw him at the pool. The scientist staggered forward, his arms out, trying to stop himself before…
His right foot hit the first step under the murky, scum covered water. He screamed and pulled back as the eels surged towards him, jumping back out onto the dry as the creatures converged where he had been.
But not before something extraordinary happened. The step lit up. The light was white and pure, and it filled the entire pool. As they watched, one by one, all of the underwater steps lit up, Ancestral lettering glowing, pushing back the darkness of the once black pool. And not just the darkness was pushed back.
The eels were not accustomed to light, and they screamed, an inhuman wail that was almost painful. They shot away from the steps, congealing into a black mass at the far end of the pool, as far from the white light as possible.
McKay stepped forward again, looking in wonder at the steps. Glancing at the terrified eels, he swallowed and risked placing his foot on the first step again.
The light glowed even brighter, and tiny lights along the edge of the pool lit up as well, in tiny bowl-shaped sconces. They quickly drowned out the two torches that Herod and she were holding, making their fire seem almost non-essential.
It was beautiful.
“Oh my God,” McKay muttered. “It was an Ancient facility.”
He jumped back again as the pool began to shudder, and the sound of water being sucked down a drain filled the room. As they watched, the water level in the pool began to drop, slowly at first, then faster and faster, almost like a dam had been broken.
The eels screamed even more, chasing the water down. Finally, after only a few seconds, only a small amount of water remained in the pool, perhaps a half-foot deep, on either side of a flat, foot-wide causeway cutting a central path through the pool. The eels made writing piles of oily black on each side of the causeway, their wails almost pitiful now.
“I…,” McKay swallowed, “I don’t think those creatures were here when this was created.” A few eels were clearly trying to escape through small holes along the base of the pool just above the water line, through which the water had likely been drained (and the eels had probably entered). Most were too fat to fit.
“I don’t care,” Raina said suddenly, forcing herself from the reverie she’d been in. “Let’s just move before this thing starts to fill up again.”
McKay frowned, and didn’t move. His unwillingness was plain, even despite the excitement he’d showed upon recognizing the Ancestral lights.
Herod sighed, pulled his weapon from his holster, and told her with a wave to take point. He then cocked the gun next to McKay’s ear. The Atlantian shuddered, and took a reluctant step forward.
Raina shoved her gun away, grabbed McKay’s right wrist, and pulled. Herod must have moved in behind McKay and shoved, because, the next thing she knew, they were almost falling down the wet, lit steps to the causeway. On the far side, there were stairs leading up again, also lit white, all in the Ancestral language. Beautiful—she’d never seen the like.
In contrast to such beauty, the eels were restless, flopping onto the causeway, probably seeking a way to get back to the water they’d lived in, or to get away from the light. Raina jumped when one of them landed on her foot. She kicked it off and stepped over another.
“Gah!” McKay staggered into her, and she saw him shaking his leg, where an eel had attached itself to his boot.
“Raina, look out!” Herod shouted, and she looked in front of her. A half dozen eels were climbing over each other, trying to reach her. They raised their heads, and she almost screamed. Ancestors, the mouths on the things! Huge circular maws, ringed with teeth. Not eels! Not eels!
“Lampreys! Oh God, I hate lampreys!” McKay whimpered, clearly attempting to backpedal. “I can’t handle them! Seriously, should’ve seen me when the X-Files showed Tooms, I—“
“Keep moving! Faster! They’re getting braver!” Herod snapped, obviously shoving the scientist forward into Raina again. She nearly fell into the mass forming in front of her. With a yelp, she jumped over it rather than attempt to regain her balance. McKay jumped right after her, since she still had his wrist, and she tugged him forward, starting to jog. “Keep moving,” she encouraged him. There was no going back now—those things were both in front and behind them now.
“Blood and Spit!” her brother shouted suddenly, causing her to look behind. Herod had one on his arm, and he pulled it off, blood dripping from its maw. He saw her slow, and stumbled towards her, pulling his own weapon. “Don’t slow down! Go! Move!”
And he started shooting.
It drove them even more insane. They started jumping, leaping up out of the fetid water and using each other for leverage, aiming to take down the humans running between them.
Raina shrieked, letting McKay go in order to pull her gun again, and started firing at anything that leapt up at them. She heard McKay smacking at them with the map, using the hide like a whip.
“The torch!” McKay shouted. “Use the fire!”
Raina didn’t question, just started sweeping the torch in her other hand out towards the beasts, letting the flames lick at them. It seemed to work, many of the creatures shied back, hating the heat.
“Raina!” Herod’s scream was blood-curdling, and Raina instantly halted to turn back, causing McKay to smack into her.
Her brother had a dozen of the creatures on him, almost blanketing him. He’d lost his torch, the brand half in the water, guttering. He still had his gun, but it was useless now; he couldn’t shoot them at such close range, so he was just trying to pry them off, but there were too many. And more were slithering towards him.
“Raina,” he gasped, pain clear on his face. “Help….”
He collapsed to one knee, and several lampreys crawled up onto his back.
McKay froze in terror.
Screaming her brother’s name again, Raina pushed past the rigid scientist to get to her brother, firing at the creatures and brandishing her torch like a weapon.
“Get to the exit!” she shouted to McKay as she reached Herod’s side, smacking down three lampreys on his arm with her torch. “Open the door! We’ll be right behind—“
“Look out!” McKay yelled, and she turned just in time to see him whip the map like a bat, sending two lampreys flying that had been about to jump on her. And then he was next to her, shoving her brother’s dropped torch at the thickest mass of lampreys digging into Herod’s right thigh. He dropped the map and grabbed the tail of one of the lampreys on Herod’s shoulder, pulling it off as her brother screamed in agony.
“You need to be brighter!” he shouted angrily, and, like that, the walls glowed so intensely, they were almost blinding. She thought she caught surprise on McKay’s face, but it was too fleeting to be sure. The lampreys screamed and writhed in response to the dazzling white, many retreating.
But not all. Her brother screamed as one latched onto his neck.
Then she stopped wondering, or even thinking, smacking down lampreys with the butt of her weapon and burning every creature she could find with her torch.
Her brother seemed to regain some sense, and started helping, pulling more of the creatures off with McKay’s help.
Raina was screaming furiously now, barely aware as she kept moving: fighting, hitting, burning, firing….
“I’ve got him,” McKay yelled suddenly, and she could see that he know had her brother’s bleeding arm thrown over his shoulder. “Cover us!”
She did, firing and bearing her torch in all directions, keeping one eye on the lampreys and the other on her brother as McKay dragged him towards the door to the fourth room. Herod was bleeding all over the causeway, but, as Raina ran to follow, the lampreys no longer seemed to be as excited. She soon figured out why as she leapt up the first two steps after the men.
They had started eating each other, feeding on the dead and wounded. The stench of rotten fish became even stronger, overpowering. Her stomach rolled as she ran up the last few steps, reaching the men as they fell against the metal door.
McKay propped her semi-conscious brother up and looked back at her.
And that’s when the lights went out; the water gushing back in with a boom. The radius of light from the two torches showed a wave of water and a dozen starving lampreys cresting the top step and slithering straight for them.
“McKay!” Raina screamed. Her gun had run out of bullets, clicking on an empty chamber.
“It’s open!” he shouted back, and Raina turned and fell through the open door.
CHAPTER FIVE: THE FOURTH ROOM
Ronon watched as Teyla expertly swung across to the doorway from the mattress, making it appear effortless. Landing softly on the stone outcrop of the entranceway, she waited a moment, waiting for something to happen, as it had with the trapdoor. When it didn’t, she nodded and tossed the rope back.
Sheppard swung across second, a lot less gracefully but no less expert. He landed with a steadiness and certainty that Teyla lacked. Teyla, meanwhile, was already studying the metal door for some sort of handle. Sheppard tossed the rope back to Ronon, and moved to one side.
Ronon grabbed the rope, checking to see that it was still secured up above in the first room, before swinging over to join the other two.
When he landed, reluctantly letting the rope go to be left behind, he looked back at the strange, slightly burnt mattress in the middle of this room. His eyes widened slightly at the sight of what was clearly the symbol for Atlantis filling the gap between the entranceway and the stone island.
He also saw the footprints where they’d disturbed the dust. So, McKay and his kidnappers had somehow figured out that the symbol was there and could be used as a bridge.
“Weird, eh?” Sheppard asked, obviously noting Ronon’s curiosity. “See those?” He pointed to the walls; flat objects jutted out, which, like the walkway, were hidden because of the way they were angled towards the stone island. “Mirrors. It’s an optical illusion. Anyone falling on that mattress thingy from above wouldn’t be able to see the Atlantis symbol until they were on top of it.”
Ronon frowned then. “Why?” He turned to look at Sheppard. “Why hide it? What is this place?”
“Got me, Chewie,” Sheppard replied, shaking his head. “Though, gotta say, it’s beginning to feel very Indiana Jones.”
“As in Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Teyla asked. She shuddered slightly—she had not enjoyed the scene at the end, with the ghostly creatures emerging from the ark. Ronon had found himself holding down an urge to fire at the movie screen.
“Yeah.” The colonel studied the dark, stone walls. “Or the Temple of Doom.” His eyes narrowed. “Question is, what’s the treasure at the end?”
Teyla frowned. She was running her hands down the stones on the side of the doorway now, looking for some sort of trigger.
Ronon crossed his arms and waited. There wasn’t enough room for him to help her. Sheppard started running his hands down the wall opposite Teyla.
“Perhaps,” Teyla said, knocking on the stone now, listening for a hollow one, “it is something that will defeat the Wraith.”
“Why do you say that?” Sheppard asked.
“The paintings in the room above. They depicted freedom from the Wraith.”
“Except for the Dart in the ceiling.”
She shook her head. She had no response to that.
Ronon had turned around again to look at the Atlantis symbol. Truthfully, he didn’t care what was at the end, so long as McKay was still alive when they got there. He pressed his arms tighter together across his chest, willing down the anger. Anger was his strength, but it had no use right now. When they found the people who had taken McKay, though….
He smiled wickedly.
“Colonel,” Teyla called, “this rock is not solid.”
Ronon turned around just as Sheppard pressed a hand to the rock Teyla had obviously pointed out. Instantly, the stone slid to the side, reacting to his touch, and Teyla gasped.
It was an Atlantian access panel.
“Holy shit,” Sheppard breathed.
Teyla exhaled heavily. “That is….”
“Ancient,” Sheppard said, nodding. “Damn.” He looked up at the room, frowning again at the plainness of it, before looking again at the panel.
“Could it be something that was added to this place?” Teyla asked. “We know the Genii assimilate technology into their facilities.”
Sheppard shook his head. “I don’t know. One thing we know, the Genii have never managed to assimilate Ancient technology like this into their bunkers. I’ve only ever seen panels like this in Ancient facilities.”
“Still,” Teyla reasoned, “it could be—“
“Does it matter right now?” Ronon snapped, turning around, his arms crossed even more tightly. “McKay’s behind that door. You can ask him when you see him.”
“Right,” Sheppard said, shaking his head slightly. He waved his hand over the panel, and the door shot upwards into the ceiling.
Instantly, they had their hands over their mouths. Ronon felt like retching.
P90s raised and pointed into the nearly black room, Ronon’s blaster at the ready, they moved into the darkness.
McKay was bandaging Herod’s deeper wounds but, to Raina’s eyes, they appeared mostly superficial. Herod clearly felt the same, because, when McKay went to grab another bandage from Raina’s pack, Herod stopped him by tapping a gun on McKay’s arm.
“Enough. We need to move on.”
McKay gritted his teeth, but said nothing as he put the bandage down and closed the pack.
Raina finished reloading Herod’s gun, and tossed it to her brother. He snatched it out of the air, smiling amusedly at the fact that McKay hadn’t even tried for it, and tossed Raina’s already reloaded gun back to her.
McKay handed her the pack then, and crossed his arms, staring unhappily around the fourth room.
Herod struggled to his feet, his weapon trained on McKay as Raina slid the pack over her shoulders. Covering him wasn’t really necessary—neither of them really thought McKay would attack them, but that didn’t mean he might not try to find a way to help his teammates. Or to attempt to go back.
Though anyone wanting to go back into the last room would have to be insane. Either of the last two rooms.
This room, however, was very different.
It was lined with sandstone, and, the moment they had entered the room, sconces lining the upper portions of the walls emitted a soft, radiant light, filling the room. After the stark gray of the previous rooms, it was almost pretty.
The sconces were set back a bit in the stone, as if the stone had been placed on top of the original wall out of which the sconces jutted. McKay had looked at them like something familiar, and Raina’s curiosity grew. The image of the scientist demanding the lights brighten in the third room, and how they responded, was not something she was likely to forget. Rumors had said the people from Atlantis were the Ancestor’s descendents, able to manipulate the technology like they were born to it, almost as if they were more than human.
She shook herself. Ridiculous. He was human. One she hated at that.
Except, she didn’t. She didn’t hate him anymore. Not even a little bit. When had that happened?
She shook herself even more vigorously this time, berating herself for being foolish. Herod was right -- they had to keep moving.
“This room doesn’t appear too deadly,” Herod said, his voice a little weak. “Nothing slithering out to attack us, at least.”
“Yes,” Raina agreed, resolved to focusing once more on their goal. She stepped forward, “Perhaps we have made it past the—“
Something loud reverberated in the walls, and something suddenly slammed into her legs, bringing her to the ground just as a sharp crackle of electricity filled her ears.
“Raina!” Herod’s shout was terrified, and Raina, now prone on the floor, her palms stinging from being scuffed on sand-covered surface, lifted her head to look up.
“Ancestors above,” she whispered, her voice lost beneath the heavy hum of power.
Just a couple of feet above her head, white bolts of what looked like lightning streaked across a thin layer of white light, leaving behind a heady scent of ozone. Her entire body could feel the electricity; her skin buzzed with it. It was almost tantalizing. Then two sets of hands on her feet were dragging her back to the doorway, out from under the energy field.
As soon as she back in the entranceway, the field disappeared, only leaving behind the stench of ozone.
“Oh my,” she whispered, holding a hand to her chest as McKay shifted away from her and Herod tried to slip the pack off her shoulders. She didn’t understand why until he succeeded, offering her the leather pack to show her what had happened.
Half of it was missing—shorn away, as if by fire. Her noise wrinkled; it smelled foul.
“Well,” she managed weakly, lightly touching the smoldering black leather, “that pack’s ruined.”
Herod grunted, removing his own pack and salvaging what he could of her things to add to his. Shaking herself, she smiled gratefully at her brother, finally absorbing the import of what had just happened.
“Thank you,” she said, not even trying to hide how shaken she was.
“Wasn’t me,” Herod said, nodding to McKay on her other side. “He saved your life by knocking you down.”
Raina’s breath stopped, and she turned, staring at McKay with shock.
The scientist was dusting his hands off on his trousers, purposefully not looking at her.
McKay glanced at her askance, and she could see the turmoil in his eyes. He didn’t seem to know either.
“You saved my life,” Raina stated finally. It wasn’t a question.
McKay shrugged. “Had I thought about it,” he said, clearing his throat, compulsively trying to wipe the dust from his arms now, “obviously I wouldn’t have.”
And she knew he was lying. Because he had helped to save her brother too, and he had had time to think about that before acting. Maybe a split seconds worth, but enough time to make the decision rather than just move. Raina had reacted on instinct to save her brother, but McKay had taken deliberate action.
“You’re a very bad liar,” she said quietly. McKay glanced at her. She inclined her head to him. “Thank you.”
He shrugged again. “So,” he said, licking his lips and frowning slightly, not looking at her, “since you now sort of owe me, how about you—“
“No,” she said. She didn’t need to hear the question. “It doesn’t change anything, and I don’t owe you anything.”
He frowned, looking genuinely shocked. “Don’t owe me….But I saved your life! It’s standard protocol! Quid pro quo and all that.”
“I didn’t ask you to.”
His mouth worked a few times, before he finally looked away. Raina pushed down the part of her that hated herself for being so cold (and ignored the uncertain look on her brother’s face), and ordered herself to stay focused.
“Tell us how to get past this trap,” she said, keeping her voice calm.
But McKay wasn’t ready to give up yet. He shook his head and looked at her again. “How about I tell you, and you let me stay behind? To wait for my—“
“I’ll tell you how to get through the next two rooms as well, and—“
His jaw tensed, as he drew in a deep breath. “Look, I’m not….I won’t….Please, at least let me help my team. That last room…”
As if on cue, the faint echo of machine gun fire echoed through the doorway, causing them all to jump. McKay’s team had met the lampreys.
McKay was on his feet again, looking to find a way back through the doorway, but Herod grabbed his shirt and pulled him away. McKay growled, trying to free himself from her brother’s grip.
“Let me go! They need to know--”
“She said no.”
“Damn it! I’m not going to let them die when I can—“
“You don’t have a choice,” Raina reiterated, raising her voice to be heard over the faint gunfire. “Now, how do we get through this room?”
“What’s the riddle?” Herod asked.
McKay glared at them. “I tell you, you let me go,” he said again.
“This is not a negotiation,” Raina said, pressing her gun to McKay’s head. “The riddle. Now.”
McKay was breathing shallowly now, trying to pull his head away from the barrel but succeeding only in burying it in Herod’s shoulder where he held him. “I lost the map, remember? I don’t—“
“You knew what was going to happen before you knocked Raina down,” Herod stated quietly. “You could only have done that if you’d already memorized the map. Means you don’t need it. So tell us.” Herod was visibly shaking now, swaying slightly as he held onto the scientist, and Raina frowned.
McKay closed his eyes, and then opened them again. Gunfire was still echoing clearly through the closed doorway. She knew he was thinking about how close they were.
Raina also knew that, when they did show up—something would have to be done about them.
And, like a light, she realized she could use it as a bargaining chip.
“Doctor,” she said, trying to choose her words carefully, pulling her weapon back to appear conciliatory. “Listen to me. You know as well as I that we don’t want to share this treasure. Do you know what that means?”
He just glared at her. Raina allowed herself a small smile.
“It means,” she said, “that if your teammates come through that door, we will kill them. We won’t even give them a chance; we’ll just start firing as soon as the door goes up. But,” her eyes narrowed, “if you get us all the way to the end, to the treasure….” She shrugged. “Maybe we can strike a deal. Find a way for us all to get what we want.”
The scientist was scrutinizing her now, examining her face as if he were studying a particularly difficult problem. He pressed his lips together thinly, and then sighed.
“Your word?” he asked.
Raina nodded, trying not to smile. She had him. “My word.”
He studied her a moment longer, and then lowered his head. “Fine,” he sighed. “You win.” Herod loosened his grip and McKay slid out of his reach, closer to Raina. Herod smiled at his sister, leaning up against the wall next to the doorway. She smiled back.
It faded when she realized he was sweating.
“I’m good,” Herod promised, clearly knowing her well enough to know what her expression meant.
Not believing him, but also without much in the way of options, she turned to McKay.
“Well? What do we do?”
He sighed. “The puzzle for this room spoke of the evils of arrogance, of pride.” He shrugged. “It wasn’t too hard to figure out, especially if you’ve ever met a Wraith. They don’t just walk, they stalk. Although…” He snorted softly. “I don’t think the people who wrote it ever met an Ancient either. They’re not exactly lacking in the ego department.”
Herod blinked. “You’ve met a--?”
“Herod,” Raina sighed. She’d figured out by now that McKay said things like that just for distraction; of course, he had never met an Ancestor. She glared at the scientist. “Just tell us what to do.”
He shrugged. “Crawl.”
“What?” Herod said.
“We crawl. I figured it out when I saw the thin spaces slit between the stones.” He pointed at the wall. About thigh height and again at chest height, a gap was visible between the sandstones. “An apparently malfunctioning Ancient force-field is formed between those lines. We have something like it on Atlantis, although they’re set vertically. Some sick minded person set it horizontally instead, so it would cut through anyone trying to walk through this room. But,” he lowered his hand, “if we crawl below it, we should be fine.”
“And a Wraith wouldn’t crawl,” Raina said, understanding.
“Like I said, they stalk. I can’t imagine one ever crawling.”
Raina nodded. “Right.” She pulled her weapon again. “You first.”
McKay stared at her for a half-second, hostility pouring from every pore, but he got down on his hands and knees. He checked the gap in the wall, to check the height, and started to move, shuffling along and, after a moment, moaning about how this was really going to kill his knees.
