Chapter 1: John - The Crash
“I was right. Oh my god.” John’s passenger looks up from the documents on his knees and over towards him, voice a little tinny and muted through the headset. “Major, where are you based?”
“I fly out of Thule,” says John, eyes forward, checking the readings on his instrument panel.
“So you’ll know it’s not just an airbase?”
“Mmmm...” replies John, noncommittally.
“I’ve spent the past twenty years working on alternative energy sources. It’s all theoretical but...Jesus, I’m right. About everything.”
John’s been flying VIPs in and out of Thule Air Base for a couple of years now. Technically speaking he only has secret level clearance, but you don’t fly people with top-secret clearance on a regular basis without learning a thing or two. Somehow people always forget about the Pilot. He knows that underneath Thule airbase is an undisclosed science lab, where some of the greatest scientific minds of the age are working on something big. Something so life-changing that, if the people he shuttles around are to be believed, it will end the global energy crisis and halt the progression of climate change overnight. The base itself is USAF, but the lab seems to be multinational; he’s flown in people from all over the world so it wasn’t a surprise this morning when he picked up a cranky Canadian from Yellowknife Airport.
“It’s just Rodney, thank you.”
“Doctor...uh...M. Rodney McKay?”
“Yes, yes, hello Major...um...” the man squints at John’s uniform tag. “Sheppard. Here’s my passport. Can we skip the pleasantries? I’ve just spent 10 hours squashed between two unwashed marines in the back of a military transport plane and three more surrounded by crying babies in cattle class. I’d really like to get up in the air and to the base as soon as possible. Let’s go, chop-chop!”
Major Carter had given John a binder of classified documents to pass on to McKay, and the Doc’s been reading it quietly since they boarded John’s Pave Hawk in Yellowknife. Even when they refuelled and refreshed at Resolute (caribou stew and coffee), he had it on the table in front of him, scribbling corrections in red pen over endless pages of calculations and equations that John purposely did not look at, occasionally muttering under his breath about “Zero-point-energy" and “exotic particles” and “My god, there are no depths to his stupidity” and, John’s personal favourite, “Kavanagh is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, so very wrong!” said with barely contained glee. It makes a nice change not to have to make inane conversation about the weather and global events. Being assigned as the on-call pilot for a remote arctic base is a good fit for John, but he wishes he had more cargo trips and fewer passenger ones.
As it warms up in the chopper, McKay unzips his outer jacket to reveal an orange fleece underneath, blinding and nearly offensive in its brightness.
“Jeez, Doc,” says John. “You wouldn’t go missing in a snowstorm with that on.”
McKay looks indignant. “It’s my lucky fleece.”
“I was wearing it when I cracked the math that won me the Nobel and when I survived a severe anaphylaxis event because a waitress ‘forgot’ about my citrus allergy. Oh, and when I found my missing cat.”
John whistles. “That’s one lucky fleece. So, what miraculously lucky thing happened today?”
“Hopefully I’ll save the planet, how’s that for lucky?”
John checks in with the Nanisivik Naval Facility as they skim the outer edge of its airspace, a courtesy not a formality, and adjusts his altitude and heading slightly when they cheerfully give him a weather update. It’ll increase journey time a little, but when Colonel O’Neill gave him this assignment - personally - he pressed the importance of getting Doctor McKay to Thule safely. Besides, his Pave Hawk is literally maxed out with cargo; he had to let McKay ride shotgun because all the seats in the cabin are folded away to make room for urgent supplies.
“Don’t touch anything Doc.”
“I’m not an idiot, Major.”
There wasn't even room to squeeze McKay’s overstuffed duffel bag in the cabin and it ended up strapped down underneath his seat in the cockpit. It’s against regs to have a non-pilot upfront, never mind luggage, but O’Neill is lax when it comes to the stupider rules of the Air Force - allowing John a little leeway with the less important things like hair length and average cruising speed - and he was very clear that he needed both the cargo and the Doctor brought to base in one trip, so John took is as implicit permission to do whatever was necessary. Better to go around the weather than through with all the extra weight.
After a long, quiet stretch of note-taking and mumbling, McKay sighs loudly into his headset and slides the binder into his bag, zipping it up and kicking it back under his seat, bringing out a flask he’d had refilled in Resolute.
“Would you like some coffee?” he asks.
“Actually, yeah, I’d really like that. I’m not supposed to have liquids upfront but...”
“I won’t tell a soul, Major.” McKay sounds so serious and so sincere that John can’t help but smile. A warm cup is pushed into his hand. “Here. I’m guessing they don’t put cupholders in these things, if you need to put it down, I’ll hold it for you.”
They drink coffee in companionable silence as John flies, the rapid chuff-chuff-chuff of the rotors thumping through the craft and the sunset a darkening crimson sliver across the horizon. Now that the binder is away John has a feeling the peace he’s enjoyed so far on this flight won’t last long. McKay seems like the type of man who can’t keep his thoughts inside his head.
“They're bringing me in to fix a mess. It's just typical, I'm excluded from the research team for years because I ‘don't play well with others’ but when it goes horribly wrong, they need me to clean it up. I can guarantee that if I was on the team in the first place there would be nothing to fix. Not only is my IQ abnormally high, I’m a Nobel Laureate; you aren’t awarded that kind of prize without knowing a thing or two about meticulous scrutiny of the figures. I was tempted to tell them where to go, but honestly the things they’re working on? I’m glad I came. I didn't really have a choice if it’s as bad as the folder makes out. Looking at the mistakes in the calculations it’s no wonder there’s a problem. I just know Kavanagh has had his grubby little hands on the equations. I was sure they were researching this but I had no idea they were so far as to have a working prototype. I’ve been labouring through the math of this for twenty years and there are things that I’ve identified that they’ve clearly missed. Fundamental forces that they’ve not taken into consideration. Shocking I know, particularly because there are only four of them to account for, and it’s even more unthinkable considering all my own research on this has been freely available online for anyone to use. I’m much further ahead with the theory than they are. I just hope it’s a connection issue and not an entropic one. Carter’s always been gung-ho with her science; bypassing safety measures to get results quicker. She’s actually quite brilliant, don’t tell her I said that, it’s just that she doesn’t consider the consequences of her actions until afterwards. This is not the first mess of hers I’ve had to clean up.”
John has only known Major Carter since he was stationed at Thule - a couple of beers and some friendly competition in the firing range - but from what he’s seen of her in action, McKay is right on the mark. ‘Brilliant but hasty’, as Doctor Zelenka says. “How bad a mess are we talking, Doc?” he asks.
“It depends. If it’s a connection issue then all I need to do is correct the math to make it work, and I already did that when we stopped for dinner.”
“And if it’s an entropic one?”
McKay pauses, and John can tell he’s thinking, calculating, theorising, so he doesn’t interrupt. Finally, McKay turns his head and speaks. “I probably shouldn’t tell you.”
John can’t help but feel a little disappointed. “Fair enough.”
“No, no, don’t look like that. It’s not because I don’t want to, Major, it’s just that it’ll probably freak you out and I don’t want us crashing into the sea because you've had a cardiac event in the air.”
John laughs. “Your faith in my abilities and my physical health is heart-warming, Doc.”
“Hey, we all have strengths and weaknesses. I trust you to get me there in one piece. You can trust me to fix this.”
It’s absolutely insane because he only met McKay this morning, but John thinks he actually does. There’s something so solid about this cranky, verbose, Canadian scientist. John wouldn’t mind having him watch his six. He makes a mental note to check out McKay’s research online when he has downtime. His own degree is in mathematics, not physics, but he’ll probably get the gist.
“I’ll tell you when we land,” McKay promises, before turning to look out his side window, and John believes him.
They’re 300 km out of Thule and John’s correcting his course again when the tell-tale glow of the Aurora Borealis lights up the night sky in front of them, rapidly filling the heavens with an ethereal green glow. He's opening his mouth to tell McKay to look out the window, it never fails to impress at this altitude – why does he feel the need to impress McKay? – when they suddenly jerk in the air. The chopper is being pushed back by an unseen force, like a shockwave from a massive explosion, and John tries to fight it but the controls are sluggish. It feels like he’s trying to fly through treacle. There’s a sudden bright green flash all across the sky, and the chopper vibrates under his hands, shuddering from nose to tail, sparks jumping off the control panel and static screaming through his headset. The power fluctuates, all the lights in the cockpit flicker and the instrument panel buzzes and stops responding. Another flash, this one a blinding white, kills the power entirely and everything goes pitch black. Autorotation fails to kick in and as the rotors slow the chopper begins spiralling towards the ground at speed. John can’t see a damn thing. He attempts to get power back by muscle memory and touch, hands flying around the cockpit trying to coax even just a spark from the engine. It won’t take much to get the rotors going again so he can make an emergency landing, but nothing he does has any effect. McKay powers on a torch and shoves it in his mouth, shining it on the dash between them with his teeth. He starts fiddling with the controls to no avail, then yanks off several panels and starts tinkering with the wiring underneath. For a moment, the power comes back and John has just enough time to restart the rotors and start stabilising their altitude before another white flash snuffs it out again. McKay calls out but John can hardly hear him over the roaring of the wind pummelling his bird. A bolt of lightning hits the hull and as the snowy ground hurtles towards them, the last thing John hears is the fading sound of McKay screaming.
Chapter 2: John, Rodney - Survival
The first thing he notices is the smell – melted plastic and charred wood and hot metal. Discomfort follows the moment he realises he’s waking up; a scorching heat searing into his left side and an icy breeze blowing on his face. He coughs up lungfuls of smoke and grabs desperately at his harness, trying to pull away from the fire next to him. It won’t unbuckle so he grabs his boot-knife, cuts the straps and throws himself forward through the shattered windscreen, hands skidding across pebbles of glass as he crawls out onto the snow. The air is clean and icy cold and he gasps it in, grateful he’s able to breathe deeply for a few seconds before the relief wears off and the agony begins; a blistering, pulling ache down the left side of his jaw and reaching around the back of his neck. He cries out against the sudden onslaught of pain and grinds his teeth as he removes his headset and rolls onto his back, turning his head to the side and pressing the burned flesh into the snowy ground. He’s alright, he’s okay, he’s been through worse and pain means he’s not dead. He lays there for a minute letting the freezing cold snow cool his scorched neck as the tears roll down his cheeks, waiting for the dizziness to stop and the world to right itself.
A quick check of his body – nothing broken and nothing bleeding out – and he sits up to survey the wreckage he just escaped. What remains of his Pave Hawk is lying with its nose burrowed in the snow. Part of the cockpit is gone. All of the cargo is missing. The tail is snapped at an angle and the tail rotor is hanging precariously from a tree above the wreck. The rotor blades are FUBAR; the three still attached to the mast are crumpled up like tin cans, the fourth was thrown from the chopper during the crash and is embedded in the trunk of a nearby tree. Burning debris litters the forest floor and part of the wreck itself is on fire. Most of the surrounding trees are damaged, leaning over at an angle or snapped raggedly in half. It must have been a hell of an impact.
He fell out of the sky. Again. Jesus.
His eyes are drawn back to the cockpit. The co-pilot seat is missing along with its instrument panel and door. He can’t remember, did he even have a co-pilot? There was something urgent, something he was trusted with...a civilian. Oh God.
“MCKAY?! MCKAY, CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
There’s no response so he tries to stand up, unsteady on his feet, knees buckling under his own weight as he calls out again and again. He takes a tentative step, then another, then another, circling his downed bird in the snow. The missing seat isn’t in the wreckage and neither is the scientist. He can just make out the silhouette of something in the distance past the tail so he limps towards it, shuffling around scattered debris and burning fragments, keeping his mind on his steps and off his aching neck.
In the dim light of the fire he can make out the shape in the snow. Not a person; a cargo crate. It’s split open and spilling out sacks of mail; letters and packages littering the ground. It’s too dark to see any further out so he heads back to the chopper.
He can’t remember the moments leading up to the impact so he doesn’t know what happened to McKay. He needs to find him. First things first, he needs a medical kit to cover his burns. He ducks inside the smoky compartment to grab his emergency bag which is, thankfully, not consumed by flame, and settles on the ground against a tree. When he opens the first aid kit fragments of glass tumble out onto the snow. Without a mirror he can’t see to dress the burn properly so he settles for wrapping a bandage around his neck a few times and taping it in place. It’ll do until he can ask McKay to have a look. At least it’s covered. Well, most of it.
The signal gun he keeps in the bag is in working condition so he loads it, steps into the clearing and aims straight up. It’s very unlikely that there are any passing aircraft since the route he took was a private arrangement between the militaries and governments of the USA and Canada, but he hopes that McKay will see it and know to head towards him. The flare glows bright, lighting up the trees as it shoots up into the sky, casting an orange glow over everything in sight. He calls out again – MCKAY! MCKAY, ANSWER ME! – but there’s still no reply. Not dead, he isn’t dead, anything but that. McKay’s fine, he’s just...unable to respond.
He collapses back down under the tree, exhausted, and sets in to wait; give himself time to recover and McKay time to get there. The heat from the fire keeps him warm and the wind is blowing the smoke in another direction so he can sit here for a while, catch his breath and let the adrenaline fade. He starts out hopeful, looking around constantly for movement and listening for footsteps, shouting, anything at all other than the creaking of the trees in the wind and the roaring fire consuming the chopper. A few anxious birds fly overhead, calling out to each other across the treetops, and he thinks he spots the reflective eyes of a fox on the other side of the wreckage but no one comes. Not McKay or anyone else. He calls out a few more times but he’s sat long enough. If McKay didn’t reach him by now it’s because he couldn’t; he’s either too far away or he’s unable to move. It’s time to set up a search pattern.
Armed with his compass and a flare he walks a grid, fifty steps in one direction, five steps to the side, fifty steps back towards the wreckage (bright enough in the darkness that it serves as a beacon). He does this over and over, calling out as he goes. The burned flesh of his neck relentlessly aches and pulls every time he turns his head but he keeps looking, pushing through the pain. If McKay is close by he’s going to find him, a flesh wound isn’t going to get in the way. He searches the ground methodically as he goes but finds little in the red light of the flare; a few more burning pieces of the downed chopper, a couple of intact cargo crates, but no sign of his missing passenger. Goddamnit ! What if McKay was thrown from the chopper before it crashed? He could be anywhere in a 5-mile radius. That's a lot of ground to cover. If he doesn’t find him soon the best thing to do is wait until daylight and start looking again; climb up high where he can see for miles around and hope the Doc’s fluorescent fleece and red jacket are visible from far away.
When he heads East he comes across a railway line. Thank God, a sign of civilisation. That means they didn’t crash in the middle of nowhere. The odds were against them, there are over 35,000 islands in the Arctic Archipelago and only a handful of them are inhabited. He heads right on a whim and follows the tracks, keeping an ear out in case a train comes that he can flag down. There are power lines running parallel and now that he’s out of the trees and in the moonlight he can see they branch off from the tracks a little ahead of him. Even better. He follows them and stumbles into a low-lying sign for a ‘Mystery Lake Camp Office’ and he spots the two-story building half way down a slope towards a frozen lake. It’s dark and boarded up, but it doesn’t take much effort to get the front door open. When he walks in he feels instantly warmer. It’s such a relief to get out of the icy wind. He steps back outside and shoots another signal into the sky before closing the door. If McKay was heading towards the first one this will update his location, and if not maybe he’s close enough now for this one to be seen. There really isn’t much more he can do until dawn, cold and sore and exhausted as he is. The first rule of rescue is not to put yourself into a situation where you need to be rescued yourself.
There’s a wood-burning stove in the corner and an abundance of neatly stacked logs next to it so he builds a fire and lights it to warm the place up. Even inside the temperature is well below freezing, his breath misting in the air. He's grateful for the thermals under his flight suit but there’s only so long they can keep him warm. The fire grows quickly, giving off some much-needed heat and a warm yellow glow that lights up the office. It’s begun to snow outside and John closes the shutters to keep the heat inside, hoping that wherever he is McKay has enough presence of mind to find shelter. He was wearing winter gear in the chopper and it should be enough to get him through the night as long as he stays dry and out of the wind.
On the counter next to the stove are a couple of old-fashioned paraffin lanterns. They're both full so he lights one up to assess his situation. The building seems to be part office and part boarding house. Under the staircase is a fully stocked pantry; tins and dried foods and jars of preserves and pickles. He grabs a tin of soup, opens it with his boot knife and sets it to heat up on the stove as he empties the contents of his rucksack onto the counter to take stock of his own supplies. Water (frozen), powerbars, flashlight and batteries (not working), whistle, duct tape, multitool, first aid kit, signal gun and cartridges, flares, fire making kit, space blanket, water purification tablets, compass, sewing kit, 550 paracord. The office has various supplies as well as the stocked pantry and firewood; camping gear, binoculars, maps, hand tools, hacksaw, clothing, utensils, jerry cans of fuel. There’s a rotary phone downstairs but it doesn’t have a dial tone, and an old ham radio sitting on the counter but there’s no power so no signal. Pinned to a notice board on the wall is a giant map of the surrounding area, with notations marked on in red pen. The upper floor is an open balcony. It has a couple of cots and some blankets, a dresser, bearskin rug, and another, smaller, stove. He lights a fire up here as well to try to defrost the place a little quicker. A small bathroom is tucked in the corner downstairs, but both the toilet and the pipes are frozen and the shower is packed with an industrial-sized fish box filled with fishing gear. There’s no reason he can’t go outside though. It’ll be uncomfortable in the cold but he can handle it. As far as survival situations go, he’s really lucked out finding this place. He just hopes he can find McKay in the morning, alive and well, maybe a little cold but still in one piece.
He doesn’t let himself consider the alternative.
The office thaws out, the cold chased away by the heat of the two stoves, and as he eats the soup he warms up from the inside. But the pain in his neck becomes more prominent as he gets more comfortable. The mirror in the bathroom shows his skin is an angry red and it’s blistering in places – textbook second-degree burns. It stings like hell but a couple of weeks and it will heal nicely as long as he keeps it from getting infected before they get rescued. He pops a few Tylenol to ease the pain. He’s not an idiot and there are no marines here to impress; stoically enduring it won’t do him any favours. Walking away from a downed chopper with nothing but a neck burn? That’s one for the record books.