Raina smiled. He was almost amusing in his predictability, this man. Turning to Herod, she put her gun away and held out her hand.
“Give me your pack.”
Herod was already kneeling, preparing to follow McKay. He looked up at her and frowned. The flush on his cheeks was getting darker, and he was sweating more.
“What?” he asked. “Why?”
“Because you’re too big,” she lied. “If you wear it, the force-field thing will sear it off your back. I’m smaller—I can wear it without risking it triggering anything.”
He stared at her for a moment, and then shrugged off his pack. It was larger than hers, and heavier—especially now that it carried some of her items. She put it on, tugged the straps tight, not meeting his gaze. Still frowning, but looking a little more stable now that he had the pack off, her brother started crawling after McKay.
Raina pulled the gun again, wanting to keep it in hand just in case McKay’s team made it through the lamprey room intact.
“Are they all dead?” Teyla asked, breathing hard, her back up against the wall next to the door they had entered from.
“Think so,” Ronon answered, kicking at the burnt and bloodied lampreys at his feet. It felt like he’d been firing non-stop since they had come through the door, as soon as he’d seen the creatures erupt out of the dank pool towards them, maws gaping.
“There may be more in the pool,” Sheppard noted. Several flares were burning around the pool edge, creating small pools of peace which the lampreys had avoided when they’d attacked.
Ronon moved forward at the same time as the colonel, the two covered by Teyla behind them. They reached the edge of the pool together, Sheppard swiping his flashlight across the surface.
“Blood in the water,” he noted.
It was hard to miss. Between the flares and the flashlights, the red floating on the surface mixed almost brightly with the green and black scum.
“How did they make it across?” Ronon asked. “They must have found a way.”
“Unless they’re under that,” Sheppard muttered, his tone dark.
“They made it across,” Teyla assured, stepping up between them. She crouched down, putting her light closer to the water’s surface.
“Teyla…” Ronon warned. If there were more of those things….
“There are steps down,” she said, angling the beam to cut through the murk to see them better. “And they look familiar, almost as if…” She titled her head, and then her eyes widened. She stood and stepped back. “Colonel, do you see….They look just like….”
“Yeah,” Sheppard said quietly. “The steps in the Gateroom. The Ancients built this place. Might explain why they grabbed McKay.” His eyes narrowed, and he nodded. “Well, here goes nothing.”
Ronon and Teyla both covered the water as Sheppard stepped down on the first step.
White light exploded through the room, and what lampreys still alive wailed.
The sand colored room was square, and not very deep. It didn’t take very long for the three of them, even with McKay’s “problem knees,” to make their way across. The firing had grown increasingly intermittent in the room behind them, and Raina kept shooting concerned looks over her shoulder even with only a few more yards to go.
And then Herod collapsed.
He did it almost silently. He’d been moving faster, catching up to McKay, as if to pass him. Raina realized it made sense—just in case the scientist tried to get away from them on the other side, or perhaps find a way to use this room’s trap against them. It was something that had occurred to her about halfway across—if McKay could make the lights glow brighter in the third room, could he amplify the electrical field in this room to harm her and Herod in this one? So she’d assumed that was why Herod was hurrying, to beat McKay to the other side. It never occurred to her that he was doing it because he was trying to get across before he fell down.
Just a few feet from the door, her brother stopped, let out choked exhale, and crumpled, the flaming torch in his hand rolling away and finally going out.
McKay was next to him in seconds, checking his pulse. Raina wasn’t far behind, holding her gun on the scientist in case he tried to take advantage of her brother’s weakened state.
She needn’t have bothered. McKay was looking down at something in Herod’s hand, his expression tight.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” McKay snarled. “You can put that away.”
“Raina.” Herod’s voice was incredibly weak. It sounded horribly strained. Crawling quickly, she was by his side in a moment. “Take the gun,” he whispered.
She tried to stop her jaw from trembling as she did so. She tucked it into her waistband, her eyes shifting between Herod and McKay.
“What is it?” she asked softly. “What’s wrong?”
“Not sure,” Herod replied, his voice shaking with pain. “I’m….everything aches.”
McKay was there again, touching his skin and pressing a hand to his neck again. “How’s your breathing?” he asked.
Herod struggled to swallow, and shook his head. “Tight. It’s getting harder.”
McKay frowned. “Dizzy?”
“Yeah. And…hot. I’m so hot.”
“You’re feverish and sweating,” McKay agreed. “And your pulse is racing.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Raina asked.
“I think…” McKay shrugged, “I mean, I’m not a doctor. I mean, not that kind of doctor…” He grimaced. “I mean….”
“Dr. McKay,” Raina snapped. “Please. If you know…”
His blue eyes were impossibly blue when he looked up at her, his skin taut across his cheekbones, his color wan. “I spent some time in a place on my planet that’s famous for rattlesnakes, and I’ve always been sort of paranoid of being bitten by one,” he said. “Read everything I could. What he’s describing….It sounds like just it. Like he’s been poisoned.”
The scientist grimaced. “The lampreys must have had some sort of venom in their bite.”
Herod’s breathing was harsh now, as if he had fluid in his lungs. Raina covered her hand with her mouth.
“Come on,” McKay encouraged, getting his arms under Herod’s shoulders. “Let’s get you out from under this force-field.”
Raina didn’t say a word as the scientist they’d threatened for the last few hours gently lifted her brother up over his back and started crawling towards the doorway, with Herod holding on to him.
Herod’s breathing worsened as they moved, but he gamely tried to help, his legs vaguely pushing at the stone.
Raina didn’t want to cry. She really didn’t.
In minutes, they were inside the recessed entranceway to the fifth room. McKay had propped Herod up into a sitting position next to the closed metal door, but it didn’t matter. Raina stood on shaky legs, tears running down her face as her brother smiled up at her, his eyes already at half-mast. His arms, his strong, thick arms which had carried her for so long, were lax by his sides, the bloody bites still seeping. The deeper ones hidden by the bandages had badly stained the white fabric.
His breathing hiccoughed.
“Herod,” she whispered, wishing she could look away. “Don’t.”
“I’ll be alright, little sister,” he replied, blinking at her with rheumy eyes. “I’ll just rest. You go on. Find the treasure. Come…come back for me.”
“Just…little sleepy,” he whispered, closing his eyes. “Wait for you.” He smiled softly. “Bring the gold back….” He was breathing very shallowly now, almost gasping for air. Raina wiped the back of her arm across her wet face, feeling her hand shaking badly.
“I don’t want to leave you,” she pleaded.
“S’fine. I’m fine. Be here,” he coughed weakly. “Find it for….” He coughed again. “…for me.”
“I’ll try,” Raina promised weakly.
“Know you will.” He smiled softly. “My smart little sister….”
“Herod, please…please don’t….”
He stopped smiling. His brow furrowed, as if he were confused by something.
“Don’t,” she whispered. Don’t leave me alone.
His breathing slowed.
Raina choked on her next breath, falling back into the entranceway. Her hand, the one holding her gun, was covering her mouth again, trying to will her lips to stop quivering. She dropped the torch in her other hand, letting it fall against the metal door, almost going out as it settled into the corner.
She blinked, releasing more tears. Her gaze found McKay’s where he still knelt next to her brother. He had an odd expression on his face, almost nervous.
“Raina,” he said. “I’m sorry. I never….”
She swallowed thickly.
And then pointed her gun at him.
He fell back into the corner between the door and the wall, pressing into it.
“Open the door,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Now.”
“I have nothing to lose, Dr. McKay,” she said, sniffing. “Open the door or I will shoot you and use your hand to open it myself. It’s your touch that works it, right?”
His brow furrowed. “But, I thought….”
He stared at her for a long moment; then, nodding, he stood up, his gaze shifting away, as if unable to even look at her anymore. He pressed a hand to the door panel and, as with every other time, the metal doorway exploded upwards. Beyond were a set of stairs leading upwards.
“Move,” she ordered, using the gun for emphasis. “Up the stairs.”
He looked down at her brother once more, and then crossed the threshold.
Raina picked up the dropped torch and followed him through, pressing her gun to his back.
Which was when the door to the third room exploded upwards behind them.
“McKay!” A man’s shout filled the chamber and Raina didn’t think. Whipping around, she started firing at the three people standing in the exit to the third room.
“No!” McKay grabbed at her, trying for the gun, and she shoved back, turning the weapon on him and cracking him across the jaw. A blast of red light hit the wall just next to her and Raina fell back against the stairs.
The door slammed shut as McKay shouted “Stay down!” to his teammates.
Alone once more, she turned and leveled the gun at him.
“Move!” she ordered. “Now!”
The scientist stared at her, his gaze still open and, now, a little hurt. “You gave me your word you wouldn’t try to hurt them!” he charged. “You said!”
“My word,” Raina replied, breathing hard, “Stopped being worth anything a long time ago, Doctor McKay.” She swallowed, and wiped the last of the tears from her face. “Now move!”
CHAPTER SIX: THE STAIRS
“Damn it!” Sheppard swore, lowering his weapon as he peered through the entranceway into the sand colored room. It was still unfired, though Sheppard’s finger was cramped up over the trigger.
Ronon knew Sheppard and Teyla couldn’t risk firing their weapons, not when McKay was so close to the woman who had been shooting at them. Too much chance of a ricochet in such a small space. But he could—and he was furious that he had missed hitting her with the stunner. He saw Teyla giving him a sympathetic look when he smacked his hand into the wall in frustration.
“Let’s get after him,” Sheppard said then, stepping through the entranceway into the room.
“Stop!” Teyla ordered. “Wait!”
Sheppard had halted immediately, and he rocked back a step, looking around as if something might suddenly jump out at them. “What?”
“Well,” Teyla said reasonably, “besides him…” She pointed with her P90 across the square, sand colored room, at the man sitting in the entranceway on the far side. A burnt out torch lay a few feet away from him. “So far, every room in this place has had some sort of built in trap. It seems like this one does as well. It would be best if we proceeded with caution.” She arched an eyebrow at Sheppard, and he grimaced in return.
“Right.” Sheppard moved aside to allow all three of them to enter the room, but they didn’t move beyond the entranceway for now. When the metal door slid shut behind them, Ronon couldn’t deny a sigh of relief to be done with the noxious lamprey room.
“Is he dead?” he asked, his blaster fixed on the man’s body ever since Teyla had pointed him out.
“Looks like,” Sheppard said, his P90 also pointed at the man. “But, Ronon? Just in case?”
Ronon nodded, firing a blot of red across the room and hitting the man squarely. He didn’t react to being stunned. That answered the question. Even the sleeping reacted to being stunned like a person electrocuted—they always convulsed.
His eyes narrowed. “Think the woman killed him?”
“No,” Teyla replied. “Look at the floor.”
Blood stains. He should have noticed them before. The man on the far side had either crawled or was dragged across this floor to the far door. From the smeared patches of soot fairly evenly placed, it was pretty obvious that he had crawled, likely with the torch in one hand.
“He crawled,” Sheppard noted. “On his own. You can see his handprints.” He pointed to some of the more obvious prints on the ground. “But he must have collapsed at one point, probably up there.” He pointed to a spot where more blood smeared the floor, near the spent torch.
“They all crawled,” Teyla noted.
“McKay shouted to ‘stay down,’” Ronon said, looking at the walls now. “Guessing he meant we should crawl too.” He saw the thin gaps between the stones—probably the source of this room’s “trap.”
Sheppard shrugged, and smiled slightly. “And Rodney’s always right.”
Ronon smiled as well, and, glancing over his shoulder, he saw Teyla smiling as well. They couldn’t help it.
They knew McKay was alive. Even better, they were close. They also knew what they were dealing with now—one woman. Admittedly, a woman with good aim (every shot she’d fired had gone through the doorway—they’d been lucky to avoid being shot), but still, just one kidnapper to deal with was a lot better than a whole lot of kidnappers.
“Well,” Sheppard got down on his hands and knees, “shall we? We have a damsel in distress to rescue, and I’m betting he’s getting pretty bitchy about how slow we’re being.”
Ronon just grinned.
“These stairs are definitely Ancient, almost identical to the staircases in Atlantis. Even more interestingly, unlike every other place we’ve been, this small staircase isn’t lined with stone, so we can actually see the Ancient architecture that filled this place. See? That’s the arrow and dustpan design I was describing before.”
Raina was only half listening, letting him prattle on as she pressed the gun in his back. He was nervous, scared of her, and he had reason to be.
She was finding it very hard to care about anything right now. The only reason they were even moving was because her brother had told her to keep going. For him, she’d find the gold.
“Which is why,” McKay continued, “when you asked me what the trap might be here, I said there probably wasn’t one. This staircase leads up to the fifth room on the map, but isn’t a room itself. It’s just a staircase.”
Lights flared to life as they moved up the steps, reacting, she knew now, to his presence.
“Shame they covered up the rest with that stone,” McKay added. “I mean, the Ancients had a pretty nice aesthetic. I’ve grown pretty fond of it. I’d like to see what this place really used to look like.”
“Why…,” she swallowed, blinking slowly, but she needed the distraction. “Why do you call them that?”
“What? Oh, why do I call them Ancients? Because that’s what we call them. Well, that’s what we call their race. Like you and me, we’re human, they’re Ancients.”
So, he was human. She found herself a little relieved, although she hadn’t really believed otherwise. She tapped her gun on his back again when he tripped a little on a step. He was getting tired.
“But you also call them something else,” she said.
“Lanteans. Yeah. That’s what the people who built Atlantis called themselves. Lanteans. Like calling yourself Genii, or Belkan, or Athosian. Me, I’m a Canadian and you’re…?”
She didn’t answer the prompt. But she understood. He glanced at her over his shoulder when she didn’t reply, a vaguely troubled look on his face.
“So what’s at the top?” she asked, hating how hoarse her voice sounded. She had to get it under control. If she didn’t, McKay’s teammates would be on top of them before they’d reached the gold.
“Room five of six. It’s got a puzzle I didn’t wholly understand. I’m hoping, like the others, it’ll become obvious when we get there.”
She nodded, even though he couldn’t see her.
“Raina,” he said, and she could tell he was about to say something she didn’t want to hear. “Raina, look, about your brother—“
“I just…I never really got the impression that you two were as cold-blooded as you wanted me to believe. Your brother, he was—“
“He really did remind me of my friend Ronon. They both had this….I don’t want to say a goodness since Herod did threaten to break something inside me, but—“
“Please,” she begged. “Please don’t talk about him.”
“Blood and spit!” she snapped, her voice cracking as the tears started again. “Don’t you ever shut up?”
He was quiet for about a second.
“What I’m….What I’m trying to say is, he loved you, that much was clear. And you loved him. And I don’t think he’d really want you to kill yourself—“
He made an effort. She could see it in the way he held his head. But, he was right—even with a gun pressed to his back, it wasn’t in his nature.
It was almost admirable.
“Raina, please listen to me. My teammates are right behind us. You know that. They’ll be through that door and up these stairs before we’re able to sort out the puzzle that works the next room. And they’ll stop at nothing to get me back. I know that sounds arrogant, but I know them. I could be someone they hated, but because I’m from Atlantis, they will not stop until they’ve—“
“Then you’d best hurry up,” Raina suggested, pushing on his back harder with the gun. “I wasn’t kidding about not caring about much right now, Doctor.”
“I’m just trying to explain that…,” she could see his shoulders bunch under the black shirt. “They’ll kill you, Raina. You might get one lucky shot in, maybe hurt one of them, or me, or whatever, but the other two will kill you. They will. Your brother wouldn’t want that.”
Raina slammed the butt of the pistol hard between his shoulder blades and he fell forward onto the stairs, landing hard on his hands and knees. He turned to look at her, his surprise quickly turning to annoyance.
“I warned you,” Raina stated harshly, “not to talk about my brother.”
The annoyance faded instantly. Instead, his shoulders slumped. “Raina, please. If you let me go now, if you stop this from going any further, they won’t kill you. I promise you. You don’t need to die. Just give me the two guns and—”
She shot the metal stairs next to his head, cringing when the bullet ricocheted, bouncing off the walls. When she looked at him again, his mouth was shut. It was remarkable how he could look furious and terrified at the same time.
“Better,” she said, hating herself so much now, she could taste the bile in her mouth. “Now keep moving.”
He breathed in deeply, and his brow furrowed angrily. “Why won’t you listen to me? I’m trying to save your life!”
“You mean, your life.”
“No, I mean both our lives! Raina, I’m a terrible liar, you said so. You know I’m not lying now. You need to listen to me here!”
Her head hurt. Her face hurt. Her chest hurt. Everything just hurt.
“And I told you,” she hissed through gritted teeth, “that I don’t care about a lot right now. That includes you.” She swallowed, because at some point that had become a lie. “Keep moving, Doctor. I’m not giving up now.”
He closed his eyes, and then pushed himself up off the stairs in order to start climbing again.
Ronon watched as Sheppard fought the urge to stand up and start running to the doorway, the colonel’s eyes glued on the metal separating them from McKay.
That single shot fired a few seconds ago still echoed faintly through the silent room.
Teyla ducked her head.
“That woman is dead,” Sheppard muttered. “She just doesn’t know it yet.”
Ronon couldn’t agree more.
At the top of the stairs was another square room, this one with a gorgeous mosaic on the floor, made up of five interweaved colors: red, black, blue, white and yellow. The pattern was sinewy, as if it were depicting five interlocking snakes, all crossing each other five times.
“Five colors,” McKay said, looking down at the floor. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Raina asked, still pressing the gun to his back.
“The puzzle for this room was made up of five separate lines, all short. This floor is made up of five colors, and I don’t believe in coincidence. Well,” he shrugged, “I do believe in coincidence. The universe is built on coincidence, but not here. I don’t believe in coincidence when it comes to anything man-made. No,” he shook his head, “five lines of bad poetry, five colors intertwined on the floor? Not a coincidence.”
Raina shut her eyes to ignore the rambling, and then opened them again. “Just solve it and let’s go.”
He frowned, still staring at the floor. “It’s not that easy. This one…this one isn’t as obvious as the others.”
She sighed. Of course not. “I hope you are not stalling.”
“I’m not, I…” He trailed off.
She waited a moment, then prompted, “the riddle?”
“’The place of beginning’,” he said, “that’s the first line.”
“The place of beginning?” she repeated, frowning a little.
He nodded. “Followed by, ‘the preservation of life, ‘the cradle of existence, ‘the source of light’, and, lastly….” His expression twisted a little. “‘The necessary element.’”
She looked down at the floor.
“I assume,” McKay said, “that we start off on one color, until the color representing the second line of the riddle crosses it, then we head down that color towards the third color, and so on and so forth.”
“Which color is first?”
“Whichever color represents the first line of the riddle, I suppose.”
“The place of beginning,” Raina repeated.
“Right, but the beginning of what? The universe? I suppose that would be black, before the stars and planets were formed.”
“Or white,” Raina suggested. “I have been told that the universe was born of an explosion of light.”
“Hunh,” McKay actually smiled slightly, and then glanced at her in surprise. “Wait, really? You were taught a Big Bang theory? I just assumed everyone from here thought the universe was created by the Ancients.”
She frowned. What a silly idea. “No. The Ancestors are our ancestors, but they did not create the universe. They were just the first. Everyone knows that.” She looked at the floor, then laughed slightly, his words repeating themselves in her head. “Big bang?” she repeated. “That’s what the greatest mind in two galaxies calls it? That’s not very scientific sounding, Doctor.”
He just snorted. “Just as good a name as anything else.”
“And what’s at the end?” she asked. “The small fizzle?”
He snorted a short laugh, and Raina found her smile growing. He shook his head.
“I hope never to find out,” he admitted quietly.
Her smile faded quickly, her mirth as transitory as everything else felt to her right now. She wasn’t even sure what was real anymore. It was almost like she was floating.
“The place of beginning,” she repeated again. “So, either black or white, then?”
He shrugged. “Want to flip a coin?” he asked, smiling weakly. “That’s what Sheppard would do.”
“He’s your team leader?” she asked.
He nodded, all smiles gone.
“The one who is going to kill me.”
He didn’t answer. He just stared at the floor. Then he shrugged again.
“Actually,” he said, “could also be Teyla or Ronon.”
She emitted a quick laugh, feeling a little dizzy. Another tear ran down her face, and she quickly brushed it away with her gun hand. Lifting her gaze as she did so, she found herself studying what turned out to be a very odd ceiling. It was shallow and, strangely, didn’t look solid. There were visible gaps between the stones. They almost looked like…wait….Did one set of stones just move?