It was a little after 1800 when the chopper went down. A couple of hours waiting and searching plus the time he’s already spent in the office, it’s probably coming up to 2200. This far north in October the sun doesn’t rise until after 1000. He’s in for a long night. God, McKay even more so. Might as well get some sleep. Tomorrow he’ll restart the search; snag the binoculars and find some high ground. He stocks up both fires and shoots one last flare into the sky through the falling snow on the off chance. He hopes McKay can see it, even if he can’t make his way towards it. At least he’ll know that he’s alive. The man’s a genius, he’s surely smart enough to know that you can’t search effectively in the dark. All he has to do is find shelter and try to stay warm. John will find him in the morning.
The first thing he notices is a steady drip drip drip on his face. Cold water landing on his cheek. God how he hates being cold. A burst of light glares through his eyelids and he opens them. There’s a big, bright, orange star up in the sky ahead of him floating above the canopy of a forest. Brighter than the rest of the stars. He can’t quite remember what it is but he knows it’s important. There’s something he needs to do. Carter. She did something. Something bad. Again. He has to fix it. What is it?
The world shifts a little beneath him and he becomes aware of two things. One – he’s strapped into a seat, a five-point harness keeping him snugly in place. Two – Oh look, he’s in the branches of a tree. On the side of a cliff. That’s new. Wait, make that three things; his left leg aches. He looks down and sees a piece of metal sticking out of his thigh. Huh, he’s impaled on something. In the back of his mind, he’s aware that it doesn’t hurt as much as it should, but he can’t bring himself to care. It’s not bleeding, that’s something at least.
The orange star starts to fade and as it does, he sees a faint, warm, yellow glow flickering on the far side of the forest beneath him, smoke rising up above the canopy and getting blown away by the wind. It’s pretty up here, the night sky crisp and clear and littered with stars between the clouds, the distant fire welcoming and glowing and probably warm. Warm. God, he’s cold. Really, really cold. He can’t feel his fingers. He tries to flex them but it hurts a little so he stops. Warm. He has to get warm. He shuffles around a bit and finds his jacket bunched up behind his back. It would be a good idea to put it on. The only problem is the harness; if he opens the buckle he’ll fall out of the tree and it’s a long way down. A really long way down. But he can’t stay in the tree all night, he’ll freeze to death.
Gravity solves his dilemma. As he shifts the branches holding him up start to snap one by one, and suddenly he’s falling through the air to the ground. He lands hard at the bottom of the cliff face on his back, the seat absorbing most of the impact. That’s lucky. It takes a few tries but he unbuckles the harness and escapes from the seat. He pulls on his jacket and instantly feels a lot warmer without the windchill on his body. He can’t quite get his fingers to work the zip so he bundles his hands in his armpits to warm them up and tries to remember how he ended up in a seat in a tree. Thule, he was on his way to Thule. There was a document, ZedPM technology, they’ve cracked it. Almost. They messed something up. Something didn’t work the way it was supposed to. And a pilot! He was in a helicopter. A Major something...something...Farmer? Ranger? Sheppard! Major Sheppard. That’s it. Major Sheppard was flying them to Thule. They had coffee in the cockpit. He has to find him. Sheppard’s military, he’ll know what to do.
His hands are warm enough now to tackle the delicate task of his zipper. God, it feels good to be wrapped up. His bag is still strapped to the underneath of the seat. He looks for his gloves in the side pocket. Waterproof, winter fleece gloves. The ones he had in Antarctica. They’re so toasty and warm. And his scarf is tucked away in another pocket. He wants to put that on too but he doesn’t have a first aid kit on him and he’s going to need something to wrap around his leg. Oh god, his leg. He fumbles with the tear in his trousers. There’s a metal rod jammed all the way through the inside of his thigh. It doesn’t hurt too much, his leg is so cold it’s a bit numb. He could pull it out but he doesn’t know if it’s gone through an artery. The metal might be the only thing preventing him from bleeding out, so he wraps his scarf around his thigh, tightly, and ties it off with a knot. He remembers he has a hat too, a pure merino wool hat. He digs it out and puts it on his head, throwing his jacket’s hood over the top. His thermals, fleece-lined trousers, and walking boots will take care of his lower half. He just needs to get up off the ground though before the snow soaks through his clothes.
It hurts a lot but he rolls onto his hands and knees and, keeping his left leg straight, uses the back of the seat to push himself up and stand on his right leg, tentatively setting his left foot down on the ground too. Testing his weight on the injured side he realises that if he doesn't bend his knee too much, he’ll keep the pain to a minimum and hopefully manage to hobble. He’ll worry about any potential consequences later when he finds the Major. The orange star was obviously a flare, and it hovered up above the fire in the forest, which is most likely the crash site for the helicopter, so he grabs his bag and shuffles off in the direction of the smoke. At least he knows the Major is alive. It'll be slow work and he has a lot of ground to cover, but he’ll make it to Sheppard and hopefully they’ll be rescued soon.
The ground doesn't stay level for long, very quickly it starts sloping upwards. It would take longer to work his way around than to go straight over it, and he might lose sight of the smoke if he tries, so he does the sensible things and carries on in a straight line no matter the terrain. It’s going to take an age with his leg, but if he gets lost he might never be found. It’s important that he gets rescued. The fate of the world might depend on it. God only knows what Carter has done this time. The last time she messed something up, she almost blew up a nuclear reactor. That could have destroyed a city. At best, the same kind of mechanical error with ZedPM technology would destroy the planet, at worst the whole solar system. Whatever knocked them out of the sky must have something to do with the experiments going on in Thule. Helicopters don’t just fall out of the sky, there are all kinds of fail-safes to prevent the rotors from stopping in the air. Only a massive EMP event could have knocked those out. He just needs to figure out what could happen with a ZedPM that could create an EMP event 400 km out from the source. Was it only in their airspace? Or was it everywhere within a 400 km radius of the airbase? Surely Carter learned a lesson at Fort St. Vrain Generating Station. The tinkering she did on the old nuclear reactor was hasty and badly planned, rushing ahead to get results, skipping safety checks and peer review of the equations. The whole of Colorado was almost lost, only his quick thinking and the assistance of his engineering buddy Zelenka could halt the meltdown her experimentation triggered.
As he crests a hill, another flare shoots up into the sky, this one a few degrees clockwise from the smoke. If it’s the Major then he’s relocated. Which means he’s walking. Which means he’s okay. Thank goodness. Maybe he’s found some decent shelter. He adjusts his heading towards the new flare. All he has to do is keep walking, keep going, no matter what. But it’s increasingly difficult; the snow is deep and his trousers and boots are starting to soak through. He doesn’t have another pair of boots so there’s nothing he can do about it.
He comes across a dilapidated cabin further into the forest. Only a few of the walls are still standing but it’s a good place to stop for a while, catch his breath out of the wind. It’s so cold and getting colder and the wet clothing isn’t helping things. There’s an old stove in the corner of the cabin but there’s no fuel and he has no matches. If he sits on the ground he probably won’t get back up again, but his leg needs a rest so he perches on top of the stove and tries to take the weight off for a few minutes. What he wouldn’t give to be sitting in front of a hot fire, drinking coffee, a hot water bottle on his feet. Yeah, that would be great. Dry clothes and hot flames and maybe some hot food. Maybe the Major has managed to light a fire in whatever cave he’s found. He has to keep going. Has to find Sheppard. Get rescued. Get to Thule, fix the problem. He wants to stay here, in this ruined building, curl up and get some sleep, but he can’t. He has to find the Major. Right. Enough moping. Let’s go.
Cloud cover is moving in overhead and it starts to snow; silent flakes falling from the sky, landing on his cheeks and melting, making his face wet. He tries to dry them off with his gloves but they are damp on the outside so it just makes it worse, wetter and colder. He pulls his hood over his face as much as he can but he’s walking into the wind and it keeps trying to push it back. Heat is leeching from his body exponentially as his trousers get wetter and the wind gets stronger. But still he presses on. One foot then the next, each step more difficult than the one before as he starts to shiver violently. His legs start to go numb again so he allows the left knee to bend a little more with each step. Walking more fluidly, unimpeded by pain, helps him maintain his speed even though he’s getting sluggish in his waterlogged clothes. But he’s getting disoriented; the flare has long since faded away and he can’t see the smoke any more. He thinks he’s still going in the same direction but he can’t be certain, and it feels like he’s walked for miles. How far does he have still to go?
Between one breath and the next, he trips over a wayward root hidden under the snow, landing hard on his left side. Agony shoots through his thigh despite the cold and he screams, crying tears of frustration and misery and pain. He rolls onto his back, his breath hitching with each sob. He’s not going to make it. He’s going to die out here, alone in the middle of a frozen nowhere. Carter’s going to destroy the solar system with no one to fix her mess. Zelenka’s good, but he’s not quite brilliant.
I’m sorry Major Sheppard. I did my best.
He curls up on his good side and burrows into the snow. He can’t feel his feet or legs much anymore. God, this is not how he imagined dying. At least he won his Nobel and got famous enough for a hotly contested Wikipedia page. But his cat will be doomed to live with his neighbour forever. Poor Hypatia. He’s musing over the things he wishes he had done in his life, research he didn’t have time for and people he should have made time for, when the third flare appears in the night sky, a bright orange beacon through the blizzard. It looks...it’s really close by. Almost directly above him. If he can just...just get up, go a little further. He’ll find the Major. Who might have a fire...food...at the very least he might have some body heat to share.
Get up, Rodney, get up!
He struggles to his feet, screaming through the pain it causes in his leg and almost throws himself in the direction of the flare. It’s so much closer than before. Maybe the Major is looking for him? He tries to call out but his throat won’t make enough sound to carry through the falling snow. Never mind, left...right...left...right... He can do this. He has to do this. Just keep going. Keep moving. Almost there.
He pushes on, shivering violently, numb all over, but still moving. He traverses left around a steep bank - climbing even a gradual hill is beyond him now - and as he clears it, he comes across train tracks and power lines and the relief brings with it a second wind. Where there are power lines there are people. He can’t see the flare any more but he thinks it was a little further up the tracks to the left. At this point there’s nothing to lose so he summons the very last of his reserves and heads that way. Walking on the raised tracks is a lot easier than dragging his legs through the snow, so he’s able to move a little quicker despite the numbness in his extremities.
When the power line splits off to the right and he spots a building, he knows he’s made the right choice, the one that’s saved his life. There’s a glowing light spilling out of the shutters and a smoking chimney that promises heat. Oh god, heat. He’s going to make it. He laughs as he stumbles down the slope at speed, forcing himself up the front steps and knocking loudly on the door. He’s too desperate to get out of the cold to wait for someone to answer it so he pushes the door open and enters into a blessed wall of heat. God he hopes the Major is here.
Chapter 3: John - First Aid
In John’s dreams there’s a knock at a door. A loud, hammering knock.
The voice startles him from his sleep. There’s someone downstairs. He flings himself out of bed and across the balcony.
Taking the steps two at a time by the warm glow of the burning stoves, he finds McKay leaning heavily against the front door, pale faced, breathless and utterly sodden from the thighs down.
“Jesus, Doc, you’re soaking,” he says, yanking off McKay’s gloves and bag, and pulling at the zip of his jacket. “We need to get you warmed up.” He slides the jacket down trembling arms.
“S’cold,” says McKay, teeth chattering audibly.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Come on, let’s get you upstairs.”
He looks down and notices for the first time that McKay has a scarf tied around his leg. Shit, he must be hurt. “Okay, let’s get you out of these clothes and take a look at your leg down here. I have a first aid kit. We’ll do what we can, okay?”
McKay nods slowly and takes off his wool hat and places it on the counter. John runs back upstairs to grab the thick bearskin rug off the floor and some pillows and blankets. It’ll be easier to treat McKay’s wounds if he’s laying down but he doesn’t want him lying on the bare, wooden floor. When he gets back downstairs McKay is naked from the waist up, pawing at his fly ineffectually. “My f-f'ngers are n-numb,” he says with a frown when he sees John.
“Hey, not to worry, let me take care of it.”
He lays the rug down in front of the stove, close enough to catch most of the heat and light, but not so close that McKay will be overwhelmed by sensation, then makes a start on the rest of his clothes, kneeling to remove his wet boots and socks, popping the button and unzipping his fly. When he unties the scarf, it catches on a piece of metal sticking out of the flesh of McKay’s thigh.
“That looks bad. Think you can lie down?”
“I can lie down. P-prob'ly can’t get b-back up though.”
“Won’t be a problem. Here, let me help you.” He stands, guides McKay over to the rug and eases him down onto it. McKay lies back when asked and John sits down to take a look at his thigh. “Jesus, what happened?”
“Don’t know. Landed in a t-t-tree.” McKay laughs, teeth still rattling together. “Landed in a s-s-seat in a tree.”
“Sounds like a hell of a landing. I’m gonna have to get these trousers off, the legs are soaked through, okay?”
“Lift up as much as you can.” John pulls the trousers and thermals gently down as McKay raises his hips off the rug, lifting the fabric over the metal and slipping them off. McKay’s Star Trek boxers are still dry so he leaves them on. His feet are icy cold but John knows better than to rub them, so he manoeuvres them towards the burning stove. There's a thin metal rod through the inside of McKay's thigh, sticking out of the front and back of the leg. It seems to be a clean puncture and it’s narrow – there's very little blood and a good chance it’s safe to pull it out. McKay is shivering badly, rapid tremors like an earthquake, which is good, it means he only has mild hypothermia, but mild or not it’s still hypothermia. A shock to the system, like removing a foreign object from a major muscle, is probably not a good idea just yet. He tucks a blanket around McKay’s body. “So, here’s the thing. There’s a metal rod piercing your thigh -”
“I’m painf-f'lly aware of that M-major,” snaps McKay, but he’s too weak for there to be any heat in it.
“-and I should take it out, but I can’t, not yet, not until you’re warm.”
McKay lifts his head. “Oh g-god, can’t you do it while I’m still half numb?”
“Sorry, Doc, the shock might kill you.”
McKay closes his eyes and groans.
“So, you and I are gonna get a little cozy for a while and share body heat until you warm up, then I’ll take it out and bandage your leg up. How does that sound?”
“Uh...I’m cool with the c-cozy but I’m a little anxious about the whole pulling it out thing.”
“I have morphine in my kit, it won’t be as bad as you think.” He’s lying through his teeth – he does have morphine but it's still going to hurt when he takes it out. McKay doesn’t seem to notice though, thank God.
“Right, I’m just gonna...” John lays down next to McKay, curling around his good side, and pulling the rest of the blankets over them. “Don’t mind me, Doc.” He wraps his arms around the shivering man and pulls him closer.
“God, you’re s-so warm,” says McKay, snuggling in.
John throws his leg over McKay’s good one. “You will be soon, just hang in there.”
They lay there quietly until McKay’s shivering starts to abate. John’s done this before; he once had to warm up a hypothermic teammate in the field, but it was incredibly awkward. He’s surprised how easy it is to do this with McKay. Maybe cause he’s a civilian. Or maybe because there’s no one else there making lewd jokes.
“I followed your flares,” says McKay quietly. He looks at John. “They were your flares, right?”
“I wasn’t sure I...”
“I wasn’t sure I was going to make it,” whispers McKay.
John squeezes his arm around McKay’s shoulders. “You made it. You’re here and safe, and we’re gonna get you warm.” He pauses, unsure how to say what’s on his mind. “Look, Doc...”
“I don't want you to think that...that I wasn’t coming for you. I know it might have seemed that way when you got here and I was asleep in a warm cabin, like I’d given up but...I looked for you for a long time and-”
“No, I don’t think that. It’s impossible to find someone in unfamiliar terrain in the dark, Major. I’m sure you did your best. I was nowhere near the helicopter anyway.”
“I was going to go back out as soon as daylight came, I swear. I just don’t want you to think otherwise.”
“I waited for you. I searched for you for hours.”
“Okay. Glad we cleared that up.” John rests his forehead on McKay’s shoulder. “I like your boxers by the way.”
McKay narrows his eyes. “I hope that’s not sarcasm.”
“Of course not. Voyager was the best series though,” teases John.
“No way, Next Gen was.”
“Picard was cool. But Janeway was cooler.”
“Hmm. Seven of Nine was the best character of all time.”
“Glad to see you agree,” says John. McKay’s stopped shaking, so he gets up and grabs the first aid kit. “I think it’s a good time for that morphine shot,” he says, popping the lid off the autoinjector.
“You know,” says McKay, turning onto his right side, wincing hard. “I’ve been – ugh, Jesus – freelancing for various militaries most of my life. I’ve never met a geeky airman before.”
John lifts the blankets and plunges the needle into McKay’s glute, holding it in place until the counter hits zero. “Maybe don’t tell anyone about that, Doc. Wouldn’t want to lose my tough-guy cred.” He throws the injector into the stove.
“Your secret is safe with me,” says McKay, rubbing the injection site lightly.
John helps him roll onto his back. “Do you remember the crash?”
“I take it you don’t?” asks McKay. John shakes his head. “I think the fuel tank exploded. Something heavy slammed into my seat and flung it out the door. I can’t remember landing or seeing you go down, but, God, I can remember falling towards the ground. My seat got caught in a tree. I woke up freezing cold. Saw the smoke from your fire.”
“You did well to get all the way here on that leg. It’s been hours since we crashed, even with the wound slowing you down you must have walked a long way. Miles.”
“It felt like it was never going to end. Thank you. For the flares.”
“You’re welcome,” says John. “Okay, we’re as ready as we’re gonna get. I’m going to take the metal out of your leg. Are you ok with that?”
“Have you ever done anything like this before?”
“I’m trained in military first aid. I’ve never specifically removed a metal rod out of someone’s thigh, but I’ve removed bullets and other types of foreign objects from all over the body before. I’ve had to do it often enough that I carry a trauma field kit in my bird at all times, even on supply runs.”
McKay sighs. “Well, it’s not like there’s a medical doctor in the building.” He waves his hand at his thigh. “Have at it, Major.”
McKay cries out as John bends his left leg and braces the foot against his own knee. There’s just enough light by the stove for John to see what he’s doing. He gels his hands and places a sterile pad underneath the leg, unwrapping a couple of dressings so that they are ready to be applied. He unwraps some tampons as well, just in case there’s too much blood and he needs to plug the hole quickly. He’s pretty sure this is the right thing to do. Realistically, if it’s sliced through a major artery there’s nothing he can do to stop McKay bleeding out, but with no working radio and no medevac en route, it could be days before help finds them. He can’t just leave it in there to get infected.