McKay was looking up now as well, matching her gaze. “Oh,” he said. “I think I know what happens if you pick the wrong color.”
“The ceiling falls on you,” Raina said. Her eyes trailed the gaps—whole sections of the ceiling must come down, crushing anyone directly underneath. She didn’t feel scared for some reason, though she knew she should. She just couldn’t shake the disconnected feeling she had.
“‘This temple will crush you,’” McKay quoted. “That’s what the map said. That if a Wraith tried to follow it, they would be crushed. Guess it was being somewhat literal here.”
Raina just nodded.
It also made her think of something. She had her brother’s pack. He always carried something for moments when they were forced to escape places quickly attached to the side.
“Take the torch, Doctor,” she said, handing it up to him. McKay frowned, but he took it.
“Aren’t you afraid I might try to use it as a weapon?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “because I’ll shoot you before you even try.”
As she spoke, her free hand was feeling down the side of her brother’s pack. She knew it was here some…ah. There.
She smiled, and drew out the small red ball, one that fit perfectly in the palm of her hand. Perfect. McKay frowned when he saw it.
“What is that?” he asked quietly. He was nervous again, even though he clearly didn’t know what the redcap was for.
“You’ll see,” she answered.
As if on cue, the distinct sound of the metal door at the bottom of the stairs opened. Raina turned, flicked the cap off the red ball, and dropped it down the stairs.
Then she jumped on top of McKay, bringing him down on the top step as the stairwell behind them exploded.
CHAPTER SEVEN: THE FIFTH ROOM
Ronon reacted immediately to Teyla’s yell, pulling Sheppard back through the doorway by the back of his shirt, Teyla diving in after him.
Too late. The explosion blasted through the chamber, sending both Teyla and Sheppard flying. Ronon was still ducking sideways as they hit the sand-covered ground at a roll, both somehow managing to remember McKay’s order to “stay down.” Then Ronon closed his eyes as heat, pressure and noise blasted through the open doorway, rippling the arm of his coat where he had pressed himself up against the inner wall of the chamber. A dangerous rumbling followed, growing even louder as the initial pressure and heat died down—the stairs were collapsing, falling in on themselves; they’d be blocked in!
Ronon risked opening his eyes, watching as Sheppard rolled and scrambled to the side as huge chunks of stone and metal poured through the open doorway in a fantastic landslide, narrowly missing crushing him. Ronon couldn’t see Teyla. Where had she--?
White hot electricity suddenly erupted out of the walls—looking a lot like a bastardized version of a force-field on Atlantis, but ten times more powerful. It started cutting through chunks of falling stone and metal pipes like butter at about knee height. Sheppard covered his head and continued to crawl, low enough to not be in any danger.
White hot electricity suddenly shot up a metal pipe, exploding in a fit of sparks right in front of him.
He blinked, trying to see through the retina burn, squinting as more rocks and pieces of metal were halved and quartered and turned to dust.
Sheppard finally reached Ronon’s side and scrambled to his feet, coughing against the heavy dust and stink of ozone. Both of them flinched as even more power coursed through the room, trying to keep up with the still crumbling stairs, and Ronon couldn’t hold back his own hacking coughs. Sheppard patted his back hard, trying to help, and Ronon finally got a good look at him. His hair, clothes and face were all the color of stone, reminding Ronon miserably of that time under Michael’s facility, when they place had exploded on top of them.
He wasn’t even aware that he’d instinctively pulled Sheppard closer to him in order to protect him better, until the colonel pushed away, still coughing.
“Enough, Chewie,” Sheppard muttered, patting him on the arm. “I’m okay.” The colonel looked up then, peering through the dust, coughing a little less now. Ronon felt the change as well, squinting less as he looked up at the mess in the entranceway. Rocks and stones still tumbled through the open door, but it had slowed. The stink of ozone permeated the air as the force-field continued to slice and dice, but less so now.
The worst of it was over.
“Teyla!” Sheppard shouted, still coughing into his hand as he peered over the stone and metal landslide now filling the doorway. “Teyla!”
“Here!” she called from the other side of the landslide, her voice hoarse; she was coughing as well. “I am alright! Are you?”
“Yeah,” Sheppard answered, coughing and looking up at Ronon, looking for confirmation from the Satedan. Ronon gave him a single nod.
Sheppard then looked past Ronon at the stone mess, and back at Ronon again. “Check it.”
Ronon nodded again and moved closer to the slide. Smaller stone were still cascading through the gap between the pile and the top of the door, but it was difficult to tell just how wide the gap was. He just had to hope they weren’t completely blocked in.
He started to climb, keeping his head down as he checked for loose rocks.
“I can see a way through,” Teyla said suddenly, very close to Ronon’s head. He popped his head up, and found she had already beaten him up to the top of the pile.
Perched like a surefooted gatrin on the top, she smiled down at him through a dust caked face. Damn, she was beautiful.
“We should be able to crawl through,” she said to him. “It’s only wide enough for me right now, but it’s loose. I am sure if we work from both sides we can widen it. After that, it looks like we’ll be doing some scrambling to get up to where Rodney and the woman are—but it’s definitely passable.”
Ronon’s smile grew. He felt Sheppard pat his back, the colonel still coughing.
“Then what’s stopping you, Teyla,” Sheppard asked. “Get going.”
She grinned, pulling her P90 up and keeping it in front of her as she slid sinuously through the narrow gap between the top of the doorway and the top of the pile.
McKay yelled furiously and shoved hard, pushing her off his back and sending her tumbling down the steps; she barely managed to hold onto her gun. But she did. It was in her hand and pointed at him, stopping him from attacking her again, which, from the way he halted so abruptly, hands reluctantly being pulled back to his sides, was exactly what he had been planning to do.
She was almost disappointed she had succeeded in stopping him.
But she was also somewhat impressed. She hadn’t seen such unmitigated fury on his face before….
Or such despair.
She had reached the point where she assumed McKay would never actually try to fight; he just wasn’t made for it. Now she knew. He wasn’t confident enough to defend himself, but, apparently, if you hurt his teammates….
She struggled to her feet, wincing a little at what felt like a twisted angle. He backed up a few steps from her, as if he couldn’t even stand being anywhere near her, his eyes shining.
“You…you….” He spat, “What the hell did you do that for?”
“I did what I had to,” she replied, though why she felt she owed him an explanation she didn’t know. “You said it yourself—they were going to kill me.”
He winced a little at her words. “No one else had to die,” he whispered.
“Of course they did,” she replied. “They were a threat.”
“They didn’t have to be.”
“You made them one.”
He visibly flinched this time, and looking away, he crossed his arms tightly over his chest.
“Look, I’m sorry,” she spouted suddenly. “I didn’t have a choice.”
What the…? Where had that come from? She didn’t apologize. She never apologized!
He still didn’t look at her, but he had flinched a little, as if stung.
Oh, Ancestor’s save her, she was sorry. She wanted to take it back. To not have hurt him. Her jaw trembled, and she gritted her teeth to make it stop.
Get a hold of yourself, Raina!
It was Herod’s death. It had unhinged her. Her emotions were completely out of whack. She had to get control.
She walked up to the edge of the mosaic, crouched down and picked up the torch McKay had dropped. Holding it up, she was glad to still have it. The explosion had knocked out all the lights but one by the far door leading to the sixth room.
Turning, she peered down into the darkness where the stairs had been – about ten steps down, it became a mess of rock and metal, a literal landslide of debris. They wouldn’t be going back the way they had come, but that didn’t worry her. The map had promised another exit. More importantly, the debris meant no one would be following them anymore. His team was buried under that. As was her brother, now.
Her eyes twitched at the thought of Herod, threatening to cry again, but she drew in a deep breath to forestall it. Enough of that.
Turning sharply, she held the torch out towards the mosaic. The fire had the uncanny side effect of making the sinewy lines look like they were moving, threatening her, condemning her for what she had just done. She quickly drew the torch back, resolved to ignore her imagination, and returned her attention to the scientist.
They had to move on.
“We need to get back to the puzzle, Doctor.”
He didn’t move. He stood with his arms crossed, his head down, his contempt for her radiating off of him.
“McKay,” she called, a little more harshly this time.
He closed his eyes. Then he turned and looked at her, and, for the first time, she saw true hatred in his eyes.
“Figure it out yourself,” he snarled.
“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “Nothing has changed.”
“You can’t threaten my teammates anymore.”
“No,” she agreed, “but I can still threaten you.” She held the gun higher, making sure to point it directly between his eyes. “Now, shall we?”
He gave a mirthless laugh. “Why? You’re going to kill me anyway.” He shook his head. “When this over, you’ll shoot me.”
She blinked. She couldn’t deny it. Yes, that had been the plan.
Was. It was the plan. Still is the plan. But he didn’t have to know that.
“Are you saying you want to die now?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t want to die at all,” he admitted with a shrug. His eyes softened, as if embarrassed, and he looked down at the ruined stairwell into the darkness. “But I won’t help you anymore. If they’re dead, I….” His eyes pinched. “I…have no reason to keep helping you.”
Raina sighed. She lifted her chin. “Would they want you to die?”
His eyes narrowed at that.
“I’m betting no,” she said. “No more than my brother would have wanted me to give up.”
“You have no right to talk about them,” he hissed under his breath.
“Well,” she sneered, “isn’t that hypocritical?”
McKay leveled a glare on her. “Oh please, don’t get sanctimonious on me. I did not kill your brother. I tried to save him. But you,” he pointed down the ruined stairs into the darkness, “you killed them!” He lifted his chin. “And you’re going to kill me. What’s the difference between now and later?”
“Three things,” she replied coldly. “One, I might not kill you. Two, if you help me now, you might find a way to get the better of me and get away before I do kill you. And three…,” she tilted her head. “There’s no other way out than forward. I destroyed the stairs, blocked the room below, so we can’t go back. It’s solve the puzzle or nothing. Admit it, you don’t want to be stuck here anymore than I do.”
His eyes narrowed, but he still didn’t move.
“How about,” she said softly, “we leave off what is going to happen when this is over, to when it’s actually over. Which is not now.” She indicated the mosaic with her feet. “The puzzle, Doctor. ”
He closed his eyes, turning his head away again. She sighed.
“Look,” she reasoned, “at the very least, you know you have to move forward if you want to live. You must see that. Whether I let you live, or you find a way to stop me, moving on is all we can do. It’s the only way.”
She frowned when she saw his face tense, and it hit her. He really wasn’t sure if he wanted to go on living without the three people she’d just buried. But, surely….
“Surely,” she said softly, “there must something worth staying alive for.”
He opened his eyes to slits.
“Or someone?” she asked.
He glanced at her, an uncertain expression crossing his face. So, there was someone. When he looked away from her this time, it was at least in the right direction. He faced the mosaic now, his eyes downcast. His crossed arms tightened more across his chest.
“You’re a sick person,” he hissed under his breath.
She nodded, accepting that. “Solve the puzzle, Doctor.”
He took in a deep breath, arms still crossed, but his eyes were tracing the patterns on the mosaic now. He frowned in thought.
“Well?” she asked after a minute.
“I’m thinking,” he muttered.
“Black or white, remember?” Raina prompted.
“So which is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“And get crushed by a chunk of stone falling from the ceiling? No thanks.”
“Maybe just….” She shrugged. “Tap the color with your foot. If it’s the wrong one, you can get out of the way before the stone crushes you.”
He rolled his eyes at that.
“Look,” Raina said then, “I know you hate me right now, but do you see that door?” She pointed across the mosaic at the metal door. “That is the sixth room, the room containing everything my brother and I have ever dreamed of, what this has all been about, what my whole life has been about. It’s what Herod died for.” Her eyes narrowed. “I really don’t want his death to have meant nothing when we are this close, Doctor. We made it through four of the five rooms—I can’t fail now.” She meant the words to be a threat, but it came out a little weak, especially since she didn’t punctuate it with her gun as she meant to. She raised it again at the last second, but it was too late to be effective.
McKay, meanwhile, didn’t even answer. His face had gone blank—it was disturbing on someone with a face as expressive as his.
Raina shifted her jaw, thinking. It occurred to her belatedly that, since he was pretty sure that she was going to kill him when they got there, that maybe what she had just said was not the best motivator.
She sighed, and licked her lips. “Doctor McKay, I—“
“Five colors,” he said slowly, his eyes narrowed. His voice sounded dead.
She lifted her eyebrows. Oh. Alright then. She nodded. “Five colors,” Raina prompted. “Five lines of bad poetry.”
“And we’re in the fifth room,” McKay said, still without inflection.
Her eyes widened. And she began to smile.
“The place at the beginning,” she said. “You think…?”
“The first room,” McKay said, “is the place at the beginning.”
She looked down at the colors. None of them really represented the room.
“A culling beam is white,” McKay said.
Yes, she thought. Yes, it was.
“After you,” she said.
He didn’t look at her. He just breathed in and out once, and then stepped onto the white line.
Nothing happened. He smiled very lightly, but it faded instantly, his face becoming blank once more. He was still too close to what had just happened. She understood that now, painfully well.
She stepped up behind him as he walked forward a few steps, following the white line as it curved to the left. A couple of feet in, the first line of a different color crossed this one. It was blue.
“The preservation of life,” McKay muttered.
“There was nothing blue in the second room,” Raina noted.
“No,” McKay said, glancing in her direction but not looking at her, as if he didn’t want to see her face. “But it’s not meant to be literal.”
Raina sighed. “Alright. So what preserves life?”
“On Atlantis, Doctor Keller and her team.” He smiled a little more this time, enough to round his cheekbones in his profile. At the same time, his back straightened and his arms loosened. Raina smiled lightly. So that was the “someone.” And, strangely, she was happy for him.
“Medical doctor?” she asked, and he nodded. She bit her lip. “There was nothing medical in the second room, though.”
He shook his head, his shoulder slumping slightly and his arms tightening over his chest again. “Maybe the room thing was wrong.”
“No,” she disagreed. “I think you’re right. Coincidences do not happen when something is carefully designed.” She shook her head. “Maybe it has something to do with the symbol for Atlantis? Or the…the pit…or….” She trailed off, at a loss.
He lowered his head, frowning this time. His brow furrowed then, as if something had just occurred to him.
“Or what was in the pit,” he said slowly.
Raina’s eyebrows lifted. “Huh?”
“This place is warm, isn’t it?” he asked.
She lifted an eyebrow. “Yes,” she said. “Sort of hot, actually.”
“But we’re underground, and there is no obvious heat source.” He looked up at the ceiling, then, as if seeking a heating grate.
“Um…” she shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“The water was warm too,” he said, his gaze on the floor now. “Too warm.”
“Too warm?” she repeated. What did that mean?
“Hot springs,” he said. “This place is hot because the ground below it is hot. Geothermal. And that second room….” His eyes narrowed. “It smelled of sulfur.”
“I thought that was the smell from the burnt mattress.”
“No,” he shook his head. “God, I’m an idiot. What we heard wasn’t a creature, it was the ground bubbling. Mud, probably. Or….” He grinned suddenly, snapping his fingers. “Tar!”
“Anything sunk in tar is preserved,” he said. “And tar is black.”
“But...but hot tar doesn’t preserve life. It just preserves. It kills whatever falls into it.”
“But it preserves them as they were in life; in that way, they live forever.” He looked at her then, and she almost flinched at how dark his eyes were in the firelight. He stepped over the blue line, then, with only a moment’s hesitation, over the red, all the while following the curve of the white line to the side of the room. When he finally reached the point where the white line crossed the black one…he stepped onto it.
Nothing happened. He exhaled heavily, and turned, walking along the black line in the direction of the doorway.
Raina hadn’t moved. Shaking herself, she jogged after him, needing to catch up.
“Cradle of existence,” she panted slightly, coming up behind him on the black line.
“Blue,” he guessed immediately.
“The third room had water in it. Atlantis rests on the water. You said it yourself that the Ancients seeded life here, and that was their home. And water is blue.” He didn’t pause as he reached the blue line, recklessly stepping onto it without a pause and heading once more in the direction of the doorway. Although, the way this maze of lines undulated, they still felt very far away from actually reaching it.
Raina exhaled heavily where she was still standing on the black line, then started walking quickly.
“Right,” she said when she was right behind him once more. “What’s next?”
“The source of light.”
“That’s not red,” Raina noted. Three colors intersected the blue line before them on the mosaic—red, yellow and white again. The white was only a couple feet away.
“Must be the yellow,” McKay noted, slowing down. “A sun, I would assume.”
She nodded, following as he lifted his foot to step over the white line. Suddenly, she grabbed his arm, holding him back, her eyes on the white below her feet.
He brought his foot back, looking over his shoulder to frown at her. “What?”
She gripped his arm tighter. “There was no yellow in the fourth room.”
He frowned more deeply, and settled his feet together.
“But,” she said, “there was white. All the lights in the walls were white, and so was the electrical field thing.”
His eyes narrowed as he looked down at the floor. “They repeated a color?”
“It is a puzzle,” she noted. “If we could just knock out colors, it would be too easy.” She shrugged. “Wouldn’t it?”
He sighed heavily, looking towards the yellow line a few feet away, then down at the white line at his feet.
“Too easy,” he repeated miserably, his expression bleak. “Because it’s been so easy up until now.”
She resisted the annoying urge to apologize again.
Finally, he frowned. “You’re right. I can’t think of anything about that fourth room which would suggest yellow.”
“Or red?” she asked.
“Or red,” he said.
He closed his eyes briefly, as if in prayer, then stepped onto the white line.
Nothing happened. Raina grinned.
“Ha!” she said, proud of herself.
McKay frowned, but grudgingly started walking down the white line towards the door. Peering over his shoulder, Raina could see that, ahead of them, all five colors except blue intersected the white, and all of them lead to the doorway.
“Which one?” she asked.
He stopped walking when he reached the first color, which was black.
She shook her head. “I’ve forgotten what the last line of the poem was.”
“The necessary element,” he said.
Raina frowned. “What has that to do with this room?”
He shrugged. “Got me. I sucked at English. It was more my sister’s line.”
She sighed, then shook her head. “Maybe the answer is not this room.”
He glanced at her. “Not this room? But the others…”
“Maybe it’s every room except this room. There is one more room, don’t forget, and, if the map didn’t lie, it’s filled with gold.” She smiled and shrugged. “Gold is yellow, and it’s an element.”
He stared at her for a moment, and then frowned. “That’s stupid.”
She straightened, affronted. “What do you mean it’s stupid?”
“I mean, it’s stupid. First, because I really don’t buy into the gold thing. Second, because this is the fifth room, and it’s got to be this room the last line is concerned with. Third, because gold isn’t a necessary element of life. And fourth,” he sneered, “because it’s stupid.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Fine. Then what other color represents a necessary element, genius?”
He glanced away, looking once more at the door, and then at the mosaic at his feet. After that, his gaze just started to shift from side to side, almost as if he were reading something. When he tilted his head, Raina could tell he had something.
“The Fifth Element,” he said.
Raina tilted her head. “What?”
“It…it was a movie, the basic premise of which was that there are five elements.”
“Five? But there are dozens of—“
“Not those kind of elements. The base elements.” He held up a hand, and started ticking off fingers as he spoke. “Air, water, earth and fire. We’ve seen all four. The first room, we fell through the air. The second, we were terrified by a moving earth. The third, water. The fourth, fire, in the form of electricity.” He curled his hand into a fist when he finished.
“So,” Raina encouraged, “What is the fifth element?”
“In the movie,” McKay smiled slightly, his tone mocking and yearning at the same time, “it was a hot, scantily clad girl.”
Raina’s brow furrowed. “A girl.”
“All four elements combined together to form life.”
“Life,” Raina looked at the mosaic. “Life is the fifth element?”
“Well, not exactly. See, she almost…well, it took…each of the elements had to be triggered in the movie to save the world. And her trigger was love.”
Raina’s eyebrows lifted. “Love?” She practically spat the word. Was he kidding?
“I don’t think it’s love here; it’s something simpler.”
“Simpler,” she sneered. She was having a hard time not breaking into jeering laughter.
He ignored her tone. “I think it’s hope. The pictures in that first room, remember? They all represented hope. And in this room, all these lines lead to that door, behind which, as you said yourself, lies everything you’ve ever dreamed of. And the people who made that map? They were hopeful that it would be found by the Ancients, to be used to defeat the Wraith. Hope is the necessary element to this whole thing.” He looked at her, and she realized that some of the deadness in his gaze had faded.