“Okay, on three. One-” John pulls out the metal rod in a quick, fluid motion. McKay screams, tears streaming down his face, but he pulls himself together quickly as John disinfects the wound on both sides and applies field dressings. Blood flows from the wound, not arterial. Thank God. “Hey, well done, Doc.”
“You’re a jerk, you know that?!” sniffs McKay.
John grins. “Yeah, but at least it’s over.”
“Christ. Can we sleep now?”
“Sure. I think we’ve earned it.”
John throws the packaging in to burn and shuts down the stove. He sets the first aid kit on the counter, then turns his attention to McKay’s wet clothing. The best he can do is drape it over the counter and hope there’s enough heat to dry them out. But he might have a change of clothing in his bag and there’s some stuff in the drawers upstairs if need be. He lays back down on the rug. McKay pulled the blankets back over himself but left enough for John to slip under too. He presses up against McKay’s back, tucking his knees up, and closes his eyes. They both really need some sleep. Just a few hours to reset, tomorrow they’ll try to find a way to contact Thule.
When John wakes up it’s still dark, a diffuse glow coming from the embers in the stove. He’s tucked up against McKay’s back, arm flung over his middle. McKay’s gripping onto his wrist in his sleep, snoring softly, his breath strong and healthy. John pulls his hand free and feels the dressings under the covers, they’re still dry and intact. He checks McKay’s pulse and temperature, managing not to wake him. So far so good; no signs of infection.
McKay remains asleep as John drags himself out of bed to stoke the fires, fumbling his way upstairs then back down by touch. He’s stiff and his whole body aches. No doubt he’ll have some impressive bruising all over his chest from the harness, they both will. But they're alive. That’s the important thing. There’s plenty of Tylenol and ibuprofen to get them through the worst. John doesn’t believe in a higher power, but it’s an absolute miracle that they both survived the crash and even more so that McKay managed the trek here. Now that McKay’s safe and they’re warm and well-rested, John’s thoughts turn to rescue. Whatever happened must have something to do with the research lab under Thule, it’s too much of a coincidence to be anything else. But there’s no way to know if rescue is coming, so they’re going to have to do more than sit around and wait. They’ll need to find a way to contact the base and let them know they’re alive and where they are. The radio’s out, but McKay’s a scientist- he might be able to get it going again.
The pantry is well stocked, a few months' worth of food and drink. There’s plenty of water, especially if they melt and boil the snow. Fuel for the stove is probably a safe bet too since the area’s forested. John’s a little worried about sanitation, digging a latrine isn’t gonna work in tundra like it does in the desert, but they’ll think of something. All in all, they’re in good shape to survive till rescue comes. They just need to make sure the rescue knows where to look. John’s glad he doesn’t have to figure that one out on his own. He sets to making breakfast. He’s not overly hungry just yet but McKay didn’t eat last night and it’ll do them some good to start the day with a full belly. It’s just about ready when McKay wakes up.
“Hey Doc, sleep well?” asks John as he pours.
“Oh, God, that hurts.”
“Here.” John hands him some coffee and a couple of painkillers. “This’ll help.”
McKay pulls himself up into a sitting position and leans his back on the counter, taking the coffee and pills with a grimace. “I had the wildest dream.”
“Yeah. I was in a helicopter on my way to Thule. You were piloting. I fell out. Landed in a tree.” McKay swallows the pills down. “Good thing it was just a dream, eh?”
“Good thing,” says John with a wry smile.
“How the hell are we not dead, Major?”
McKay puts his coffee down on the floor with a thunk. “Oh no. Tell me you’re not a bible-thumping God-lover. That would just make my day.”
“I’m not a bible-thumping God-lover,” says John, deadpan.
McKay squints at him by the light of the fire. “I can’t tell if you’re being serious.”
“I’m serious, Doc. It was random chance.” John dishes out their breakfast. “Here, pork’n’beans. Best I can do under the circumstances.”
“Food? I am in your debt, Major.”
“You can make it up to me by fixing the radio.”
“I’ll take a look at it when there’s some daylight. But if there's no power to the building...”
“There’s a couple of car batteries and some six volts. Think you could hook something up?”
“So what do you think happened last night?”
McKay picks up his bowl and starts to eat. “Working hypothesis; some kind of massive electromagnetic event.”
“A coronal mass ejection, a Solar EMP. The last big one to hit Earth was in 1859. It was so powerful it felled telegraph poles and shocked people through the lines. This one would have to have been much, much bigger to bring down a modern helicopter.”
“What could cause a Solar EMP?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about the thing you were brought in to work on?”
“I wasn’t kidding before in the helicopter. It was either a connection issue, which wouldn’t do anything at all, or one so big we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Nothing in-between.”
“So, it’s not related?”
“Hmm. Odds are it is, I just don't know how yet. I’ll have to think about it.”
“So...even if there was a chopper just outside...”
“It wouldn’t start up.”
They finish breakfast in silence, each man lost in his own thoughts. McKay grumbles that he’s going to lie down for a while and wait for the painkillers to kick in. John checks the bandage on his leg again then heads upstairs to get dressed. He digs out some clothes from the dresser, thermals and winter trousers. There are several pairs of boots downstairs and some jackets. Hopefully he’ll find something that fits. He’s going to go out looking for wood to burn when the sun comes up. There’s a decent stock but he needs to know if it’s feasible to have the fires on all the time or not – there's no point being warm now if it means they can’t melt snow when it counts. As he pulls on an undershirt he hears a deep rumbling coming from the pipes in the wall. It takes him a couple of seconds to place the sound, that of a toilet being flushed. When he gets downstairs, McKay is limping out of the bathroom in his boxers and a t-shirt, storm lantern in hand.
“Wait, the toilet works?!”
“Yeah. Pipes this far North are buried deep, really, really deep, so they don’t freeze over. Cistern and surface pipes would have been frozen when you got here but the heat from the fires will have melted it. We’re lucky there isn’t a leak. Water probably comes from a lake or a deep well. I wouldn’t drink it but it'll do for flushing. Why, where have you been going?”
“Um...you probably don’t want to know.”
“You’re probably right. Anyway, it’s working now.” McKay’s about to brush past him when he suddenly stops and lifts the torch. “What happened to your neck?”
“Oh, uh, the chopper was on fire when I woke up.”
“I didn’t notice it last night.”
“You had other things on your mind, Doc.”
“Here, take the bandages off, let me have a look.”
John peels back the tape and unravels the bandage. McKay winces in sympathy as the burn is uncovered. “Do you have anything in your medkit to put on that?” he says.
“Nothing for burns.”
“Huh. How about honey?”
“Is there any in the pantry? It’s an anti-bacterial. That’s why it can last for hundreds of years and still be edible. Whoever owns this place is probably a prepper given the fully stocked pantry and practical supplies, not to mention the gun décor on the walls. Hunting and survivalism often go hand in hand in Canada.”
“Aren’t you a fountain of knowledge.”
“I read a lot,” replies McKay, defensively, trying to cross his arms but hampered by the lantern.
“You sit back down, get off that leg, I’ll go take a look.”
He didn’t take much notice of it yesterday, but sure enough, there are several bottles of honey on the shelves. He takes one through and grabs his medkit, sitting down next to McKay on the rug.
“That looks really painful,” says McKay, rubbing his hands with alcohol gel.
“It probably looks worse than it is.”
“Mmmhmm. Pull the other one.” McKay rummages in the medkit. “Okay, there’s some sterile water, I’ll use that to clean it.” He hesitates. “It’s going to hurt though.”
“I think I’ll paint the honey on the inside of the dressings then tape them on. If I try to paint it onto your skin, I might burst the blisters which is both an infection risk and extremely painful. Okay?”
“Yeah, I trust you.”
John grits his teeth through McKay’s TLC, earning a couple of loud sighs and a “Military men, honestly!” for his troubles, but when it’s done it’s a relief to have the burn properly covered up. McKay angled the honeyed dressings for maximum protection and stuck them down with precisely cut medical tape. John wonders if there is anything McKay does that’s a little rough around the edges or if he’s always a little bit proper. There’s a corner of tape stuck over his bottom lip and McKay pulls it back gently, a warm finger brushing John’s mouth briefly, and snips it off with the scissors from the medkit, hands bearing a carefulness that humbles him. It’s nice to have someone care about his wellbeing. It’s been a long time since anyone touched him with anything other than clinical detachment. Someone who isn’t getting paid to fix him up and send him back out into a warzone, or assess his state of mind and fitness for court-martial. To find it here, in the hands of a stranger in the middle of nowhere is kind of poetic. He just hopes they both make it out of here in one piece.
Chapter 4: Rodney - Lookout Tower
The sun is up, daylight streaming through the shutters, dust motes suspended in the rays suddenly swirling as he limps by. While Major Sheppard is out looking for firewood, Rodney's tasked to get the radio working. It won’t switch on. There’s no power coming through the electrical outlet (he checked the fuse box, nothing’s tripped), so he tries both 12V car batteries (dead) and an entire box of 6V lantern batteries two at a time (also dead). He strips it down, checks the component parts one by one, then carefully puts it back together and tries again but no amount of tinkering can change the outcome. There’s no power to be had. And it baffles him. There’s a long list of things EMPs are known to affect and a longer list of things they aren’t. Brand new, unconnected batteries are in the latter list, as are modern power lines and this shouldn’t be an issue but it is.
There’s a faded local map on the wall telling him they crashed on Great Bear Island, and another, curling map of Canada showing that it’s a little over halfway between Resolute and Greenland. Mystery Lake is smack-bang in the middle of the island, connected by rail to a town in one direction (Milton) and the coast in the other. The lake seems to be a popular hunting and fishing spot. If the power was turned off remotely at end of the season that could explain the lack of electricity...but not the dead batteries. He flicks through a leaflet from the holder on the counter. The lake has a handful of cabins on the far side, some fishing huts dotted around on the ice, and deer hunting trails in the surrounding forest. It’s far enough North to be frozen all year round, and it’s usually open for business as long as there is enough daylight to hunt by. It should still be busy this time of year, people checking in and out for end of season shooting, but the place seems to have been abandoned for a long time. Months at least judging by the thick layer of dust over everything. Rodney is perplexed and still contemplating what this all means when the Major comes back, duffel full of wood on his shoulder and hacksaw dangling from the strap.
“Hey, Doc,” says Sheppard, closing the door behind him with his hip.
“Major,” says Rodney. “How was the great wood hunt?”
“Good.” Sheppard drops the bag onto the floor and starts emptying the contents into the log pile. “There’s plenty of fallen branches and trees. We’re not going to struggle to keep warm.”
“Anything interesting out there?”
“There’s a lookout in the forest with a radio tower. What do you think, worth a look?”
“Well, the radio here is a bust. There’s no way to power it, all the batteries are dead.”
Sheppard looks at Rodney, surprised. “Dead? What about the brand-new box of sixes?”
“Dead as a doornail.”
“Can an EMP do that?”
“So. ..I’d say this tower was worth a look on the off chance that it is powered.”
Sheppard gets up, knees clicking loud enough for Rodney to hear it. “Okay then. I’ll head out and take a look.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Sheppard shakes his head. “I don't think so Doc.”
“Your leg probably isn’t up for an uphill trek.”
“No, you won’t-”
“Major,” interrupts Rodney. “I managed to walk for miles with a piece of metal in my thigh. I’m not going to balk at a little hill now that it’s out. Besides, I’m an engineer, you might need my expertise.”
“I thought you were an astrophysicist ?”
“I am. I have two PhDs. Astrophysics and engineering. And a handful of other degrees on the side.”
Sheppard grumbles something about overachievers, clearly torn between his duty to protect civilians and Rodney’s absolutely irrefutable assessment of the situation, but doesn’t argue again. They wrap up warm, lots of layers and extra socks, and Sheppard stocks up the fires and shuts them down. It’s not snowing when they set off, the sky’s a powdery blue with a few white fluffy clouds, and though it’s cold there’s no wind to be felt through the trees. Sheppard points out the lookout tower peeking over the tops of the forest. Rodney brought a folded up local map with him when they left and it shows a 3 km trail winding its way off the train tracks and up a hill. The sun’s still low in the sky and rising; they’ll make it there and back before dusk. Sheppard insisted on bringing an emergency pack but decided that Rodney could do without any extra weight with his leg and all, so they’ll manage to keep a good pace.
They follow the railway line North towards the turnoff, coming up on a stationary train sitting on the tracks a little way along. “We should check it out Major,” says Rodney as they pass several cargo containers at the rear.
“Yeah,” says Sheppard. “Might have some supplies.”
“Or, you know, a working engine.”
“You can drive a train, Doc?”
“Major, I could build a train. Driving one is child's play.”
“Huh. I’m impressed.”
“Don’t be. You can fly a helicopter.”
They pull open the door on the only carriage compartment they come to. It’s old, all wood and metal with small windows, decorative piping and fancy golden letter work proclaiming Albion Mines Railway Co. The kind that has doors that swing out and traditional four-person compartments. Sheppard gives Rodney a boost up before climbing up himself.
“This is a little creepy,” says Rodney, standing in the entryway.
“Yeah,” replies Sheppard, scanning the carriage.
On the table in the first compartment is a card game; three hands dealt and an open bottle of Yukon Jack with a big red bow round the neck. There are duffle bags and suitcases under seats and newspapers and magazines on some of the other tables. Rodney trips over some brightly coloured children's toys in the aisle as they make their way forward. It was deserted in a hurry. In the middle of nowhere. God, what kind of thing drives people to do that? When they get to the front of the carriage it becomes clear. The engine is detached and partially derailed, burnt out and reduced to a shell. They must have been afraid the rest of the carriages would catch fire too.
“This didn’t happen last night,” says Rodney.
“No, I’d have heard it,” says Sheppard. At Rodney’s questioning look he goes on. “The chopper crashed not far from here. It’s close enough that I’d have heard that many people milling about or seen the fire through the trees.”
“Hang on,” says Rodney, turning back.
Rodney ducks into the nearest compartment and picks up a newspaper, a well-read copy of The National Post, and scans it for the date.
"Even accounting for the delay in getting a newspaper to such a remote location, I think it’s safe to say it’s been a few months.” He hands the paper over.
“April?” exclaims Sheppard. “This has been sitting here since April?”
“Whatever happened last night, it’s happened before.”
Sheppard drops the paper on the floor. “I was grounded for a few days in April. Some kind of power outage. What the hell are they doing in Thule?”
“Whatever it is, Major, they’ve really messed it up.”
They jump down from the train, Sheppard assisting Rodney, and carry on along the tracks. Rodney’s thoughts snap back to Carter. What was her latest paper? Something on the multiverse theory? Damn, he didn’t pay much attention, didn’t even finish it. Her science is always jumping the gun, it makes Rodney angry so he doesn’t always read more than the abstract. He wishes he could talk to Zelenka; he’d know what’s going on.
The trail up to the lookout tower is signposted so it’s easy to find. It’s fenced and darts through the trees and up a rocky hill. Rodney’s leg hurts some, but it’s not nearly as difficult as he expected. His left thigh feels tight, hot and sore, but his range of movement is good; good enough that he can handle the incline at least. He’s thankful for that. The Major is quiet, hiking up the steeper parts of the path with enviable ease but that’s probably the military training. Where Rodney’s out of breath and slowing down, Sheppard’s maintaining a steady pace and resp rate. After a while, Sheppard realises that Rodney is falling behind and he stops on a bend to wait.
“How about we take a little break?” he asks when Rodney finally catches up.
“Yes...please....ugh.” Rodney sits down on a rock.
Sheppard hands him a bottle of water from this pack. “Here.”
“Thanks.” They’re above the tree line and as Rodney looks around he can see a jagged bald spot in the forest where the helicopter crash landed, smoke still rising up from the forest floor. “God, Major, how did you survive the crash? I mean, I was caught by a tree but you...”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re incredibly lucky. I mean, I don’t believe in luck but the odds of us both surviving that kind of fall is...well it’s incalculable because helicopters don’t usually drop out of the sky like that but...it’s minuscule.”
“Yeah.” Sheppard cracks his neck. “I’ve been in a chopper crash before but it was nothing like that.”
“Yeah. This is the second crash I’ve walked away from. Literally.”
“Once was enough for me.”
“For me too. Come on, let’s keep going.”
As they approach the top the lookout comes into view; a square tower with a winding staircase and a cabin four stories up. It sits on the very top of the rocky hill, towering far above the tree line, with a radio mast rising up into the sky next to it. The only problem is there’s a chasm between them and the lookout. To get across they’ll have to use a narrow wooden bridge that looks like it’s seen better days. Sheppard goes first. Rodney really doesn’t want to cross it but he has to get to the mast so he looks ahead, not down, and grabs the railing on either side. Sheppard looks back when he reaches the other side and waves Rodney over. Rodney tries to step on but his feet are stubborn and won’t leave the ground. He stands there for a full minute, heart hammering behind his ribs, breath quick and shallow, with a feeling of dread that he can’t shake off.
“Hang on, I’m coming back,” shouts Sheppard.
The bridge is only fifteen, twenty meters but it might as well be fifteen miles. Sheppard makes it back and peels Rodney's hands from the railing. “You bad with heights, Doc?”
“Uh...not usually...I just...uh...”
“You just fell out of the sky yesterday. Shit, I’m sorry, I should have realised this might be difficult. Hang on.” He grabs Rodney’s wrists with both hands and Rodney instinctively grips his. “Okay Doc, here’s the deal. The bridge is stable, I’ve just walked over it twice, so it’s not going anywhere. I’ve got you, so if you need to you can close your eyes. Between me and the railings, there’s nowhere to go but across, okay?”
“Here we go.”
They step forward, slowly, Sheppard walking backward, and Rodney closes his eyes trying to slow down his breathing and steady his heart. His hands are clammy inside his gloves and he can feel his legs shaking. After a few steps he peeks, looks past Sheppard to the snowy bank on the other side. It’s getting closer. The Major has him in a firm grip. He’s not going to fall. He’s fine. He closes his eyes for another moment and opens them again when he hears a low, rumbling sound. Sheppard is talking, about his first helicopter and the first time he flew; how he felt utterly free and invincible and... The words anchor Rodney in a way that the solid bridge under his feet can’t, and then suddenly they reach the other side, still in one piece, no falls and no casualties - not even a splinter. Sheppard doesn’t let go until Rodney does, allowing him a minute to catch his breath.
“Um...thanks.” Rodney drops his hands, feeling a little embarrassed.