“Do you hope, Doctor?” she asked, regretting the inane question as soon as she asked it.
He didn’t answer, returning his gaze to the floor.
“So,” she said, looking down at the mosaic. “What color represents hope?”
“I think it’s red.”
“Because we bleed red. Wraith bleed black-green. It’s the color underneath all human life, and humans are the ones that need to hope.”
She stared at the red line.
“It’s also the color of love,” he added. “Just in case the movie and John Lennon were right, and it’s all we really need.”
She smiled a little at that.
“I’m willing to believe in this John Lennon,” she said, looking up at him, “and you.” When he looked at her again, his expression dubious, she shrugged. “Herod was right; you can’t be that arrogant without a reason. I don’t think you make many mistakes.”
He frowned. “No,” he said, “just big ones.”
Raina’s brow furrowed in confusion, but she didn’t say a word as McKay stepped over the black line and walked further along the white line until he reached the red one. He stared at it a moment, and then stepped onto the red line.
“I knew you could do it,” Raina said, catching up to him and tapping her gun on his shoulder proudly. “We’re almost—“
It was tiny. A unexpected skittering of rocks. Or perhaps a scuffed footstep.
She reacted instantly.
She fired three shots blindly towards the stairwell, jumping onto the red line to put McKay between her and the danger she felt. Before McKay had even drawn in enough air to reply, she had her gun raised and pressed to the side of his head, his body effectively shielding hers from the ruined stairwell.
And the three black figures standing at the top of it, at the edge of the mosaic.
“Well,” she said, grinning with adrenalin, “you’re unexpected.”
“Let him go!”
She couldn’t see them clearly, but she could see their weapons, all of which were pointed at her and McKay. Two had black guns with flashlights, and the third, a man as large as her brother, had a Satedan blaster. That had to be McKay’s Ronon. Her gaze narrowed as she recognized he was the most likely to fire first. She shifted to place more of McKay between her and the hulking man.
“Sheppard!” McKay’s voice was ecstatic. “I thought you were—“
“Yeah, us too. You okay, Rodney?” the skinny silhouette in the middle asked.
“Yeah. Fine.” She could feel McKay’s happiness, could guess at the grin he was wearing. “A lot better now. You three okay?”
The thin one nodded. “Yeah, no thanks to her.” Raina saw him shift his attention to her, could almost feel his gaze boring into her. “Let him go.”
Raina just smiled. “Come and get him,” she taunted.
She felt McKay stiffen. “No!” he said, lifting his hands, “Do—“
She cracked her gun across the back of his head, and he fell sideways across the mosaic, his hands lifting protectively to his head on instinct as he skidded across the tiles. At the same time, a red bolt of energy streaked across the room from the Satedan’s weapon, and she dodged sideways, following McKay to the ground.
The room began to rumble, but as she bounced back to her feet, she was grinning, pleased to see it had worked. All three shadows were running towards her across the mosaic. She looked up at the ceiling, pulled McKay up off the floor, and shoved him towards the safety of the entranceway to the sixth room…just as a massive wall of stone came crashing down on top of them.
CHAPTER EIGHT: THE FIFTH ROOM FALLS
Instinct kicked in and Ronon ran.
Literal walls of stone crashed down around him, slamming into the mosaic floor with ground-shaking force, dust erupting in their wake. He weaved between stones, twisting and turning, spinning like a football player on one of Sheppard’s DVDs. He skidded to a halt when a wall slammed down in front of him, rocking back hard on his heels, and threw himself sideways and around, dancing between two more colliding pieces of stone wall.
McKay’s shout was a guide in the chaos, and Ronon saw the scientist’s white face briefly as he slid under another wall trying to cut him off.
“Stop moving!” McKay shouted, sounding desperate over the cacophony of crashing stone. “Everyone stop moving!”
Ronon slalomed between two more falling stone walls, his feet barely touching the shuddering ground, chunks of mosaic skittering around his toes. A wall slammed down too close to his left side, and the force sent him flying sideways, into another newly formed wall.
“STOP!” McKay shouted again as Ronon pushed up onto his feet and stumbled left. “No, stop! Stop moving, god damn it!”
Ronon jumped as another wall crashed down in front of him, sliding and locking together with the one blocking him from McKay. Only one way out. He saw it out of the corner of his eye, knew it was his only chance.
He dove for the rapidly closing gap and landed hard on a section of white line, sliding on his left side. The walls behind caught the edge of his greatcoat, stopping his momentum and saving his life as another wall slammed inches from his head.
“Ronon, you idiot! If you move one more step before I tell you to, you are going to die! Now stop moving and look at me!”
Ronon actually paused at that, looking up. McKay was clearly visible to him now, almost a direct line of sight between two newly formed walls, the scientist pressing a hand against an Atlantian panel. He was sweating, face close to apoplectic, and totally and utterly furious.
At Ronon. The blue eyes were locked on him.
“Finally,” McKay breathed, slumping a little. “Thank you.”
Frowning, Ronon pushed up on his hands and knees.
“No, stay there!”
“Can I stand?” Ronon asked calmly.
“Stay on that white line, do you hear me? Do not step off it! And if anyone else can hear me, stay on the colored line you are standing on! The floor is pressure sensitive! Do not touch any part of the mosaic between the colored lines!”
“McKay?” Sheppard’s shout was muffled, barely audible. “McKay!”
“Sheppard?” McKay shouted back.
“What just happened?” the colonel yelled. “We lost sight of you and Ronon!”
Ronon tried to pinpoint the source—he couldn’t tell where the colonel and Teyla were through all the stone. He felt vaguely like one of the earth biologists’ rats, trapped inside a cardboard maze.
Ronon saw McKay breathe out slowly, rubbing his free hand on the back of his neck. Removing his other hand from its brace on the wall, he straightened.
“Give me a minute!” the scientist shouted. “Let me get Ronon out first!” A blue eyed glare lasered into Ronon. “You do exactly what I say, okay? Exactly what I say.”
Ronon just smiled slightly. He shrugged. Whatever the man said.
“Stay on the white line you’re on and walk towards me. When it crosses a red line, step onto that red line and follow it to the door. Do not, I repeat, do not try to take a shortcut and don’t step on any other colored lines. You understand?”
Ronon stared at him a moment, and then shrugged again. “Gotcha.”
“You sure? Because you make impatience an art form, and—“
“I got it, McKay,” Ronon snarled.
“Okay.” Rodney crossed his arms nervously, and nodded. “Okay,” he repeated more softly, and he raised a hand to rub at his neck again.
Tugging the bottom of his coat free from two joined stone walls, and frowning as it tore, Ronon turned and followed the white line as ordered. He passed several gaps between walls through which he could see the scientist and the door clearly, even passing him at one point, McKay’s gaze locked on him the whole time. But he did as he was told, not leaving the white line until he reached the red line. Then he backtracked and found himself stepping off the mosaic. About four feet of empty space sat between the mosaic and the entranceway, and McKay was standing in the center of it.
Upon seeing him, McKay sagged in relief. Ronon frowned slightly—did McKay really think he wouldn’t follow orders?
Then McKay smiled at him, full of gratitude and genuine joy at seeing him, and Ronon couldn’t be mad at him.
“God, it’s good to see you,” McKay said, stepping forward and holding out a hand.
Ronon just nodded, grabbed the scientist’s arm in a tight grip and clapped him on the shoulder. “You, too. You okay? Saw she hit you.”
“It’s fine. Saw stars for a second and now have a massive headache, but....You?”
Ronon didn’t respond, looking over his shoulder at what had been an empty room just seconds ago. Now he was staring at walls. From what he had seen walking through it, an elaborate maze of dead ends and sealed rooms had formed, created by the stone blocks that had fallen from the ceiling and locked into place like a mad, human sized puzzle box.
He then studied the spaces between the gaps, spotting where he had been, and also looking for anyone else.
It was just him and McKay in this entryway.
“Where is she?” he asked, trying to see around the corners hidden to him from this perspective, his blaster raised.
“Raina? I don’t know,” McKay admitted. He pressed a hand to the back of his neck again. “She hit me before I could tell you not to cross the mosaic, and then saved my life by throwing me back into this entranceway. I think the momentum of her shoving me to the door threw her the other way. She’s either trapped in there somewhere or,” he frowned, “crushed.”
Ronon didn’t buy the latter. He’d seen the way she’d moved—the girl was quick, sure-footed. She was in there somewhere. He’d need to keep an eye out.
“You have your radio?” McKay asked then, looking up at him. “The others….”
“Yeah,” he answered, tapping it as he did so. “Sheppard? Teyla?”
“Hey, big guy,” Sheppard replied, clearly sighing in relief. “Good to hear your voice. You okay?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m with McKay. He’s okay, too.”
There was a pause, and then, “Can I talk to him?”
Ronon shrugged, and pulled the earpiece out of his ear. McKay stared at it a moment before taking it and holding it up to his ear.
“John?” McKay listened for a moment, and then nodded. “Yeah, you? And is Teyla with you? Is she…? Oh thank….Hi, Teyla. I…Yes. Me, too. What? You’re cutting out. What?” He glanced up at Ronon, and then shook his head. “Her radio is broken,” he said quickly in explanation, and Ronon frowned. “She just borrowed Sheppard’s to say hello. Sheppard says she got hit on the head but that he thinks….” His eyes shifted then, obviously listening, and he started to nod at whatever Sheppard was telling him. Ronon released a slow breath and tried not to tense up too much at the information about Teyla, to keep his attention on locating the missing kidnapper.
McKay glanced at the panel he’d been pressing his hand against before. “I think so. I found a panel, but I can’t access it without tools. I even tried to pull a Sheppard and just thought ‘stop’ at it when the walls were coming down but it didn’t….Yeah. There’s some kind of protective plastic covering it, that I guarantee wasn’t there when the Ancients….” He looked away from the panel. “Yeah. Exactly. You’d think that….” He paused, listening, then nodded. “And therefore, that it would be….” He nodded again. “Right, and because…..Exactly. Total idiots.” He smirked, and then shrugged. “Look, point is, if I can’t reach it, I might be able to….Yes. I’m thinking there’s a reset button somewhere, probably in the same room that the sick bastards who concocted this temple turned into the treasure room. I….What?” He smiled, shaking his head. “Yeah, I said treasure. Gold, no less. Like something out of….Yes! Crazy isn’t it? All I need is a whip and a fedora and….What? Oh, please! This is like you calling yourself Mr. Fantastic when, clearly….Come on! I’m the one figuring out the puzzles, you’re just along for….What? Of course, I can. You know me, great under pressure, no pun intended.” He flashed a quick grin at whatever Sheppard replied, and feigned anger. “Oh please, like that’s ever stopped….I can, too! Oh, bite me, Sheppard. I can always…. Oh please, you couldn’t even.... What?” His eyes narrowed in puzzlement, then annoyance. “Oh. Okay, right. Right. Yes. I said, yes. What? No! Don’t be stupid, I only….Oh, fine…. And I said I would! You done? Fine!”
No longer feigning anger, Rodney stabbed the earpiece at Ronon, his face dark with frustration. “He wants to talk to you,” he snarled.
Ronon couldn’t hide the smirk as he put the earpiece back in his ear. “Sheppard?”
“Ronon,” Sheppard said quietly. “He really okay?”
“He sounded hurt.”
Ronon glanced at McKay, and frowned slightly when the scientist pressed a hand to the back of his neck again, pain clear on his features.
“He is,” Ronon confirmed. “But he’ll be okay.”
McKay glanced up at that, obviously guessing that Sheppard was talking about him, his eyes narrowed slightly.
“I said I was fine,” McKay snapped, raising his voice to be heard over the connection, and then he frowned. “No trust,” he muttered to himself. Ronon just smiled, and turned his gaze again towards the maze of walls filling the room.
“How’s Teyla?” he asked Sheppard.
“Hurt. She got knocked sideways, hit her head hard. She was out for a minute, but I think she’ll be okay, provided we can get out of here.”
Ronon frowned. “Here? You guys trapped?”
“Yeah, it doesn’t look good. Walls on all sides—we’re in a pretty small box here, Ronon. The ceiling sealed any gaps on top, and, gotta say, it’s already getting kinda stuffy.”
Ronon glanced at McKay, saw him trying to pry the plastic covering off the panel with his hands now. He wasn’t succeeding.
“How long you two got?” Ronon asked Sheppard.
“There’s maybe an hour’s worth of air in here. Rodney thinks he can get us out if he can find the power source controlling this place. He’s sure there’s a way to reset the puzzle and release us from this trap.”
“You think he’s right?”
Sheppard gave a short laugh. “He’s McKay.”
“That woman dead who took him?”
Ronon frowned. “No. Can’t find her.”
There was silence on the other end, then: “Keep him safe.”
Ronon tapped his earpiece, cutting the connection, and turned to where McKay was still trying to pry the plastic covering off over the panel. He hand both hands on it now, one of which was leaving bloody fingerprints as he tugged. It was the hand he kept placing on the back of his neck.
“What are you doing?” he asked the scientist.
“They’re going to suffocate unless I free them,” McKay grunted. “If I can get this cover off, maybe I can get these walls to retract, get them out.” He continued to tug and pry at the plastic as he spoke, his face turning red with effort. “If I can just….”
Ronon frowned. They didn’t have time for this.
“McKay?” He raised his blaster and pointed it at the panel, turning it off stun with a flick of his thumb.
The scientist turned around, spotted the blaster, and backpedaled. “Wait, don’t, I—“
Too late. Ronon fired and McKay jumped, twisting away from the heat. The stench of burning plastic filled the air. He smiled. McKay frowned, turning to look at the damage.
“Oh, great. Great job. You didn’t just blast the plastic, you fried the panel. Fan-frikkin-tastic.” He turned to face Ronon, his hands on his hips, “Now what am I supposed—LOOK OUT!”
Ronon turned, but not fast enough, as a chunk of rock slammed into his right shoulder, deadening the limb and causing him to drop the blaster from nerveless fingers. He looked up just in time to get hit by a round house kick to his head, shoving him backwards into the metal door. McKay danced out of the way as Ronon snarled, pushed himself up and faced the lithe woman now crouched a few feet away.
She was holding his blaster, pointing it at his stomach, her lips curling upwards into a smug smile.
And then she pulled the trigger.
CHAPTER NINE: THE SIXTH ROOM
“No!” McKay’s scream reverberated through the enclosed space as Ronon slammed back into the entranceway wall, almost hitting the scientist cowering close behind him, the smell of burnt plastic now mixing with the stench of electrified flesh. The huge man bounced off the stone and fell forward on his stomach, his head just inches from where Raina was still crouched. His dreads sprawled, two of them smacking into her shoe.
She watched the Satedan for half a second, blaster still trained on his back, and then stood up slowly, kicking his dreads aside. McKay was slack-jawed.
“Thanks for distracting him,” Raina said, with mock sweetness. “I was getting tired of waiting for him to turn around.”
McKay gasped like a fish, and dropped to his knees next to the prone man, calling his name, his hands reaching for his back, to turn him over.
“Don’t bother,” Raina said, stopping him by pressing Ronon’s gun to McKay’s jaw and lifting his head up with it. “You saw what this gun did to that panel. You really want to see what it did to his stomach?”
McKay’s head shot up the rest of the way, staring at Raina like she was mad. She was pretty sure he was right. “He’s still breathing,” he hissed through gritted teeth. “I can….”
“Not for long,” she promised. “If you like, I can shoot him again. Might be more humane then letting him die slowly from that gut wound. He’s going to be in a lot of pain if he wakes—this gun gouged a big, nasty hole in his stomach.” She pointed the blaster at Ronon’s back. McKay immediately moved to cover the dying man with his own body, just holding on.
She lowered the weapon.
He looked up at her, his eyes black with anger and, below that, grief.
Her gut twisted in shame, but she didn’t let it show. She just had to get him moving.
“Get up,” she ordered.
He just stared at her, not moving.
“I won’t shoot him again if you get up,” she said then.
His eyes narrowed, not believing her. Raina sighed.
“Look, I heard you before. Your other two teammates are trapped in a sealed space, running out of oxygen. Right now, you need to find the room that controls this temple so you can free them. Am I wrong?”
His jaw opened and shut, but no sound came out.
“One more room, Doctor,” she prompted. “Behind that door is the way to save them, and the way out for all of us. The sixth room is the last room; it’s where everything is. You just have to open that door.”
He still had a hand on Ronon’s back, which was still rising and falling shallowly as the Satedan breathed.
Raina smiled lightly. She could see McKay cracking. He was really so easy to break. “You don’t have much time, Doctor. Ronon will die from that gut wound if you don’t get him help as fast as you can, and Sheppard and Teyla will suffocate, if I understood your conversation correctly. In the room on the other side of that door, there might be something there that could save all three of them. So don’t you think you should be moving?”
That did it. She could see it in his eyes. He grudgingly stood, and Raina stepped back, placing the Satedan’s blaster on the ground and kicking it away as she did so. Pulling her own gun, she trained it on McKay just in case he finally decided to get brave. But she knew he wouldn’t, because he wouldn’t and couldn’t waste the time.
He’d open the door.
And she’d finally see the sixth room. The sixth room! She’d been waiting to see it her whole life. She smiled at him in anticipation; she couldn’t help it. In return, McKay gave her a look of pure loathing.
Crisply, he turned and found the small panel next to the door, waving a hand over it. As always, the metal door exploded upwards.
And revealed an empty room.
A completely empty room.
Raina had to bite her lip not to reveal the way her gut wrenched at the sight. How could there be nothing? She was so sure they’d be the first ones through, the first to make it this far. How could it be empty?
All these years of planning, of searching, of sacrificing….Kidnapping McKay, hurting his teammates, and all the enemies she’d made….And Herod…for nothing?
McKay hesitated a moment in the doorway, then stepped through, moving to stand in the center of what looked a lot like a large hallway. Raina followed quickly behind, ignoring the door as it slammed shut behind them.
The room was long and narrow, with metal paneling as opposed to stone. It was fully lit by shell-like sconces lining the walls at even intervals, bright after the half-light in the fifth room. She was looking at true Ancestral architecture, she knew now. Three doors, all glass paneled metal doors, sat within the three walls: one directly opposite the ugly metal door they had just walked through, and two at either end of the rectangular room.
Raina studied the glass paneled door opposite her, taking in the elegant framework, and then the other two doors, trying to understand what she was seeing.
Trying not to think about the fact that this sixth room was empty.
Trying not to think that her whole life had been leading up to a room full of nothing.
McKay walked up to the closest glass-paneled door, studied it a moment, then waved a hand over the panel resting alongside. The doors slid apart to reveal what looked like a closet. The space was tiny, barely large enough to hold three people side by side, and paneled with the same Ancestral architecture. He tilted his head and looked up at the ceiling but didn’t step inside. Instead, he backed off, letting the doors slide shut. He then checked the other two sets of doors, opening them up and studying their interiors without putting any part of his body inside. They were all identical – leading to nothing but featureless closets.
Raina bowed her head. Ancestors, please don’t say it has all been for nothing. Please don’t say that Herod died for nothing. Please.
She looked up when McKay moved to the center of the room again. He was shaking his head.
“This isn’t it,” he said.
Raina blinked back the wetness in her eyes. “What?”
“I said this isn’t it.”
“Isn’t what? The sixth room? But the map—“
“To hell with the map. You see these doors?” he pointed at the glass paneled door opposite Raina. “These are the kind of doors we have in most of Atlantis. That,” he pointed at the door behind Raina, the one leading back to the fifth room. “That is the kind of door I’ve seen in underground storage facilities. We arrived here via crawling through the equivalent of this place’s basement.”
Raina crossed her arms, her brow knitting. “I don’t understand. Are you saying there’s…there are more rooms?”
“I’m saying your map makers were a bunch of freak jobs who like to mess with people’s heads. Sort of like you.” He turned to face one of the glass paneled doors. “Of course there are more rooms. This was a facility once, not some six roomed carnival ride from hell.”
Raina frowned, partly from the slight and partly from the implication that she was stupid.
She lifted her chin. “If that’s the case, then which—“
“The map had three words written inside this room,” he said, cutting her off. “One in each language.”