“Hey, no problem,” says Sheppard. “It won’t feel like that forever. It’s just a reaction.”
“To the crash?”
“I’ve never felt anything like that before. I mean, I’ve been scared, but not of something so benign.”
“Seen it before. Felt it too.” Sheppard steps back and turns. “Anyway, let’s go check out this place.”
The light at the top of the radio tower is dark, so the first thing Rodney does is check the power supply. Nothing broken or missing, there’s just no power, and nothing he switches makes a difference. So it’s not just the camp office that’s blacked out, the entire grid must be down for a radio tower to have no power. The lookout should have a powerful radio, they could contact someone close by even without a working tower if they can get that working. He checks out the generator by the base of the staircase, brushing some snow off the top. The fuel dial reads almost full so he opens the fuel valve, flips the choke and turns the ignition. When he pulls the starter cord, nothing happens. He tries again, still nothing, and a third time, a fourth, a fifth. It has plenty of fuel but won’t turn on, not even a spark. Rodney kicks it in frustration. There is no reason for it not to work. It’s like all the electrics in the area are fried but without any actual damage.
“Hey, Doc?” says Sheppard. “Let’s check upstairs.”
Rodney sighs. “Okay.”
The steps are icy and they both grip the rail so they don’t slip. As they climb the wind starts to pick up; the higher they get the stronger it feels, until it’s whistling past them as Rodney enters the lookout just ahead of Sheppard. The inside of the cabin looks lived in; a messy log pile by the stove, dishes stacked up on the sink, clothing dumped on a chair in the corner. Much like the train, it’s as though people just up and left in the middle of their day and it looks like it’s been abandoned for a long time. It’s absolutely freezing and even out of the wind it doesn’t feel any warmer. Sheppard doesn’t say anything just heads over to the stove and starts building a fire.
“Uh...are you sure you should be doing that?” asks Rodney.
“Whoever lived here isn’t coming back, Doc. They won’t mind. Extreme temperature survival 101 – take advantage of every opportunity to get warm, so I'll light a fire while you take a look at that radio. There’s a battery under the table.”
Neither of them says what they’re both thinking. This radio isn’t going to work any more than the one at the camp office. Rodney tries it anyway as he warms up, connecting it to the car battery, using every trick he can think of to coax power into the system, but it’s futile. He’s not used to this, being unable to solve a problem. Even with limited supplies, he’s always been able to get things working somehow.
“Anything?” asks Sheppard.
“Oh. Well, it was worth a try.”
“Hey, at least this wasn’t a wasted trip.” Sheppard is awfully cheerful for someone who’s chance to radio for rescue was just snatched away.
“There’s some supplies here we could take. Some food, fuel, a couple of flares, coffee...”
Rodney looks out of the window. “Well, I guess we could always use more coffee...oh, wait a minute. Can I borrow the binoculars?”
“Sure, here you go.” Sheppard passes them over.
Rodney adjusts them to his eyes and zooms in to the other side of the valley. “I think that’s where I landed. There’s something there, looks like the seat.” He passes the binoculars to Sheppard and points out over the forest. “Look, see that cliff face? Other side of the forest, with a tree growing out the side? That’s the tree I landed in and at the base of the cliff-”
“Is the co-pilot's seat. Jesus McKay, that’s a long drop, and a hell of a long way to trek in the dark.”
“I wasn’t kidding when I said your flares saved my life.” He takes back the binoculars and tracks along the cliff face to the railway line. “Huh. There’s a rail tunnel in the direction of the town but its rubble. I’m not sure if we’d be able to get through. Maybe there’s a way to go around?”
“You think we should head to the town?”
“Actually, I’ve been thinking. Maybe we should head to the dam.”
“The power station? Could it be run by two people?”
“Maybe. Probably not, but there might be something more powerful than a drained car battery I could use to power up a radio. Or a phone line that actually works. There might even be people.”
“We can make a plan back at the office. No point spending the night here.”
“Yeah, you’re right. We should go.”
They pack as much as they can into John’s rucksack and between them they grab a jerrycan each of fuel. It feels a little poignant leaving the lookout as the fire burns out, a little bit final. Rodney hopes the people who lived there are okay, somewhere warm and happy and well-fed, not lost in the snow like him and the Major.
The journey back is a lot faster but also a lot more painful. Rodney manages to get himself across the bridge without having to hold Sheppard’s hand, but he stumbles frequently on the path when his left leg keeps trying to buckle under him from the impact of going downhill. He doesn’t say anything to Sheppard, just soldiers on through the pain, sliding every so often while trying to keep his leg as straight as possible. He’s not fooling anyone though, the fourth or fifth time he almost slips Sheppard turns and asks if he’s ok.
“I’m fine, thank you, Major.”
“Only you’re a few slips away from tumbling down the hill.”
“It’s just...a bit sore.”
“Need a hand?”
“I can manage.”
When they get back onto level ground things get a lot easier, and when they are finally walking along the train tracks it’s easier still and the pain settles into a background hum. As they pass the derailed train, Sheppard insists on going inside.
“I’ll just be a second.”
“Don’t be long Major, the sun is going to set soon.”
When he comes back out, he’s holding the liqueur bottle, securing the lid with a piece of duct tape. “I thought we could maybe use a drink.” He hops down from the train and carries on, bottle in hand, red bow flapping in the wind.
The fires are low when they get back to the office, so the stock them up and grab something to eat (sardines and crackers), then get comfortable on the rug with a couple of glasses and the Yukon Jack. They both down a few shots - “Oh, god it’s so sweet!” “Yeah, but at least it’s drinkable.” - by the light of the fire and a couple of candles in jars, lit as the sun sets. Sheppard brings out the card deck he swiped from the train and he deals a game of Blackjack. They play for a time, both as ‘lucky’ as each other. Rodney suspects the Major is as good at counting cards as he is.
“I’m sorry about the radios,” says Rodney out of nowhere. “Hit.”
“Hey, don’t sweat it,” says John, flipping another card.
“Stand. I’m a genius, I should have been able to get them to work.”
“We’ll figure it out.” Sheppard deals a card to himself, then another, making twenty-two . “Damn.”
“We’ll figure it out’?” snaps Rodney.
Sheppard makes a face and puts the deck down. “Something on your mind, Doc?”
“’No problem ’, ‘Don’t sweat it’, ‘It was worth a try’. How are you so zen about everything?”
“This isn’t the worst situation I’ve ever been in.”
Rodney waves his cards around. “What could be worse than this?”
Sheppard doesn’t answer, and Rodney feels a sudden wash of shame come over him. “Um...sorry, that was really thoughtless of me. More so than usual.” He gathers up all the cards and sets the deck up on the counter.
“If you say ‘Don’t worry about it’ I might throw this glass at you.”
Sheppard laughs, a full-on belly aching laugh and Rodney is horrified. “Is that what passes for laughter where you’re from?! You sound like a Donkey birthing a Christmas tree.”
This makes Sheppard laugh even louder and soon Rodney is joining in and they’re both shaking with mirth and wiping tears from their eyes. When they catch their breath, Rodney asks John if he named his helicopter.
“I mean you’ve been flying it for a few years so I just thought...I mean I named my car so...”
“What did you name your car?”
“Schrödinger. And I have a cat called Hypatia.”
“You called your car Schrödinger and your cat Hypatia? That’s...fucking hilarious.”
“I thought it was ironic.”
“My chopper was called Nancy.”
“That’s a nice name. To Nancy. Who saved your ass at the expense of her own.”
“To Nancy.” If Sheppard’s tearing up, Rodney’s too polite to say anything. He wants to ask if Nancy was named after a. ..well a real Nancy, but he doesn’t think Sheppard is drunk enough.
“It was a long shot,” says Sheppard, wiping his face. “A real long shot. I didn’t have my hopes up so I’m not disappointed. I’m not...I’m not mad with you or anything. It’s not your fault. But I am mad with me. I should have known something bad was gonna happen.”
“How could you have known?”
“There were...rumours...about the lab at Thule. I was grounded a few times when there were power outages, and the sky’s been funny lately.”
“The Northern Lights have been around more nights than not, it’s become commonplace. That’s not normal, and when the sky’s unpredictable it’s a bad idea to fly. But the Colonel ordered me to come get you, said you were imperative to the success of the mission, that it was a matter of global security and I had to get you to Thule safely. I failed and I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry we crashed but that’s no more your fault than the radios being mine.”
“Maybe.” John sighs and fiddles with his glass. “I guess we should go to the Hydro Dam. See what we can do there.”
“But not tomorrow. You need to rest your leg up. We’ll go in a couple of days.”
“No, we’re not arguing about this. You went out today and now it’s worse, don't pretend it isn't. Tomorrow we rest.” Sheppard yawns, and it sets Rodney off too, so they curl up together on the rug and pull the discarded blankets over themselves.
“We’ll assign bunks tomorrow,” says Sheppard, sleepily. “When we can get up the stairs without risking life or limb.”
“John, call me John.”
“Well then you should call me Rodney.”