Alright, fine. That’s how he wanted to play this? “Yes,” Raina said, remembering. The words were what had led her to believe this room held the treasure. “Reward, Freedom and….” She pressed her lips together, waiting.
“Death,” McKay supplied. “The Wraith character was the word for death.”
“Death?” she repeated, feeling her heartbeat accelerate. “What does that mean, death?”
He just stared at her, not answering, his expression bleak. Raina felt her hackles rise.
“Oh no,” she said. “No. We’re going to die here? That this has all be leading up to a room that’s going to kill us?” She’d backed up to the metal door now, pressing her back against it, her gun lifting. “I am not dying now!”
His eyebrows lifted, a sort of sneering disbelief. “Oh please,” he muttered. Turning his back on her, he walked away, heading to the door on her right.
Raina huffed in surprise. “What?” She took a few steps after him. “No, wait, answer me! What does death--?“
“It means death! What do you think it means?”
“Is it certain?”
“For you, I hope so.”
She blinked at the acerbity, halting mid-motion. “But—“
“But what?” he snapped. “You know how to get out of here?”
“What?” She shook her head. “No, I—“
“Then shut up and let me work!”
She rocked back a step, blinking in surprise. When had this become about her shutting up? She narrowed her gaze in annoyance.
“Hang on a minute, when did you start giving the orders?” she demanded. “I was just asking whether the word death meant—“
“And I answered. Now shut up and get the hell away from me.”
She gasped. “I will not—“
“Oh, that’s it!” he shouted, turning to face her, arms outspread. “Shut up or shoot me, you psychotic bitch, because I have had it! Yes, this room is probably going to try to kill us, because, let’s face it, they have all tried to kill us! How is that new?”
Raina’s eyebrows raised. “But—“
“But nothing! Fact is, the only thing really trying to kill us right now is you, Callisto, so why don’t you just shut up and leave me alone!”
Raina didn’t know what to do with that. “I—“
“No!” he snapped, raising a hand to stop her from talking. “Just because I can’t stop you from being here while I do this, that doesn’t mean I have to talk to you or even acknowledge your presence. All I care about is finding the way to this death trap’s control room and saving my teammates. And if you keep asking me stupid questions or otherwise get in my way?” His eyes narrowed. “I will find a way to kill you with this room. Is that clear?”
Raina let out a surprised breath. Wow.
“It’s clear,” she said, backing up to the metal door again. “I’ll stay out of your way.”
He didn’t reply, just turned away from her again to study the door.
“But when you do figure this out,” she said quietly, “the treasure is mine. You can save your teammates, but the rest of it is mine.”
He ignored her, clearly thinking that didn’t deserve an answer. And it didn’t, at least not from him. She believed that he didn’t care about the gold. But she couldn’t just turn her paranoia off. After all, she couldn’t be sure of his teammates. If he saved them….
Well, she’d deal with that problem when they came to it.
Resting her back against the metal door, she put her gun away and crossed her arms, watching McKay work. He was studying the door frame now, his fingers tracing the pattern up the side. She was curious as to why, but held her tongue.
He leaned away from the door, and turned to look at the door in the middle of the hall, the one opposite Raina. He squinted, as if trying to see it clearly. But, seeing as he was almost twenty feet away, if he was trying to find subtle differences, he wouldn’t succeed. After a moment, he closed his eyes in clear frustration.
When he opened them again, he was looking at her.
“I need your help,” he said, his distaste plain.
Ha! She smiled softly and straightened. “Well, isn’t that nice,” she jeered. “I’d be happy to help you in any way you need. What can I do for you, Rodney?”
She saw his left eye twitch at the use of his first name. It pleased her, and she grinned.
“You have a grin like a shark,” he said. “Did you know that?”
Raina shrugged, not knowing what a shark was. “You said you needed my help,” she said. “You just have to explain it to me what I’m helping you with.”
For a long moment, he said nothing. Then he sighed, rubbing his hand on the back of his neck.
“For the record, I’m only doing this because my head is splitting and my eyesight keeps….” He sighed again, not finishing the statement. With a despondent head shake, he started again.
“I brought up the three words on the map because, if you had half a brain, Raina, you’d have put together the fact that there are also three doors. Each word obviously represents what we’ll find behind each of these doors.” Resting his hand on his neck now, he looked up at the door he was standing in front of. “From the outside, they all look the same—they all look like transport chambers—but I don’t think they are. I’m pretty sure one of them is a real transporter, but the other two…?” He shrugged. “Why would there be three in one place? Doesn’t make sense. Two have to be fakes.”
Raina tilted her head. “What is a transporter?”
“What you saw behind each of these doors is what we call a transport chamber. It instantly transports you to somewhere else. I’m thinking one of these chambers transports you to the outside—it’s the exit.” He shrugged. “The way to ‘freedom,’ so to speak.” He stared at her. “It’s your escape route.”
“Our escape route,” she corrected.
He snorted, not believing her. Thing was, she actually meant it.
“The second door,” he continued, “must lead to your treasure room. The ‘reward.’ It’s been made up to look like a transporter, but, like I said, I think it’s fake. Sort of like how we couldn’t see the bridge back in the second room; I’m thinking you step inside and you’ll be in this facility’s control room.”
She nodded. “So more smoke and mirrors,” she said.
“Oh, snap,” he muttered under his breath. “Now she gets it.”
“And the third door?” she asked, ignoring the jeer.
“Guess,” he sneered.
She pursed her lips. Death. “Stepping through that door will kill you,” she said.
“Give the blonde psychopath a prize,” he said nastily. He was really testing her patience. Instead of responding, though, she shrugged again to show it didn’t bother her. Even though it did.
“So,” she said slowly, “which door is it?”
He shook his head. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out. There’s nothing obvious that differentiates them.”
“But,” Raina frowned, “it can’t be random. There must be something.”
“Exactly, which is what I need your help with. I’ll describe the pattern on this one,” he patted the door next to him, “and you tell me whether it’s the same on the one opposite you. Even the smallest thing – like an extra notch or a different colored glass pane – might be the key.”
She nodded. She could do that. “Alright.” She moved closer to the door opposite her, examining it as she did so. “What if it’s not in the pattern?” she asked, noting how plain it was.
“I don’t know,” he said, his head drooping and his eyes closing. He rubbed a hand on the back of his neck again, and Raina grimaced at the dried blood she could see staining it. Something else to add to the reservoir of guilt that was bubbling beneath the surface of her calm. Her own anger and pain was keeping it at bay for now, but she knew it was there—had been there for a while.
He sighed then, looking again at the door next to him. “Maybe if I still had the map….”
“You’ll figure it out,” Raina said, trying to sound confident.
He glanced at her, and then away. “Because if I don’t you’ll kill me, right?” he asked snidely.
“No,” she said slowly, “because if you don’t, your teammates will die.”
He winced at that, and looked away, putting his back to her.
“You’ll figure it out,” she reiterated, trying to make it sound like a promise this time. “You’ll save them.”
He huffed a short breath, crossing his arms and stretching the jacket across his shoulders. “Yeah,” he said venomously. “If the one you shot isn’t already dead.”
Raina pressed her lips together, her right hand tapping her thigh nervously.
She’d almost told him then, wanting to alleviate some of her unwanted, confusing guilt. She’d almost given away part of her leverage. She’d almost told him that she’d lied.
She’d only stunned the Satedan.
And she still wasn’t sure why.
Ronon groaned, his limbs trembling with aftershocks, his mind fuzzy. He hated this feeling. Since joining the Atlantis team, it was a feeling that was also growing much too familiar.
“Ronon? Ronon, can you hear me? Ronon, answer me.”
Someone was calling for him. He needed to answer.
His lips didn’t want to work.
“Ronon, come on. Please.”
He groaned again, and forced his eyelids open. The world was very muzzy. Dark. Something smelled like it was burning. Melting plastic. And also…real fire….?
He blinked more, trying to clear his vision. Tilting his head a little, he peered towards the source of the smell.
A spent torch was lying on the ground a few feet away. The woman had been carrying it before she hit McKay.
His eyes shot open fully and he pushed up, adrenalin coursing through him like a drug. He collapsed the moment he was on his feet, landing hard on one knee, but at least he was awake. Turning his head this way and that, he searched the feebly lit darkness around him, the one small Ancient light in the doorway the only thing keeping the blackness at bay.
He was alone. She’d taken him.
“Damn it!” he swore loudly, slapping the stone wall he was leaning against.
“Ronon?” Sheppard’s voice in his ear sounded weary but hopeful. “Ronon, was that you? Tell me that was you!”
He raised a hand and clicked the earpiece. “Sheppard.”
“Ronon! Oh, thank God!” He could hear the man’s grin in his voice. “Are you okay? What happened?”
“She stunned me. Got my gun away from me and stunned me. Took McKay.”
“What? How did she….No, you know what? Never mind. Can you get after him?”
Ronon shook his head to clear it of the last vestiges of the stunning, and pushed up the rest of the way to his feet. Swaying slightly, he turned and looked at the metal door.
“Can you open it?”
He waved a hand over the panel. Nothing happened. He sneered.
“No. Need the gene.”
“Damn it,” Sheppard swore.
Ronon fell against the wall opposite the panel, staring at it like it had betrayed him.
“What do I do?” he asked.
He could almost hear Sheppard shaking his head. “I don’t know. Give me a minute, I’ll think of something.”
Ronon snorted, resting his head against the stone wall behind him and staring up at the ceiling above the door.
After a moment, he started to grow worried at the silence. “Sheppard?”
He heard a sigh over the radio. “Yeah. Still here.”
He frowned. “You okay?”
There was another long silence, then, “No. I may have exaggerated the amount of air we have in here. To describe it as stuffy now would be like describing Atlantis as pointy.”
Ronon smiled softly. “And Teyla?”
“She’s hanging on. She was very worried about you and Rodney. She now looks like she’s about to collapse, though.” (In the background, Ronon heard Teyla order, “do not worry him! Tell him to focus on finding Rodney.”). Sheppard chuckled. “She says I shouldn’t worry you.” (“And to find Rodney,” Teyla added firmly.) “And to go rescue McKay,” Sheppard said.
Ronon smiled again. “Yeah,” he said.
Sheppard sighed again. “Look, is there…is there any other way to get through that door?”
Ronon twisted his lips and looked at the panel. It didn’t look like the ones on Atlantis. He didn’t know if he could do anything to make it work.
But…he had to try.
“I’ll try,” he said resignedly, crouching down in front of the panel and pulling out a knife from his hair. Sticking the blade into the edge of the panel, he started to pry it off.
“Does the panel have a black square in the upper right corner?”
Raina sighed at the question. “Yes,” she said miserably, her arms crossed.
“And a red line running from the corner on down?”
McKay huffed, and then swore. “Damn it, there isn’t anything else!” he said angrily. He backed away from his door, as if seeing it all at once might help. After a moment, he crouched down and passed a hand over the floor in front of the door, as if it might hold a clue.
Raina moved to stand in the middle of the narrow room, keeping her arms crossed as she watched him. Finishing with the floor, he stood and looked up at the ceiling directly above the door. His hands gripped into fists. Turning, he tossed her a glare as if this were her fault, and then quickly strode up and past her, heading to the third glass-paneled door on the other side of the room. She remained quiet as he systematically began to run his eyes and fingers over the pattern. But she could tell from here—that door wasn’t any different from the two they’d already examined.
Tired of feeling useless, she turned her attention to the floor as he had done, hoping it might give her a clue he’d missed. The floor was a reddish granite, a change from the floors in the other rooms. It fit with the architecture. What she didn’t understand about it was the pattern etched on it. It looked unfinished. It was made up of overlapping circles, but they weren’t centered. Everything looked slightly off, as if the person laying it down had run out of room.
Looking up at the ceiling, she noticed, like the floor, that it didn’t look quite centered.
It was odd. In fact…
“What?” he snapped.
“I was wondering if—“
“No, I haven’t had any other ideas,” he snarled. “I’d think that was obvious. Now shut up and let me think.”
She arched an eyebrow. “That wasn’t what I was going to ask.”
He shot a glare at her over his shoulder where he was crouched in front of the door; he’d been studying the floor in front of it.
She set her chin. “What I was going to say is, have you looked at the floor?”
He stood up, turning to face her with his hands on his hips. “What do you think I was just doing?” he asked. “Trying to pick my final resting place?”
She frowned. “I mean the whole floor.”
He huffed, then made a show of looking at the entire floor in the hallway, before looking at her again. “There, happy?”
Her eyes narrowed. “You don’t find it odd?”
He tilted his head. “What?” he asked sharply. “The pattern? No. It looks a lot like the one in the Gateroom in Atlantis. The ceiling, too.” He pointed up. “Looks just like the one in our Control Room. It’s perfectly normal.”
Raina frowned again. “But—”
“But, what? Is it not aesthetically pleasing to your discerning eye? Doesn’t have enough bling? Doesn’t break out in song and say, ‘Gold, this way!’” He lifted his chin. “What do you want me to say?”
“I was just trying—“
“My patience? Well then, you’ve succeeded, because I have none left for you.” He turned around again, hands on his hips, his gaze once more on the floor in front of the door.
Raina worked her jaw, willing down her own anger. She’d lost someone, too, damn it! How dare he?! She was hurting, too!
Except that he wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t forced him to be.
You’re the reason his teammates are dying, she chastised. You’re the reason he thinks the Satedan is dead. And you’re the reason he believes that, when this is over, he is going to die.
Raina had loosened her arms when she’d been trying to get him to look at the floor, but now she crossed them again.
And she knew now why she hadn’t killed the Satedan.
She felt sorry for McKay. No, it was more than that. She had actually come to like him. She liked his unbridled anger and his unlikely courage, and his inherent goodness. Everything he did, all his energy, was focused on saving his team, saving people he obviously cared about. He didn’t care about the gold, or whatever else might be in this place. It didn’t matter to him. He didn’t need it. He’d even argued that the Ancestors didn’t need it.
And what if he was right? What if it wasn’t really necessary? What if the gold wasn’t worth all this?
It was too confusing. All of this, it was too much. Losing Herod had done something to her psyche, messed with it. But what if it had just made her see more clearly what was really important? She wanted Herod back. She wanted to feel about someone the way McKay felt about his people. What was she going to do without Herod to help her? What good was all the gold in the world if her brother was dead?
She didn’t know. Right now, she didn’t know a lot of things. Only one thing seemed certain: she couldn’t kill McKay. She just couldn’t. Not now. And she was certain that, if his teammates died, it might not matter if she killed him or not. Which was why she hadn’t killed Ronon.
Not yet, anyway. If they didn’t find this control room….
It hit then. All the guilt she’d been holding back came crashing down in a tidal wave of emotion, smothering her. She fell against the stonewall next to the plain metal door, needing it to hold herself up.
“I’m sorry,” she choked out, almost panting through the pain from the guilt.
“What?” He had returned his attention to the floor, but with her statement, he looked up.
“I said I was sorry,” she repeated.
He didn’t answer, his brow knitting slightly.
“About your teammates,” she explained. “Maybe I…,” she shrugged slightly, “I shouldn’t have tried to blow them up.” She tried to smile, to make it a joke.
It fell like a lead ball. Disgust colored his features and he turned around, returning his attention to the piece of the floor he was studying.
Raina bit her lip.
“And I’m sorry about shooting the one called Ronon,” she said. “But the truth is, I only….” She bit her lip again to stop talking, her conscience still warring with her practical side over that one.
He didn’t react, still keeping his back to her.
“I…,” she was shaking something fierce now, “I…I….” She swallowed. “I promise that, when we find the control room, or whatever it is that you’re hoping to find,” she licked her lips, “I won’t stop you from freeing them.”
His only response was to turn his head slightly, turning an ear more towards her.
“I promise,” she said.
“I thought you already had,” he said blandly.
“Yes,” she shivered, “but this time, I mean it. We’re all going to get out of here.”
He turned his head away again, but…she was pretty sure she’d seen him sigh. She relaxed slightly, feeling some of the guilt wash away.
“And what I was trying to say earlier about the floor….” She crossed her arms again. “About the floor and the ceiling,” she amended, “is that they’re not centered. They’re off. They look off.”
He turned slightly again, listening.
“And, yes,” she pressed, “maybe that’s the aesthetic, but…but the rest of the architecture makes a sort of cohesive sense, except for that. I can’t figure out why the floor and the ceiling don’t seem to have a center.”
For a moment, he still didn’t move. And then he did.
McKay turned around, met her gaze, and then looked down at the floor again. His brow furrowed, and, when he looked up at the ceiling, Raina felt a modicum of pleasure at the fact that he was taking her comment seriously.
Working for him must be horrible, she mused.
“They are off-center,” he said finally, frowning deeply. “Why are the off? It’s as if the whole wall were….” He trailed off, staring at the long wall opposite the doorway leading back to the fifth room. Raina turned and looked at it too, though she wasn’t sure what she was looking for.
McKay walked up next to her, staring at the glass paneled door in the center, and then took a step back.
Then he said a word Raina didn’t know. He said: “Janus.”
She frowned, looking at him sidelong. “What?”
Instead of answering, he turned around and looked at the wall behind them. The one shared with the fifth room.
“Oh good Lord,” he said, shaking his head. “How could I have been so dense?”
Raina turned with him, trying to understand what he was seeing.
“Look at the light sconces,” he suggested, pointing at the six sconces set on either side of the metal door.
Raina frowned, looking at the one nearest the door. It was pretty, with a sort of frosted appearance, wrapped in a thin filigree pattern.
Pattern. The patterns on the four sconces were different. In fact, on one of them….Her eyes widened.
The light nearest to the metal door had the character for the word “reward” hidden inside the filigree pattern.
“Oh,” she whispered. She pointed at it. “Reward!”
“And freedom,” McKay said, pointing to another light. “And Death.” He pointed to a third light set further down.
“But….” She frowned. “What does it—“
“Watch and learn,” he replied. Striding to the “reward” light, he hit it, and a soft tone filled the room. He jogged to the “freedom” light and hit that one, and then hit the “death” light.
All at once, two of the walls surrounding them completely disappeared, leaving them standing atop a platform and looking down across a massive room larger than all the rooms they’d seen combined.
And it was filled floor to ceiling with gold.
CHAPTER TEN: THE TREASURE ROOM
“Ancestors Above,” Raina swore, taking in the massive room with wide eyes. “It’s real. It is actually here.”
Golden piles filled the room as she gazed across the space, some reaching as high as the ceiling far over their heads, gleaming and glittering beneath Ancestor’s lights. And not just gold, though that was the most pervasive metal—silver, bronze and copper glinted inside the piles, and jewels sparkled, ageless and perfect. Plates, coins, jewelry, nuggets—every possible form of tradable wealth was visible. It wasn’t just enough to live on; you could buy planets with the amount of wealth in this room.
The map hadn’t lied. This was a source of great power; enough wealth could buy you anything you wanted. Even happiness.
Pushing all thoughts of Herod and the Satedan and anyone else from her mind, Raina drank in the sight before her with the feeling of one saved. Nothing could go wrong now.
“There are stairs down,” McKay noted, pointing to the stairs at either end of the platform. Raina just nodded, not really paying attention. Ancestors, it was pretty.
“You know,” he added, sounding a little dazed, “the two doorways that disappeared? Had we walked through either of them, we would have fallen to your deaths off the edge of this platform. It’s at least twenty feet down to the floor below.”
Raina frowned at that, shaking a little as she understood what he’d just said. Shaking her head, she said, “But I thought only one of them meant….”
“Apparently not. I thought there was something odd about the word ‘reward.’ I guess if you were only in this for the reward, you weren’t worthy to actually find it.” He glanced at her.
“But looking for ‘freedom’…,” she acknowledged with a shrug.
He nodded. “That’s the only one that was real.” He pointed to the remaining doorway, off to their left. “It’s also probably still the way out.”
She nodded. The way out.
And then she smiled. Right now, she didn’t want to go anywhere.
Ronon threw the knife down in frustration, growling at the panel. Pulling it apart had not helped, even with Sheppard in his ear, trying to help. He could hear the other man’s breathing growing harsher, shallower. Ronon slammed a hand into the panel, sending sparks everywhere.
“This isn’t working!” he shouted.
“Ow,” Sheppard muttered. “That was right in my ear, Ronon.”
Ronon shook his head. He didn’t care. Pushing away from the wall, he stood up, stretching his back and legs, and looked at the walls hiding him from Sheppard and Teyla. She’d fallen asleep, he knew. Sheppard wasn’t long behind. He need to get them out of there!
He pressed his hands to the sides of his head and stared up at the ceiling, as if it could somehow provide the answers. Stepping closer to the mosaic, he then pressed his hands against the stone separating him from his team leader, leaning into it, wishing he could just push it out of the way.
And then he saw it. Several feet away, kicked into a dark corner far away from the recessed door.
Eyes widening in surprise, he jogged over and picked up his blaster. She’d left it behind? Why? Guns like his were worth a hell of a lot.
Shaking his head, he decided he didn’t care.
“I’ve got a way out,” he said, running back to the doorway.
“Oh?” Sheppard asked lethargically. “You found a way around the panel?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Ronon replied, smiling.
He aimed the blaster at the door and started firing.
Raina broke from her reverie when she realized McKay was no longer standing with her on the platform. He’d made it down the stairs to the floor below and was winding through the stacks of gold, intent on what appeared to be a cleared space in the center. She frowned, hand tightening around her gun, and ran down the stairs after him.
He wasn’t going to take this from her. Before, when she’d made that promise about his teammates, she had been weak, thinking that maybe this wasn’t what she wanted, what she needed…
She was an idiot. This was exactly what she needed. She was rich.
“Where are you going!” she demanded, jogging up to him and catching his arm as he made to climb over an oaken chest, out of which silks appeared to be spilling. “You’re staying with me!”
He turned to glare at her, shaking his head and pulling his arm free from her grasp. “Why? Aren’t we done? I brought you here. Isn’t that what you wanted? Take your gold and go—you don’t need me to get you out, and I need to find whatever is powering this place.” He turned again, climbing over the chest and heading deeper into the room.
Raina shook her head, not understanding. She jumped over the chest and caught up to him again when he had stopped to look at a part of the flooring. As she watched, he knelt and pushed some loose pieces of gold and silver to the side, revealing a piece of a granite flagstone with a distinctly Ancestor-looking design on it—a set of concentric circles.
He seemed to twist in place on his knee, looking over his shoulder at the closest wall he could see, before looking once more at the flagstone at his feet. “This floor is an Ancient design,” he said. “I think it’s the real floor. They didn’t cover it here.”
“So what?” Raina replied. “We already knew this place was originally a temple built by the Ancestors.”
“I never said it was a temple,” McKay replied, standing up. “They didn’t build temples to themselves. It was a facility, and this floor looks original, which means this room is likely original, though I can’t see well enough to confirm that with all this gold in the way. Assuming it is, the next question is, what was this facility for?”
“Does it matter?”
“If I know the facility’s purpose, I’ll know what this room was for, and I can figure out how to use it.”
“Use it?” Raina frowned. “What do you mean, use it? It’s a room.”
“Based on the size, it’s the central room of the facility, which, in most Ancient facilities, typically means the control room. That means there are consoles here, somewhere. All those rooms we came through, all those traps, were bastardized from elements of this facility—meaning they tapped into the facility’s power source to make them work. And the map said that this room contained a source a great power—assuming it wasn’t being poetic and talking about the gold, which, I’ll admit, could be a possibility.” He frowned, as if considering that, and then shook his head. “No, this place runs on something—and I’m betting its in here. If I can figure out where….”
“You can take control of the temple. Release your teammates from that death trap.”
“Yes.” McKay placed his hands on his hips, turning in place now. “But without having an idea of what this place was, I don’t know where to begin to find the central controls. Besides the fact that this room is huge, at least as big as the Control Room back on Atlantis, this gold weighs a ton—moving random piles in the hopes of finding something by chance is not going to work, and even moving one pile could potentially take too long to….” He trailed off, finally realizing that Raina had raised the gun again and was pointing it at his head.
He stared a moment at the gun barrel, and then up at her. Initially wide, his gaze quickly narrowed in annoyance.
“I’m getting a little tired of this,” he said darkly.
“I am sorry,” she said, swallowing unhappily. “I really am, but I can’t let you figure out how to control this place.”
He frowned in confusion. “But you promised. You said you would—“
“I changed my mind,” she said, pressing her lips together in vague remorse. “I warned you about trusting my word before, Doctor.” She glanced around. “Look at this place! How could I could give this up?”
He said nothing for a long moment, his jaw tensing, and then shook his head. “Raina, by now you must know that I don’t care about the gold. You can have it all. I don’t want it.”
“I know. I still don’t understand it, but I believe you. You just want to save your teammates. But I can’t let you do it.”
He frowned. “Why not?”
“You said it yourself. This gold weighs a ton. Too much for me, or for you and me, to carry—we’d kill ourselves just trying to get a small portion of it out. Over time, though…” she shrugged. “Way I see it, I can leave it here. It’s well protected, what with all those traps and stuff. They work well. Kept everyone out for thousands of years—it’ll keep working, ‘specially now the map is gone.” Her eyes narrowed. “And I can just keep coming back. After all, I know how to get in and out now.”
McKay’s jaw was tense. “So? Getting into the controls doesn’t mean I have to turn them off forever. I can probably turn it back on again, once I’ve freed Sheppard and Teyla.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But even if you turn it all back on again because I make you do so...what’s to stop you from telling others about this place? About the treasure here? And you’re a scientist—I saw the way your eyes lit up when you saw those stairs in the pool room. You might want to come back yourself, explore this temple further, and you’ll need the villagers to agree, since you’ll want their help….” She trailed off, her eyes still narrowed.
McKay sighed. “And if I promise not to do any of that?”
“Can you make your friends promise? Can you swear not to tell your leader, back on Atlantis? Can you swear that, if you’re ever under duress or if someone else points a gun at your head, that you won’t tell them all about this place?”
He nodded. “I’ll swear it all if it saves their lives.”
Raina smiled softly. “You say that now.”
“Unlike you, Raina,” he said quietly, “I can keep my word.”
She stared at him a moment, gauging his strength. And then shook her head. “I can’t take that risk,” she said finally. “I haven’t trusted anyone in a long time, Doctor McKay, and I can’t start with you. I’m sorry.”
He just sucked in a deep breath, his hands curling into fists by his side. “So, what are you saying? After all this, you’re going to kill me anyway, is that it? Just so you can get this…this…,” he grabbed some coins from a pile on his left, holding them up in his hand. “This?” He tossed it to the side. “It’s worth that much to you?”
“My brother died for it.” She said it matter-of-factly, because, if she let herself really feel what she had lost, she’d crumble. Right now, that was the last thing she could afford.
“And, in honor of his memory,” McKay spat, “now you’re going to kill for it.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to.” And she really didn’t. Before everything that had happened down here, she’d been prepared to kill him, because it had been inevitable. But now…? She felt the wheels turning in her head, images of possible futures whirring by, all underlain with the gold at her feet. Without even conscious thought, she was speaking again, feeling a little like she was falling into a deep, dark pool.
“Come with me.”
His eyes widened. It was almost comical. “What?”
“Come with me,” she said again, almost pleading this time. Because she did; she really wanted him to go with her. “You saved my life,” she pointed out, “and you tried to save my brother’s, almost at the cost of your own. That…that was….” She licked her lips. “Look, I don’t want to kill you. I just…you…even with all of it, the constant talking and the bitching and the…the…. Truth is, you’re…you’re funny! And you’re honest and smart and…and you’re loyal. Fiercely so. And good—a good man. So, come with me! I’ll need someone to help me, now that Herod….” She breathed out heavily, then let go of the gun with one hand to sweep her arm out. “Look around! All this gold! You and me, we could do so much with it. Just…just say you’ll come with me.” She swallowed, and hated the fact that, despite her head, despite her plans, her heart was desperate to hear him say yes. “Please,” she said.
His eyes softened, damn him. After all the hardness of before, it was something of a shock to see sorrow in his gaze. No, not sorrow. Pity. He had heard her desperation, her desolation.
He knew she didn’t want to be alone.
But he still shook his head.
She let out a shaky breath. That was the wrong answer. “You can,” she insisted. “Just say you will.”
“Yes!” she ordered furiously. “Say you will!”
His eyes narrowed, and he shook his head once. “No.”
“Blood and Spit, why not?” she demanded, feeling her whole emotional core teetering on the brink. “If you don’t come with me, I’ll have to kill you! You have to come with me. Say you will!”
“I can’t leave them. I won’t.”
“Friends.” She shook her head. “No. Not good enough. You can buy new friends with all this, and you’ll have me. It’s just two people! It’s not like they’re your family! Herod died for me, for this! I won’t let it have been for nothing, but I don’t want you to die either! Now say you’ll come with me!” The gun was shaking in her hand, and she knew she was crying, could feel the tears running down her face.
But he just shook his head again.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I can’t.”
She screamed in frustration, feeling her face flush red, the tears stinging her skin. The gun in her hand wavered, shaking as she let loose a sob. What was wrong with him? How could he turn all this gold down, turn her down? It should have been enough! For her brother, for her, it was….Why not for him?
McKay lowered his gaze, moving closer to the pile of gold he was standing next to, resting a hand behind it as if he thought he could use it for cover, or throw some of the gold to stop her. He wouldn’t be fast enough.
Raina shook her head, trying to find her anger, the anger from before. But all she had was her frustration. She wanted to hate him!
He looked up at her again, his pale blue eyes soft.
“Don’t,” he whispered.
“I’m sorry,” Raina said just as softly, a tear running down her face.
Holding the gun tight in shaking hands, she pulled the trigger, aiming for his heart.
The gold plate appeared in his hand like magic from off the pile, covering his chest and deflecting the bullet. He looked almost shocked that it had worked, and Raina turned, trying to see where the bullet had gone as it ricocheted off something with a metal ping, and then something else, and then….
She was pelted by metal, one large piece cracking her cheekbone. Having a handful of gold coins and nuggets thrown at you really hurt! She staggered back a few steps when McKay threw even more gold at her, and when she looked up, her cheek screaming in pain, he had disappeared.
“Get back here!” She took off after him, running around the pile of gold he’d vanished behind, nearly tripping on the large gold plate he’d dropped on the ground.
He slammed into her side from out of nowhere, bringing her down hard on her side, her gun slipping out of her fingers. They rolled sideways, McKay grappling with her, trying to pin her arms under her. She reacted on instinct, throwing an elbow into his face, her knee coming up to catch him in the stomach. He gasped and fell away, and she dove for the gun she’d dropped. With a quick spin, she was on her back, pointing the weapon towards where she’d last seen him.
He was half crouched a few feet away, her brother’s gun pointed back at her.
Her eyes widened in surprise. She’d almost forgotten that she’d been carrying it in the back of her trousers. He must have grabbed it when they were fighting.
His eyes were a little bit shocked, as if he too couldn’t believe he’d managed to grab the weapon, but his hands weren’t shaking, his aim was true—he had clearly handled a gun before.
Licking a little bit of blood off her lips, she pushed away from him without lowering her own aim. When she hit a pile of gold, she used it for leverage, getting her feet under her and standing up.
He straightened as well, all the time keeping Herod’s gun trained on her. Blood was dripping down from his nose grotesquely, running down his face onto the floor in a black-red rivulet, and he was breathing hard.
She shifted slowly to the side, into the open to create more room for herself, and to see if he could remain steady. She was also trying to see if he’d removed the safety.
He had. Still, his expression was the picture of hesitancy, or reluctance. While his aim never wavered, she could see the tremors wracking his frame.
She smiled softly. Her right hand was rock steady gripping the gun she held, and her left rested calmly against the knife on her belt. Who was he kidding?
“You can’t,” she stated evenly. It wasn’t in him.
He frowned, eyes narrowing. “Will you let me save them?” he asked roughly.
She just smiled more. He had to know the answer to that.
So he shot her.
She gasped in shock, the impact staggering her, too surprised to cry out. Looking down, she was amazed to see blood pouring out of her left shoulder where the bullet had hit her. Pain registered then, sharp and angry, turning her whole left arm numb. Involuntary tears ran down her face, stinging the cut on her cheekbone.
She looked up at him again, and found his eyes wide and mouth open. He was staring fixedly on the hole in her shoulder, Herod’s gun finally wavering in its aim. It wasn’t even pointing at her anymore. His gaze lifted at last to meet hers, and she could see the naked fear in them.
She released a brittle laugh and lifted her gun, aiming anew for his heart.
Something suddenly punched her between the shoulder blades, sharp and unyielding, cutting off her air. One moment she was fine, and the next she was on her knees, holding onto her back.
Her left hand fell away from the pain, and she stared at the blood coating her fingers in wonderment. When she looked down, she saw a small blood stain growing on her chest, where the tip of a knife had cut through her shirt.
She was on her side a moment later, and McKay was leaning over her, babbling about staying still and not talking. He grabbed at her jacket, bunching it up over the wound. He pressed down and it hurt.
Blood and spit, it hurt!
Her back arched, and her legs pumped, trying to get away from the pain, from the agony.
“Stay still,” he ordered. “Just hang on.”
“Let her die,” said someone else. McKay looked up then, away from her at whoever had spoken, his mouth working, but no sound coming out. She thought he almost smiled, but when he returned his gaze to her, his expression was wretched. She was choking, her mouth filling with metallic tasting blood.
She was caught by the depth of his sorrow for her, clear inside the wide, desolate eyes, the same eyes that had seen his friends nearly killed, had seen her brother die….
Were watching her die.
She was still holding her gun. He hadn’t taken it away.
He seemed to realize it at the same time, looking down at her hand as she gripped it tighter. He just breathed out heavily, staring first at it, and then at her.
“Hold on,” he whispered.
Ancestor’s above, even now….
She dropped the gun, letting it slip from her fingers. “I’m sorry,” she breathed wetly.
He grimaced, confused. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay.”
She smiled softly. “No, I’m....” The blood was roaring in her ears now, so loud that she couldn’t hear anymore. The world began to spin, and she wanted it to stop. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” she whispered again, closing her eyes, hoping it would make the spinning stop.
At his silence, she opened her eyes again. He just stared at her. He clearly didn’t know what to say, his lips pressed unhappily together.
She had finally managed to shut him up. After thinking she wanted it so badly….
All she wanted was for him to speak.
To say she was forgiven.
But he said nothing.
She closed her eyes again, drowning in regret, misery and loss. The world spun into blackness, out of control, hopeless.
Please stop. Please make it stop. Please.
The spinning stopped.
CHAPTER ELEVEN: THE LAST of the ROOMS
It took all the reserved energy in the blaster to create a hole large enough for Ronon to crawl through, but it had worked. He hadn’t been certain it would, despite Sheppard’s story about Larrin melting through a similar door on an Atlantian ship, but damned if it didn’t burn right through. He was definitely going to remember this next time any of them said anything to him for shooting at a door.
After that, it was just a matter of reading the story left behind by the dusty footprints of McKay and the woman. Initially, he couldn’t understand why it didn’t look as if either of them had actually stepped into any of the transporters…until he saw the bloody handprints on three of the sconces. Tapping them together like the ones outside Janus’ lab on Atlantis, two of the walls and doors just melted away. Neat.
And for a moment, he had to stop and drink in the sight of all that gold. He’d never seen its like. Stacks and stacks of it, coins, statutes, boxes, bars and plates, chests overflowing with the shimmering metal. It was beautiful.
The first gunshot made him jump, the ricochet echoing around the room like a struck chime. Ashamed at his distraction, he jogged to the edge of the platform and looked down on the scene unfolding down below. Not far from the center of the room, McKay was tackling the woman, trying to get the gun from her; Ronon knew the outcome even before he saw the woman throw McKay off.
He leapt down the stairs, pulling a long knife from the sheath on his back since his blaster was dead, and hit the ground running. Another gunshot rang through the room, and he swore. He couldn’t see what had happened as he wound through the stacks of gold. Determined only on avenging what he was sure was the scientist’s death, he careened around the final pile and skidded to a stop, surprised to find McKay facing the woman with a gun in his hands, and she sporting an obvious hole in her shoulder.
McKay didn’t see him at first, and neither did she, not with her back to Ronon.
When she raised her gun to kill McKay, Ronon didn’t even think—the knife thrown with trained accuracy. It hit directly between her shoulder blades, a clean, certain kill.
“How…?” She gurgled, staring at the blood on her fingers from where she’d touched the blade sticking out of her, and collapsed to her knees.
McKay dropped the gun in his hands and jumped forward to catch her…and then tried to save her. Why in the world would he…? Ronon frowned in confusion as McKay bunched the woman’s jacket up against the knife wound, trying to stop it from bleeding, telling her to hang on. He shook his head.
“Let her die,” Ronon said, not understanding.
McKay looked up then, his eyes widening, as if seeing Ronon for the first time. Shock flashed across his face, then relief and, even more briefly, joy—a tiny quirk of his lips at seeing Ronon alive—and then the woman started to choke on her blood.
Ronon backed away into the shadows as McKay tried to reassure the woman that it would be okay, that she’d be okay. She released the weapon in her hand, and whispered something in return, something that made McKay pale.
And then she stopped breathing, her whole body relaxing in death.
Ronon’s eyes narrowed. Good.
McKay lowered her to the floor and visibly started to shake, his arms wrapping around himself. Blood was still pooling under her—too much—seeping into the stones and staining the pieces of gold on the ground.
The scientist looked lost when he finally stood up and backed away from the body, arms still crossed tightly across his chest. Releasing a shuddering breath, he looked up, blinking at Ronon as if he was seeing a ghost.
“Is that really you?”
Ronon arched an eyebrow. “What?”
“How…? I saw you….”
“Followed you,” Ronon replied, shrugging. He tilted his head at the bruise creeping over McKay’s face, and the bloody nose. “You okay?”
McKay eyes widened, and then gave a short laugh, slightly hysterical. His arms loosened and he grinned stupidly, wiping a hand across his upper lip to clear the mess. “Me? Are you kidding? Look at you! How are you alive? I saw you die! She shot you!”
Ronon frowned. “She just stunned me.”
“No, I saw! She took your gun after you used it to fry that panel, nearly blowing us all up. It wasn’t on stun, it was on kill. She didn’t change it to stun, I know she didn’t. She wouldn’t know how.”
“I changed it to stun after I shot the panel.”
“You…” McKay blinked and he wiped the back of his hand over his face, smearing the drying blood. “You changed it to stun?”
“Yeah. I always set it back to stun.”
“But…but…” McKay was struggling. “But you didn’t…you used to always have it on….Even on Atlantis…. When I was affected by the ascension machine, I had to set it to stun, because you had it set to….”
McKay opened his mouth to say something more, but Ronon raised a hand to stop him.
“Sheppard and Teyla,” he reminded the scientist.
McKay’s eyes widened again, and then he nodded quickly, the expression of someone who was feeling a few steps behind the rest of the world. “Right. Right. Need to, um…” He turned in a circle, patently not looking at the body on the floor, and raked a trembling hand through his hair. “Need to find the heart of this room.” He moved then, away from Ronon, winding between two large piles of gold and silver off to one side. Ronon went after him, catching up quickly.
“McKay,” he called, grabbing at the scientist’s shoulder.
“Yeah?” He sounded tired, beaten. “What?”
“Turn right up there,” he pointed at a gap between some stacked gold bricks. “I saw something from up above in that location. Looked like it was deliberately kept clear.”
McKay nodded submissively, and followed the direction. Sliding between the gold bricks, he led the way into a small gold walled area that, as Ronon had described, was cleared of any loot. A set of six interlocking rings were set into the floor in a circle and McKay crouched down to look at them. Like passing a hand over a light switch, his body language changed from flustered to focused almost instantaneously.
“Huh,” McKay muttered. Ronon stayed out of the way as the scientist rested a hand on the floor, and didn’t react when a small console burst out of the floor, similar to the one they found in front of the Gate on Atlantis. McKay, though, had jumped when it appeared so suddenly, but, quickly, he was smiling. Standing, he studied the Ancestral characters scrolling across the top of the pillar, his fingers curling and loosening at his sides as he read.
Ronon reached up and tapped his radio, turning away. “Sheppard. Teyla. You hear me?”
Quietly, almost imperceptibly, he heard Sheppard reply, his words slow. “Barely. Lot of static. You guys okay?”
“Not so good.” The colonel wheezed then, and Ronon frowned at the harshness of it. McKay crouched suddenly next to the pillar, tapping another piece of flooring—and another console shot up out of the ground. Ronon nodded.
“McKay’s working on it,” he assured Sheppard.
“And the woman?” the colonel asked, sounding like he was yawning.
“No longer a threat.”
He heard Sheppard sigh, or perhaps he just breathed a little more heavily into the microphone. “Good. See if you can…” He wheezed. “Can get McKay to work faster, can you? When…” He coughed lightly. “When I say ‘not so good’, I mean I don’t think we have more than minutes in here, and Teyla’s out cold.”
“Oh, and Ronon?” Sheppard was yawning again.
“Tell Rodney that I….” He wheezed a shallow breath. “I managed to pry away some of the floor under this colored line we’re standing on. I found something underneath.”
“Can’t be sure, but I think it looks an awful lot like a large version of a machine I saw in Janus’ lab. I think….” Another yawn. “I think this might have been one of his facilities once, which answers the question of why even Ancient devices can’t find this place. Makes sense that he’d set up something to hide it from both Ancient and Wraith scanners.” Sheppard wheezed again, harsh and breathless.
“I’ll tell him.”
“Glad you and Rodney are okay.”
The former Runner smiled. “We’ll get you out. Call when we know something.”
“Okay. Tell him to hurry. Sheppard out.”
Ronon hit the earpiece, frowned, and looked at McKay. The scientist had both hands hovering over the two side by side consoles. He looked like he was waiting for something.
“McKay,” Ronon called.
“Mmm?” McKay wasn’t paying attention to him anymore.
“Sheppard says he thinks this was one of Janus’ hidden labs.”
“Yes,” the scientist agreed off-handedly. “Already sussed that one with the light sconce trick. Plus, it explains why our Ancient scanners couldn’t locate this facility. Tell him he needs to keep up.”
Ronon cracked a crooked smile.
“There you are,” McKay said suddenly, and started typing something with both hands on each of the pillars. When done, he rested both hands on the surface of each one and they burst to full light, filling the little space they were in. McKay grinned, pleased.
And then the room began to shake. Ronon moved closer to the scientist. McKay was looking up at the ceiling, frowning a little.
A loud crack seemed to cut through the room, and with a deep, angry groan, several of the piles of gold started to shift and shiver. McKay jumped a mile when another crack burst closer to their location, his face filling with dread.
“Oh no,” McKay muttered, backing away from the small consoles, his hands raised. They dimmed when he wasn’t touching them anymore. “Not good.”
“What’s happening?” Ronon asked, at the same time that, over the radio, Sheppard asked the same question. Apparently, the whole facility was shaking.
“Janus hid his consoles inside the floors and walls of this room, to make it more difficult for people to access his work,” Rodney answered, speaking up to be heard as the rumbling in the room began to grow louder. “I typed the most likely of his passwords into these two small consoles to cause the central consoles and screens to emerge, but the idiots who piled all this gold in here—all this very heavy gold—must have covered them up. The room is trying to respond to my order but….Oh, this is bad….This is very, very bad….”
His words resonated as the carefully stacked piles of gold started breaking and shaking, sliding and shuddering—as the technology buried underneath tried to push them aside. Coins, plates, bars and bricks started cascading down into the gaps between the piles, faster and faster. Larger pieces, statues, arks and filled, heavy chests, started to tumble down off of precarious perches, crashing into the floor below and shaking the whole facility’s foundation.
McKay yelled out in pain as a gold brick smacked him on one shoulder, and Ronon dragged him out of the way as more started to fall from the constructed walls boxing in this little space, narrowly missing them both as they crowded closer to the small circular consoles in the middle.
An alarm started blaring, turning both their heads to the far side of the room as a large bolt of electricity arced out of a section of the wall, blasting through several piles and causing an explosion of gold. Sparks and metal melded together in blinding color, and the lights began to flicker. Unveiled screens had appeared, flashing warnings across the walls, ancestral language streaming in red and green and yellow. Ronon couldn’t read them, but he knew that sound anywhere.
It was the same sound Atlantis made whenever it was in trouble.
“Do something!” Ronon shouted over the din as another arc of power burst from the wall, closer to them this time. “Turn it off!”
McKay shook his head. “If I can’t access the central consoles, I can’t free Sheppard and Teyla!”
“You can’t do it from here?”
“These don’t have what I need! They’re just locators! Like the on-switch on a computer. I need—LOOK OUT!”
Ronon twisted as the wall next to him exploded, hit by a massive bolt of energy, showering chunks of metal over him and McKay. The rest of the golden walls weren’t far behind; the stacks of bricks really started to break apart around them, the highest blocks crashing into the ground near his feet.
“We have to get out of here!” he shouted, feeling welts and bruises already forming on his skin from being hit. He’d tried to shield McKay, but he knew he couldn’t have done a good enough job—the scientist was pressing one arm to his stomach protectively, fingers curled up in pain. Ronon swore, shaking his head. “There’s got to be another way!”
“I don’t know if….Wait! Look!” Rodney pointed to a different point in the large room, where three large adjacent screens had appeared, information on them brighter and more vivid than elsewhere in the room. “That’s it! The central consoles should be over there, under those screens. We just…we need to get to that part of the room.” Gold was still crashing down all around them, hitting the floor in great booming waves, deafening. Rodney looked up at Ronon standing over him, hopeful and trusting. “Can we make it?”
Ronon met his gaze with a frown. It was in the opposite direction of the way out. “Is it the only way?”
“To save them? Yes! It’s their only chance in the time we have!” You could see it in his eyes. McKay knew what he was asking. But if it was the only way to save Sheppard and Teyla…
Electricity coursed overhead, filling the room with light and sparks. The gold was creating a moving floor, piling and rippling like a living thing. The ceiling overhead was splintering with black cracks, like a spider web. The whole room groaned.
Ronon straightened, drawing on all his training and everything he’d lived through in the last eleven years—especially the last four. He had been through wars, had stood on the bridges of ships that were breaking apart, had nearly suffocated on a planet that was about to explode from a supervolcano, had felt the agony of death over and over again….
“Stay right behind me,” he ordered sharply, measuring the distance to the spot McKay had pointed to. “And do exactly what I say and do.”
McKay just nodded, breathing quickly; he was clearly terrified. “Got it.”
Ronon drew in a deep breath, and…“Now!”
And he was running, leaping through the gap in the gold bricks and out onto the moving and shifting floor, his feet skipping across gold coins and jumping over bars. Never taking his eyes off of his goal, he skirted between the piles, slid through narrowing gaps, climbed over gold fragments that could feed whole villages for years….
He turned in time to see McKay being brought down under the weight of a cascade of tiny gold bars, the scientist unable to push through, his arms covering his head as he fell to his knees.
In two steps, Ronon was grabbing at the pale raised arms and yanking, throwing McKay forward and past him as if he weighed nothing more than a doll. And then the shower of gold was pummeling his own shoulders and back; heavy weights slammed into his calves and knees, bringing him down….
“No! No, no, no! Ronon, don’t—” McKay’s shout was lost as something hard and heavy slammed into his head.
And it all went black.
He started awake, surrounded by silence and darkness. He was on the ground, something heavy and massive crushing his legs, and something else tugging roughly at his arms. The ground was heaving below him, shaking and shaking and shaking….
Slowly, sounds began to break through, and the tugging was growing more insistent.
“Come on! Damn it, wake up and come on! Move, move, move! It’ll bury you if you don’t move!”
He didn’t know what the voice meant. What’ll bury him? It already felt like a building had fallen on him.
His vision brightened, from dark gray to a hazy red and then, slowly, yellow. Lots of yellow. Gold?
Something pressed hard on his ear, and he flinched, trying to raise an arm to swat the pain away.
“Sheppard! If you can hear me, yell at Ronon to get up! He’s not listening to me! He’s been knocked silly, but he needs to get up and move before this whole thing comes down on him!”
And, crystal clear inside his ear, a sharp barked order. “Ronon Dex! Get up and move, now! That’s an order!”
Ronon blinked, raising his head slightly. “Sheppard?”
“On your feet, soldier! Get up and help McKay! Now!”
The tugging on his arms turned out to be the white, blood-stained grip of Rodney McKay, pulling at him. He blinked some more, and gamely tried to move.
Something incredibly heavy was on his legs.
“Crawl! Push with your feet! I’ll pull you!” McKay said, adjusting his grip now that Ronon was looking at him. And he was leaning back, Ronon’s hands in his as he used his body weight to tug Ronon out of whatever was pinning him down.
And the weight started to shift. Ronon felt give around his legs, and he started to push, helping McKay.
While around them, the world continued to collapse.
His toes gained some purchase, and he pushed harder, moving forward. Rodney was straining, his neck muscles bulging under his chin as he pulled.
And, suddenly, he was free. Crashing into McKay and sending them rolling, crashing into another stack of gold plates. Rodney didn’t stay down long, grabbing at his arm and pulling him upright. “Move!”
Ronon, still disoriented, followed the scientist as McKay dragged him inside a little area of calm inside the shaking room. Three large consoles that resembled the main ones on Atlantis were standing there, half buried in gold. McKay left him propped against the back of one of them as he climbed over the gold and crouched down atop the sea of wealth and started working on one of the consoles, brushing metal off the top of them as he did so.
“Where are you,” muttered the scientist. “Where…where….ha!”
McKay’s hands moved unbelievably fast, tapping keys and tiles with the expertise that always impressed Ronon, even if he never said it out loud. Ronon remembered now—they had to save Sheppard and Teyla…and themselves. Dust and chunks of ceiling were falling now—there wasn’t much time before this whole place came down.
A bolt of energy slammed into the wall just a few feet away, blinding him with sparks, ozone thick in the air.
Behind McKay, the three screens were flashing information at him at an incredible rate, a red pulsing light at the center of each that matched the alarm blaring through the room.
“That…I think that should do it. The rooms should be resetting.” McKay looked up at Ronon. “Ask Sheppard if—”
Ronon tapped his earpiece. “Sheppard? McKay says—”
“Tell him it’s working!” came the ecstatic reply. Ronon could hear the sound of stone grating against stone, and the ease with which Sheppard was breathing into the mike—a huge change from the harshness of before. “Thank god! With all the shaking….The walls are lifting. Sweet oxygen! Ask him, can we cross the floor without them coming down again?”
Ronon glanced at McKay, who was still working furiously on the console. “Can they walk across the mosaic without the walls coming down?”
“That’s what I’m trying to…wait….okay, yes. Tell them to get to the door. Tell them to hurry, I can only keep this thing depressed for so long.”
“McKay says go. And run.”
“Done,” Sheppard grunted then. “Got Teyla over my shoulder. Moving now.”
“Tell him to meet us in the sixth room, by the transport chamber to the right of the doorway he walks through,” said McKay.
“McKay says, once through the door, wait for us. We’ll be there in a second.”
McKay frowned at him briefly, not liking the rephrasing, but Ronon didn’t care.
“We have to go,” he said to the scientist. The other man grimaced, but didn’t disagree. McKay tapped a few more keys and leaned back, reluctance clear on his face at having to leave all the information in those consoles behind. When he looked again at Ronon, though, he just nodded.
Ronon pushed away from the console he was leaning against….
And dived forward, pressing down hard on the back of McKay’s neck, forcing Rodney to duck as a bolt of energy screamed over their heads and slammed into another gold pile, blowing it into a deadly shower of gold debris. With a tiny shriek of pain, McKay fell away from the consoles, holding the arm he’d been protecting before even closer to his body. Blood was welling between the fingers of the hand holding the arm, a gold knife sticking out of it.
Ronon grabbed him by shoulder of the unhurt arm and tugged. “We have to go! Now!”
Not needing to be told twice, McKay pulled the knife out and scrambled down off the gold he was crouched on, nearly falling to the floor at Ronon’s feet. Pulling him upright, Ronon kept one hand on McKay’s shirtsleeve and turned to look at what they’d have to navigate in order to get back to the stairs and the platform up above, where the transporter was.
“Oh God, we’re gonna die,” whispered McKay, his voice bright with fear.
And Ronon couldn’t deny it. The ceiling and walls were breaking apart, lined with massive black cracks and breaks, threatening to collapse at any moment. Meanwhile, there was no clear path to the stairs anymore. Whatever paths had existed between the stacks and piles of golden treasure were filled with undulating, shifting metal and rock. It’d be like trying to walk on quicksand….
But there was no other way.
“Stay with me,” Ronon said, as much to calm his own underlying fear as McKay’s far more obvious terror. “We can do this.”
“Okay,” Rodney replied shakily, trustingly, imploringly.
A hard shake created a momentary swell, opening up a shallow gap, and Ronon tugged on McKay’s sleeve before taking off at a run for the gap. McKay yelped at the suddenness, but Ronon knew the scientist was behind him, could feel his presence right at his back.
He was alternately clambering and sliding, trying to stay ahead of the swells, gold shifting beneath his feet like a pebbly beach. Dust and concrete started to fill the room like a haze, and another bolt of electricity arced through, bright enough to almost blind.
Skidding down a pile, they were suddenly on stone floor again, a small area still clear of gold in the center of the room, near where Ronon had first come across…
Rodney’s shout of pain and the loud thud turned Ronon around, to see that the scientist was scrambling to get back on his feet.
He’d tripped over an outstretched arm—the woman’s—his feet kicking to get away from it. She was almost completely buried under gold, except for her arm, which McKay had managed to trip over. The hand was curled slightly, almost as if it had reached out and grabbed him as he went past.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god….” McKay’s mantra was clearly without awareness, as he stumbled and turned, trying to get his bearings again. And then he froze.
What the…? McKay was staring off to one side, looking into the distance. The gold was moving towards them.
“McKay!’ Ronon snapped. “McKay, this way!”
“Look!” The scientist was pointing towards one wall. “Can we get them?”
Ronon turned, and his eyes widened. A portion of the wall had shifted out, and three…three!...ZPMs were visible.
McKay was already heading towards them, his eyes glued on their promise, seeming oblivious to what was happening around him.
“No!” Ronon was next to him in two steps, grabbing at his shirt and turning him. “We have to go! We won’t reach them.”
“But…” McKay tried to pull away, to head back to where the ZPM’s were housed. “But we can’t! ZPMs, Ronon! Three! All that power! We have to get them!”
Was he insane? “We’ll come back! This place is coming—“
“I can get them!” And Rodney was free from his grip, turning and already trying to run up a shifting pile of gold, to get to the prize he sought more than anything. “I can….” He was halfway up the pile when it suddenly surged, like a geyser.
McKay screamed as the gold swelled up over his head, falling backwards off the pile.
Ronon had gone after him, was behind him when he fell, catching him as the gold threatened to swallow them both whole like a fifteen foot high breaker. Turning them both around, Ronon urged the other man to run, shoving McKay forward up another pile of gold.
And Rodney tried, he did.
They managed to avoid being crushed by the falling wall of gold, but cresting the next pile, McKay fell, his knees just seeming to give way, and he rolled to the bottom, his head smacking into a massive golden coffin like box.
Ronon swore, landed next to McKay on the shifting golden floor, and picked him up, throwing him over his shoulder like a sack of feed.
And started running again as best he could, even with McKay’s weight threatening to bring him down on shaking legs.
Up and down, around and over, stay on your feet, hold on to McKay….
His feet hit the stairs and he almost collapsed in gratitude.
Except that the stairs were shaking as violently as the rest of the room. Cracks split the metal, threatening to rend it from the platform up above. No! No, they weren’t going to die here!
His quads were burning, his lungs on fire, and the muscles in his back were screaming at the extra weight he was burdened with as he slogged up the metal steps, stepping over cracks and jumping over newly formed gaps. Up, up, up….
“Whoa! You just walked through a wall!”
Ronon looked up, eyes squinting against the sudden change in light—it was suddenly much darker.
Sheppard was staring at him from where he was crouched next to the door Ronon had melted, Teyla at his feet. He stood up, eyes wide with confusion, switching their focus from him to Rodney over his shoulder, to the wall he’d “walked” through.
The colonel opened his mouth to ask the question, but the lights flickering and the floor cracking down the middle forestalled him.
“This way,” Ronon ordered, before Sheppard could think again to ask. He ran to the transporter door, and then waited until Sheppard was by his side (Teyla over the colonel’s shoulder), before swiping his hand over the control. In a familiar and beautiful sound, the door swished open and Ronon stepped inside, careful not to bang McKay’s head, followed quickly by Sheppard and his own burden.
Sheppard just looked at him as the door shut, concerned. “Are you sure this—“
A flash of white.
And they were standing inside a very dull looking cave, with the ground rumbling underneath them. This whole area was unstable.
“We have to get away from here,” Ronon said then, already moving towards the sunlight he could see at the end of the tunnel.
“How far?” Sheppard asked, panting a little, following him out into the sun. It was too bright after the darkness of the facility below.
“As far as we can.”
He just had to hope that they would make it.
CHAPTER TWELVE: STILL AN INCREDIBLY STUPID IDEA
Ronon leaned against the tree, watching dazedly as a whole section of the planet just seemed to collapse in on itself a few miles away, a massive dust cloud forming over a crater at least a half-mile wide. It’d soon roll through the trees, blanketing the whole area in dust, but this high up, for now…for now they were safe.
Poor McKay. He was never going to find his ZPMs under all that.
He snorted, smirking slightly. Then again, he couldn’t help but feel glad that the whole place was going to be dead and buried. Whoever had turned Janus’ facility into that gold-lined death trap had been one twisted bastard.
The ground settled then, still plagued by soft aftershocks, but nothing like the terrible shaking from before. Standing on bedrock helped, it dulled the tremors.
And eventually, it stopped shaking at all.
Ronon closed his eyes in thanks.
Behind him, Sheppard was talking, speaking softly to Teyla, who had woken up groggy and with a massive headache. McKay was surely soon to follow, but, for now, he was lying on his side on a soft bed of moss, quietly sleeping off what was going to be one hell of a concussion and not a small amount of blood loss.
Lorne was also chatting away in their ears over the radio, filling them in on the progress of the medical team. From the sound of it, they’d be overwhelmed with help in just a few moments.
But for the moment, Ronon could revel in the peace of being alone with his team—all four of them together again, alive and, for the most part, well. The world felt askew any time one of them was split from the others; uneven. Like a piece of the universe was missing. Or maybe just a piece of him.
Turning, he gazed down at the other three. Sheppard was gently wrapping a bandage around McKay’s arm over the knife wound, the scientist unresponsive except for a slight furrowing of the brow. Teyla was drinking from a bottle and holding a compress to her head, her gaze locked on Sheppard and McKay.
She must have sensed Ronon’s eyes on her then, however, because she suddenly looked up at him, her lips lifting in a relaxed smile.
“You okay?” she asked.
He nodded. Yeah. “I’m good,” he replied, smiling. Sheppard glanced up at them both, and smiled crookedly.
“Yup,” he said, his voice tinged with amusement as he patted Rodney’s shoulder. “Just another day in the Pegasus galaxy, eh, McKay?”
And, with a soft groan, a weak voice answered from his bed on the soft moss, “Can we go home now?”
“Sure thing, Marcus,” Sheppard replied, smiling affectionately down at their teammate. “Sure thing.”
Ronon walked into the infirmary, nodding briefly at Keller, who was standing off to the side, speaking with the doctor she’d assigned to Rodney. Keller smiled back, and turned her gaze to the far side of the room, where Rodney and Teyla were both resting.
Sheppard was already there, sitting on McKay’s bed, laughing.
“They’ve been asking for you,” Keller nudged gently. Ronon gave her a small smile and walked on.
“I’ll admit,” Rodney was saying as Ronon approached, stabbing his blanketed foot into John’s thigh, “I didn’t get the Marcus reference before, what with the concussion, stabbing, and all the bruising from almost being buried alive in gold, but, for the record,” he stabbed the thigh again, punctuating each word, “I am not Marcus Brody!”
“Actually,” Ronon mumbled, sliding into the group and settling onto the end of Teyla’s bed. “It makes sense.” He nodded to Sheppard, who nodded back.
Rodney huffed. “It does not!”
“Sure it does,” Ronon said with a shrug. “If Sheppard’s Indiana Jones, that makes you Marcus.”
“Why kind of logic is that?” Rodney whined, trying to cross his arms, only to be frustrated by the splint on one of them. He sighed and kept them loose. “It only works if Sheppard’s Indy. And how come I’m not Sallah?”
“Because Brody’s the one who often gets Indy in trouble,” Sheppard said, grinning. “Sallah’s more Ronon. You think too much to be Sallah.”
“Indy gets himself in trouble, thank you very much,” Rodney huffed. “And I’m still not Marcus.”
“Marcus was very smart, Rodney,” Teyla said, ticking a finger. “Also, honest.” She ticked another. “And a good man. All good qualities.” She smiled at him, but he just glared in return.
“I was thinking more about how, when he tried to save the day,” Ronon added with a smirk, “he got kidnapped instead.”
“Got kidnapped alot,” Sheppard noted.
“I do not—“
“He was also very loyal,” Teyla said in a slightly warning tone, staring hard at Ronon and Sheppard.
“And clumsy,” Sheppard said with a grin. “And he had thinning hair that sort of flopped over his receding—”
“Hey!” McKay blustered. Ronon grinned—it would be the hair that bothered McKay the most.
“He couldn’t fight,” Ronon said.
“Got lost in his own museum,” Sheppard added.
“Oh that’s not fair, I don’t get lost!” Rodney muttered, kicking Sheppard again. “Most of the time.”
“He was also Indiana Jones’ boss,” Teyla put in slyly, a tiny smile on her face.
That shut them up, Sheppard looking slightly pained, while McKay suddenly grinned.
“Okay,” Rodney said, lifting his arms up behind his head on the pillow, “I’m good with the reference.”
“Now hold on….” said Sheppard.
“Quiet, Indy,” McKay mused, “I’m trying to think.”
Sheppard just breathed out heavily, giving Teyla the stink-eye. She smiled innocently in return.
“Hey,” Keller walked up, smiling at Ronon, her gaze lifting to the butterfly bandages on his forehead. “How’s the head?”
“Still there,” he replied, rubbing a hand across his nape. He had a small headache and his bruises ached, but nothing worth worrying about. He’d gotten worse in the gym. Keller had released him and Sheppard both last night after they had returned from the planet, with orders to call if they felt any more significant aftereffects from the experience. She nodded at his response, pleased.
“Good.” She switched her gaze to Teyla then, smiling more. “And how about you? You ready to get out of here?”
Teyla immediately bounced up to a seated position, “I can go?”
“I have no reason to keep you any longer. But you know the drill with head wounds.” Keller tilted her head. “Just make sure to call me if you think anything is amiss.”
Teyla grinned, already swinging her legs over the side. She stopped when she saw Rodney pouting at her from the other bed. He turned to Keller, his eyes pleading.
“What about me?”
Keller grimaced slightly, “It’s not my call, Rodney. You were in worse shape than Teyla when you were brought in yesterday, and Dr. Cole wants to keep you a while longer.”
“Oh, come on! I’ve been knocked unconscious more times than I can count! I know the drill, same as Teyla. I promise, I’ll call if—“
“You were also pretty badly beaten up, Rodney. A hairline fracture is still a break, and do you want me to remind you that you were also stabbed by a 10,000 year old gold knife?”
“Flesh wounds! Come on, please?” He smiled pathetically. “Pretty please?”
Keller bit her lip, but shook her head as she walked up next to his bed. “Still not my call, Rodney.” She brushed some of the hair up off his forehead.
He slumped. “You not being my doctor sucks,” Rodney grumped, attempting to cross his arms again as he glared up at her. “Still not happy about this by the way. I just don’t get why you can’t treat me.”
“And this is precisely why,” she said, shaking her head. “Because you know I’m a sucker when you look at me like that, and I’d be letting you go right now, even though Doctor Cole is right and you need to stay.” She smiled, leaned over and kissed his forehead, and then backed away. “Now, be good.” Turning again to Teyla, she arched an eyebrow.
“And you, remember to call me if anything—“
“I’ll remember,” Teyla promised, already pulling on a robe to cover her scrubs. Keller smiled again, gripped Rodney’s hand once, and then turned and left.
Sheppard shook his head as he watched her leave. “I’m never getting used to you and her.”
Rodney poked him in the thigh again, grinning wickedly. “You’re just jealous because your hot babe isn’t local.”
Sheppard snorted, and shrugged. “Cruel but true,” he sighed. He looked up at Teyla, who was tying the robe around her waist. “You want company heading back to your quarters?”
She grinned at him as she bent over to put on some infirmary slippers. “Absolutely. Torren should be waking from his nap, now. You can say hello.”
Sheppard jumped to his feet, looking a little less than thrilled by the prospect. “Is he still teething?”
His smile tightened painfully. “Great.”
She whacked him in the arm for that. At the end of the bed, she turned and waved to Rodney, who waved back. “I’ll be back with dinner,” she promised. “Want me to bring Torren?”
Rodney nodded, smiling.
“See you in a bit, Marcus,” Sheppard said then, patting Rodney’s shin. He lowered his voice to a whisper then, “Sooner, if Torren’s crying. I’m brave, but I’m not that brave.”
“Colonel?” Teyla stood a couple yards away, her eyebrow arched.
“Coming, coming.” Sheppard grinned at Ronon one more time before bounding after her as she headed out.
Ronon was still smiling as they left, but it fell as he returned his attention to McKay. The scientist was pouting again at being left behind, and when he looked up at Ronon, he smiled softly.
“You don’t have to stay, you know,” he said, with the voice of a man about to be abandoned. “I’m sure there are more fun things to do.”
Ronon just shrugged. Not really. He’d already gone running, had a session with the marines, and had lunch with Amelia, all of which had their own stresses. He was sort of looking forward to just sitting down now and, as Sheppard would say, chilling.
Plus, frankly, he wouldn’t go near a teething Torren if he could help it. Sheppard was more than welcome to deal with that on his own. Kanaan had looked haunted at breakfast this morning from lack of sleep. Poor, poor man. There was torture, and then there was an incessantly crying baby. Ronon would take torture any day.
“So,” Rodney said playfully, “apparently you automatically switch your gun to stun now, huh?”
Then again. Ronon sighed heavily. He should have seen this coming.
McKay lifted his eyebrows. “Guess Sheppard’s really beginning to rub off on you, eh?”
Ronon shrugged. “Not just Sheppard.”
McKay straightened slightly, his expression hopeful. “Oh?”
McKay slumped slightly. “Oh. Just Teyla?”
“And Weir and Carson.” Ronon shrugged again. “And Keller. Even Woolsey, I guess. A little.”
McKay slumped even further. “Oh. Even Woolsey, huh?”
Ronon smiled slightly. “And I suppose you, too, kinda.”
McKay’s face lit up in a grin. “Really? Me? I knew it!” he wagged a finger at Ronon. “I knew I was having an influence on you! I mean, how could I not? People look up to me all the time, it’s not like it’s anything new.” He tried to cross his arms yet again, and scowled at his splinted arm for being difficult. Ronon chuckled at the response.
But he also had another reason for visiting. Shifting over to Rodney’s bed, he pulled something out of the sheath on his belt.
“I got something for you,” he said, holding the gold knife out.
“Oh my God,” Rodney breathed, reaching to take it from his fingers, all smiles gone. “Is that the same one that stabbed me?”
“No.” Ronon shook his head. “Though it’s probably from the same pile. I found it caught in my hair afterwards. Figured you might like it.”
McKay’s expression clouded over as he studied the piece, which was beautifully crafted, a perfect blend of gold and steel. But Ronon could tell McKay wasn’t really seeing it; his eyes had glazed over, his cheeks had tightened over a tensed jaw, and his lips had pressed themselves into a thin line. After a moment, with an expression as dark as Ronon had ever seen, McKay handed the knife back.
“I don’t think I can.”
Ronon’s eyebrows lifted as he took the knife. “Why not? You earned it.”
“It’s not that.” McKay’s lips twisted slightly, as if considering his words. “I just don’t know if I want anything to remember that place by. I’d sort of like to forget it ever happened.”
Rodney shrugged. “Because,” he answered.
Ronon’s eyes narrowed. “Because of the woman?” he asked.
McKay grimaced. “Because of a lot of things, but, yeah, mostly because of her and her brother. I mean, I know they were bad people, Ronon. Herod I didn’t know all that well, but Raina….” He shrugged again. “I get that she was a total psychopath, Ronon. I do. She was selfish and manipulative, a pathological liar and cruel, not to mention completely crazy. She let me believe that she’d killed you, did you know that? Who does that?”
Ronon just shrugged, even though he knew McKay didn’t really mean it as a question.
“Thing is,” McKay said then, his gaze dropping to his lap, “I don’t think she was…all bad.”
Ronon frowned. “She was going to kill you.”
“She asked me to go with her.”
Ronon’s eyebrows lifted. “She what? Why?”
McKay just shook his head. Ronon’s brow knitted in confusion; why would anyone willingly ask McKay to go with them?
When Rodney looked up again, his eyes displayed the same confusion—but for a different question. “Why did she only stun you?” he asked.
Ronon shook his head. He didn’t know.
“I mean,” Rodney continued, “if she wanted me to think you were dead, why didn’t she just kill you? And why did she leave your blaster behind for you to find?”
“I don’t know.” Ronon shrugged. “She could have, but she didn’t.”
“I thought…” McKay frowned. “I was sort of hoping it was an accident. That maybe she thought she had killed you.”
“No. She would have known she didn’t kill me. She was looking right at me when she fired, and it’s not like the blaster is all that difficult to figure out.”
McKay closed his eyes, looking very tired.
Ronon tilted his head. “Why did you say that you’d hoped it was an accident? You said you already thought she wasn’t all bad.”
He looked up then, wearing that same lost expression he had in the treasure room, when Ronon had first found him.
“Because,” he said quietly, “I want to be wrong. If I think of her only as a monster, then maybe I wouldn’t feel so miserable about her dying.”
Ronon shrugged, still not understanding. “She was the bad guy, McKay. She tried to kill you, nearly succeeded in killing all of us. If I hadn’t killed her, she’d have killed you, and Sheppard and Teyla would be dead because of that.”
McKay nodded. “I know, I just….” He shook his head, lowering it.
Ronon frowned, trying not to feel angry at the fact that McKay seemed to be questioning what Ronon did.
“I just…,” McKay repeated. He frowned slightly. “She dreamt of that gold her whole life. That’s all she really wanted—it’s what drove her to do what she did. And when I saw those ZPMs, something inside me….” He shrugged. “I know what obsession is, Ronon. If you hadn’t been there, I’d be as buried as she was.” He shook his head. “Maybe I’m not sure how different we are.”
Ronon shook his head. “You’re different.”
“How do you know?”
Ronon handed Rodney the knife, placing it in his hands. “If it came down to a whole room full of ZPMs, and saving me, Sheppard and Teyla, what would you choose?”
McKay stilled, his fingers curling around the knife, his expression thoughtful.
“And what would she have done,” Ronon asked, using the same event one, “if she had to choose between all that gold and saving us?”
McKay lowered his gaze to the knife. He turned it over a few times, like a meditation. And, after a long moment, he closed his eyes.
“She would have let us die,” he said finally. He opened his eyes again. “But she would have saved her brother.”
Ronon’s brow furrowed. That’s not what he had expected to hear. He shook his head. “McKay….”
“She wasn’t all bad,” McKay repeated miserably.
Ronon frowned, giving into the anger he felt. He set his jaw. “Fine,” he snarled. “You may wish she was still alive, McKay, but I don’t. I’m glad I killed her before she could kill you, before she could stop us rescuing Sheppard and Teyla. You will not make me feel sorry for someone who threatened the people I care about.”
McKay’s eyes opened again, wide and a little surprised at the anger. “That’s not what I meant, I—“
“Then what did you mean? That you wish she had killed you? That she’d succeeded in killing all of us, so she could have her gold?”
McKay looked poleaxed. “God, no, of course not!”
McKay turned his eyes away, fingers tightening around the knife. “You know what I told Raina?” he asked tightly. “I told her that I didn’t want anyone to die in that temple. And I meant it. I didn’t want her to die, I didn’t want us to die, I didn’t want anyone to die.” His fixed Ronon with a sharp gaze. “Don’t you see? People keep dying, Ronon! I don’t care if they deserve it or not, I just want it to stop! I have to believe that she was redeemable, that she was worth saving, just like I wanted to believe that Ford was redeemable, and you, and, hell, everyone. Even Todd, for Christ’s sake. I don’t mean not to be grateful, Ronon. I am. I am very, very grateful that you were there, and that you saved my life. You save my life all the time, and I know I should tell you how much I appreciate that, but that doesn’t mean I have to stop wanting people to die in front of me every God damned day! Do you get that?” A tear ran down his face after his rant, and he quickly rubbed it away with his sleeve, leaving his face even redder than it was before he began. “I want people to stop dying!”
And then he looked down at his right hand.
“Ow,” he said softly.
Ronon looked down, just as McKay opened his hand, showing a thin cut along his palm where the knife had sliced it.
Gently, Ronon took the knife from McKay, placing it on the side table. Pulling up a corner of McKay’s sheet, he pressed it against McKay’s still open hand, to staunch the blood.
“Never,” he said quietly, focusing his attention on stopping the flow of blood, “ever lecture me on what it’s like to lose people, McKay.”
Rodney winced at that, his eyes closing. “Oh God. You’re right,” he agreed weakly. “Of course, you’re right. I can’t know what you’ve been through, what it was like to lose….” He pressed his lips together, and shook his head again. “I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry.”
Ronon said nothing. He just curled McKay’s hand around the sheet so he could let go. He stood then, backing away from the bed to sit on the one Teyla had vacated. It was still warm.
“Something you need to remember, McKay,” he said quietly. “People make their own paths. She was going to kill you. I killed her first. I’d do it again. So, you go ahead and feel sorry for her, but don’t tell me I shouldn’t have killed her. It took me seven years to find a home again, to find people I care about, and I’m not giving that up for anything. I will kill anyone who tries to take the three of you away from me, understand? ” He tilted his head. “Do you get that?”
McKay was silent for a moment, but when he looked up again, he nodded.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “I get that.”
“And thanks.” He smiled then, weakly. “You know, for saving me life. Again.”
Ronon just shrugged. But he smiled too as he fiddled with the sheets on Teyla’s bed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Keller in the shadows, just watching. She nodded at him softly before retreating again, disappearing around the corner. He was grateful she’d hadn’t intervened.
The silence grew, becoming slightly awkward after a while. Ronon sighed, and made to stand up.
“Maybe I should go get you something for your—“
“I’m not going to change, you know,” McKay said suddenly, looking up from where he’d been pressing the sheet into his cut hand. “You’d think, after five years of constantly losing people, after Elizabeth and Carson and everyone, that I’d feel differently. Feel more like you. But I don’t. It just makes me believe more than I can…that I can stop anyone else from dying. If I just try hard enough. Maybe I can even find a way to…to bring them back. To save everyone. And I keep trying to…to….” He grimaced, looking up at Ronon again. “You know?”
Ronon just nodded.
“Do you think that’s stupid?” McKay asked, sounding almost like he was seeking his own redemption.
Ronon shrugged. And then, slowly, he shook his head. No, not stupid. Foolish, but not stupid. Truth was, it was going to make it a lot harder for McKay to survive in Pegasus, it would put him in danger, and maybe the people around him too, like he had yesterday. But it wasn’t stupid. Especially if he succeeded, and part of Ronon honestly believed he would.
Rodney sighed slightly at the lack of an answer. Ronon glanced at him, and then down again.
“No,” he said finally. “It’s not stupid. Just makes my job harder.”
Rodney stared at him, and then, slowly, began to smile. “Thanks.” Looking at the bedside table, Rodney reached out with the hand he didn’t cut and picked the knife up by the handle. He wiped the blood off on his sheets, and then held it up.
“I’m going to keep it,” he declared.
Ronon frowned. “Why?”
“Because you gave it to me.”
Ronon snorted, shrugging again. But, inwardly, he smiled. “Like I said,” he noted casually, “it got caught in my hair.”
Rodney laughed. Then, suddenly, he perked up.
“Wait a minute,” he said, sitting up straighter in the bed. “I just figured something out. You…,” he pointed excitedly at Ronon, “you said that you’d kill anyone who threatened me, Teyla or Sheppard. You put me with Sheppard and Teyla. That means I’m one of the people you care about!”
Ronon frowned. “What?”
“You like me!” Rodney grinned. “I’m your friend. We’re friends!”
Ronon’s frown deepened. “I never said we were friends.”
“Oh, but you so implied it! You said, you’d kill anyone that threatened the three of us. Three! I’m one of the three!” He was grinning like an idiot now.
“We’re not friends,” Ronon asserted. “Saying I’ll protect you doesn’t mean I like you.”
“Oh, no, you can’t take it back! No way. You said you cared. That makes us friends. You like me!” He held up the knife. “You even gave me a get well gift! That’s totally a friend thing to do.” He tried crossing his arms triumphantly, almost stabbing himself again. “We’re so friends.”
“I’m getting Cole. You’re delusional.”
“Come on, admit it! You like me!”
“Okay, I came back at the wrong time,” Sheppard said suddenly. He was standing at the end of McKay’s bed, looking a little weirded out. He was holding a bandage and a tube of antibiotic cream in one hand. “You two want me to give you some privacy?”
McKay grinned even wider, if that was possible. “Ronon likes me!” he said proudly. “We’re friends!”
“I’m happy for you,” Sheppard said, his brow furrowed. He shrugged. “Though, to be honest, I didn’t think Ronon liked you that much.”
“I don’t,” Ronon said.
“He’s just in denial,” Rodney said, still smiling away. Ronon rolled his eyes.
“He’s the one in denial,” Ronon snarled.
Sheppard laughed, moving to sit at the end of Rodney’s bed again. “Yeah, that I get.”
“Jerk,” Rodney said, kicking Sheppard in the thigh.
Sheppard just smiled and dropped the bandage and ointment on the bed. “Keller shoved these in my hand as I walked in the door. Anyone know why?”
“Oh,” Rodney said, clearly surprised. “How’d she know I cut my hand?”
“You cut your hand?” Sheppard asked, just now noticing the blood. When Rodney showed off his palm, Sheppard grimaced at the ugly but shallow cut. “How the hell did you do that?”
“I gave him a knife,” Ronon explained.
Sheppard’s eyebrows lifted. “You gave him a knife? Why?”
“Because he likes me,” Rodney stated proudly. “Proof!” He held up the gold knife, and Sheppard backed up slightly, as if afraid he was about to be stabbed himself.
“Okay, then,” Sheppard said, giving Ronon the arched eyebrow.
Ronon just shrugged. “I thought you were hanging out with Teyla,” he asked then.
Sheppard shook his head. “Apparently, Torren hasn’t been sleeping, so she and Kanaan decided to take him for a walk around the piers. A quiet walk. I was told I didn’t have to tag along.” He shrugged again.
“So you got a reprieve,” Rodney said.
Sheppard cracked a half-smile. “Yeah.”
“Walk sounds like a good idea, though,” Ronon said.
“Sure, I’m game,” Sheppard said, standing. “Some of the marines have a football game going on down on the south pier. Want to check it out? Teyla actually said she might end up down there, if Torren falls asleep. We could join them.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Ronon said. “Wanna grab some snacks in the mess on the way?”
“Read my mind,” Sheppard said with a grin.
Rodney’s face instantly fell. “You, uh, you’re leaving?”
“Can’t spend all day here, McKay,” Ronon said, shrugging. “Besides, you’ll be out soon.”
Rodney sighed miserably. Then he tilted his head. “Well, maybe I could go with you.”
Sheppard arched an eyebrow, and shook his head. “I already asked Cole again for you. She said no. Sorry, buddy.”
“She hates me,” Rodney said miserably. “Ever since that thing with the thing.” He shook his head. “If it weren’t for Jennifer, I’d just leave.”
“What does Jennifer have to do with it?” Ronon asked.
“Oh, she’d be mad if I did something that made one of her people look bad.” After he finished, he perked up. “Unless….” He grinned suddenly, looking up at Sheppard and Ronon.
“I’m not going to like this, am I?” Sheppard asked.
“If you kidnapped me, made it seem like it wasn’t my idea, maybe I wouldn’t get in as much trouble….”
“Oh, that’s a bad idea,” Sheppard said solemnly, shaking his head.
“A really bad idea,” Ronon agreed.
“It’s an incredibly stupid idea,” Rodney said, grinning. “So what do you say?”
Sheppard sighed, glanced at Ronon, and then shrugged. “I’ll go get him some clothes.”
“I’ll wrap his hand,” Ronon said.
Rodney just grinned.
I hope you enjoyed it!
Thank you to Indiana Jones, Star Wars, The Fifth Element, NT, and GateBiscuit for the request!