Chapter 5: John - Carter Hydro Dam
John stuck to his guns; the next day was a proper rest day full of relaxation and card games and tea and “Goddamn it McKay, get off your damned leg”, but even he has to admit defeat today. Rodney is chomping at the bit and his enthusiasm is infectious. He’s talking nonstop about the dam and all the things he wants to try, everything he knows about hydropower (which is a hell of a lot) and how he can use that to get it operational. Not enough to power the whole island, obviously, but certainly enough to send some kind of signal. He’s walking around the ground floor, not limping today, waving his arms around and stabbing the air wildly with each argument he makes, and can they-
“-please go this morning, please Sheppard, cause I spent the whole of yesterday sitting down. And look! it doesn’t even hurt today!”
John doesn’t point out that Rodney's a grown man and technically he doesn’t have to do what he’s told, he could go anywhere any time he wants. Both of them avoid talking about the disappointment of the lookout tower, and Rodney’s convinced himself that the hydropower at the dam is the key to their rescue. John is desperate to go outside, to do something, anything other than sit on his ass and wait, so he relents. They bundle up and pack some equipment for the journey. John finds some sleeping bags upstairs and he rolls them up tightly to fit in his rucksack next to the lanterns.
“What are those for?” asks Rodney.
“It’s a twenty kilometer round trip on snowy ground and we’re both a bit battered and bruised. I don’t think we’ll be coming back today, do you?”
“Huh. No, I suppose not. We should take coffee.” Rodney heads down to the pantry.
“Don’t forget the food!” yells John down the stairs.
“Right, yes of course. Mustn't forget the sardines and peaches!” Rodney’s being sarcastic, but John can hear some tins being dumped unceremoniously on the counter. He zips his rucksack closed and grabs a spare one for Rodney. That duffle of his isn’t a good bag for a long trek.
“Do you think we should lock up?” asks Rodney from underneath his scarf as they head outside.
“It’s just, what if someone steals our stuff? We don’t have a lot of stuff.”
“Hm, yeah, okay, but what if someone crashes their chopper and needs somewhere to shelter in the night? Would you begrudge them the use of your socks?”
“Well...” says Rodney, and he’s actually thinking about it. Jesus. “I guess not. As long as they didn’t steal them. Maybe we should leave a note?”
John finds himself seriously considering Rodney’s request. “I. ..uh ...I don’t think that’s necessary .”
“Right, okay then. Let’s go.”
Rodney about faces and marches off, stomping footprints in the pristine snow. John shakes his head. It’s going to be a long journey.
“Oh, did you bring the cards?” asks Rodney as they pass the train.
“Got em right here in my pocket,” says John, tapping his chest. Rodney’s treating this like a camping trip. It’s disturbingly sweet.
“I had a lot of fun yesterday when we played cards. It’s nice to play with someone who's actually smart. Most people are too easy to beat.”
“I’ll bet.” John had fun too. Rodney’s a sore loser but an excitable winner. “We should play chess sometime.”
“Sure, there’s a chessboard in one of the cupboards at the office.”
“Yeah. Has all the pieces and everything.” Rodney frowns at him. “Didn’t you look around the place?”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Hm, yes, that hair must take you an age to style. Did you bring hair gel with you or did you find some in one of the drawers?”
“Hey, what’s my hair ever done to you?” asks John, tugging at his wool hat.
Rodney snorts. “I’m convinced it’s a living entity entirely separate from your head.”
“It’s always done its own thing, to be honest.”
“I bet the ladies love it.”
John’s never had much luck with women but he doesn’t think Rodney will believe him. No one ever does.
The journey is long and never-ending. Ten kilometres doesn’t seem like a lot on a map but trekking through the snow is slow going. There’s white nothingness as far as the eye can see in either direction, bisected by the train tracks and flanked by forest and rock. It puts John on edge to be so exposed and have so many places to hide on either side of him, like the Taliban might be operating in the Arctic Circle for shits and giggles, hiding behind firs and waiting for an opportune moment to grab them. Rodney is oblivious to John’s discomfort. He hasn’t stopped talking since they got up this morning – they fell asleep on the rug again and John woke up to hesitant queries about wartime rationing and the size of the pantry – and it would be comforting if John could get past the feeling that they’re being watched. He keeps hearing something off to his left, faint sounds of snapping twigs underfoot and the rush-back of bent boughs. He’s almost relieved when there’s a sudden movement in the treeline up ahead, throwing Rodney down to the ground and flinging himself on top of his chest to cover him, reaching for a sidearm he hasn’t worn since he got back to the States.
“What are you-”
John puts his hand over Rodney's mouth. “ Shhhhh .” He keeps his eyes up front and listens intently for approaching footsteps from the side or behind. God damn it, why didn’t he insist on being armed at all times? Colonel O’Neill would probably have allowed it. You never know when something like this will happen. He has his boot knife, that will have to do. He’s no marine but he’s no slouch in a fistfight.
“John?” whispers McKay, not nearly scared enough at the unknown.
“There’s something...” John slips the rucksack from his back and pulls out the binoculars. “Something up ahead.”
Rodney snatches the binoculars from John’s hands. “Give me those.”
Rodney fumbles with the zoom and puts them to his eyes. “It’s alright, it’s just a deer.”
“Oh.” John feels faintly ridiculous at the revelation, even as he feels relieved.
Rodney lifts his head. “I really appreciate the sentiment though. That you’d protect me from terrorists or aliens or cannibalistic lumberjacks.”
That makes John smile. “Of course I would.”
“I don’t suppose you could protect me from a sore back?”
“I’m kinda lying on my rucksack.” Rodney shuffles a little bit underneath John. “My spine doesn’t want to bend this way. Maybe we could get up now?”
“Oh, fuck, sorry.” John pushes himself up then helps Rodney to his feet. “I was just-”
“Yeah, I get it. Thank you. Really.”
They brush the snow off and head on, scaring the deer away by the sounds of their voices. It bounds deeper into the forest and disappears from view, scaring a handful of crows into flight.
“I wish I had a gun,” admits John.
“If we find one it’s yours,” says Rodney. “Not least cause I’m Canadian and we just don’t do guns.”
“If we find a gun, I’ll teach you how to shoot.” Surely somewhere on this island there’s a gun. A rifle, a handgun, a shotgun, something, anything at all will do.
“Rodney, this is rural Canada. You never know when you’ll come across a predator.”
“I was kidding about the terrorists.”
“I don’t mean terrorists. Or aliens. I mean bears, wolves, even moose are dangerous if spooked. Fifteen hundred pounds of aggressive herbivore is nothing to be sniffed at.”
Rodney rolls his eyes, hard, but relents. “Okay, okay, if we find a gun, I’ll let you teach me how to shoot. Once. Happy?”
John grins. “It’ll do for now. But if a bearded man in a plaid shirt chases after you with a chainsaw and you can’t shoot worth shit, don’t come crying to me.”
“What’s that?” asks Rodney.
“Looks like timber.”
“Just left out here in the middle of nowhere?”
John looks around. There’s no station or buildings but- “There’s a road there, see?” He points to a gap in the trees. “Must be a logging camp. This’ll be where they pile the logs to be loaded onto the train for transport.”
“There’s no loaders.”
“There’s probably one on the train.”
Rodney turns around, taking in the area. “Huh. It must be really hard to do logging in the cold.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s all done by machine these days.”
“On an island with hundred-year-old train carriages? I doubt that. It’s probably still done by a two-man saw. Or maybe a sharpened hatchet.”
“Must have some very strong people living on this island then.”
“Kinda like you.”
John stops, stunned. “You think I’m strong?”
“Oh, don't be modest.” Rodney waves a hand dismissively. “Two mornings in a row you’ve gone out and hacked some tree into submission then carried its pieces back to the office. I’d probably pull a muscle if I tried.”
“It’s not that hard.”
“Come on, Lumber-John. We can't be far now.”
They round a bend and the dam comes into view, just past a bridge across the frozen river.
“I should have known,” grumbles Rodney.
“What’s that?” asks John.
Rodney points at a sign. “Carter Hydro Dam. Guess who it’s been renamed for?”
“She did some research on hydropower before she started on the ZedPM technology. She had some brilliant ideas. Only three scientists were killed in the initial trials.”
That’s a little shocking, not least because he’d never heard that and scuttlebutt is the bread and butter of military life. What kind of cover-up occurred that there isn’t even the rumour about Carter’s ruthlessness? “Only three?!”
“She was forced to bring me in when that happened. Her turbine design was revolutionary, but the generator couldn’t handle the sudden increase in power and it exploded.”
“Does that happen a lot with her?” God John hopes not. He’s shared pizza with the woman.
“Deaths? A few. And a couple of dismemberments. She never seemed to care though, thought the science was worth the sacrifice.”
“But you disagree with that assessment, right?”
Rodney’s head snaps up. “What? Of course I disagree! Who the hell do you think I am?!”
“Easy Doc, I’m just checking.”
“You should know me better than that.”
“I’ve known you two days, Rodney.”
“That’s enough time to get the measure of a man.”
“Oh? So what do you think you know about me?”
“You’re smarter than you let on, you’re estranged from your family and your ex-wife was a bitch.”
John’s shocked at Rodney’s astute assessment. “Okay...okay, how do you know about the ex-wife? And she wasn’t a bitch by the way.”
“You named a helicopter after her and crashed it, therefore she’s a bitch.”
“Your logic is-”
“Flawless.” Rodney gestures wildly. “Don’t question genius, Sheppard.”
They stop on the bridge to take in the dam. It’s bigger than he expected. A curved concrete wall stretching between two rocky hills and towering over a wide frozen river. John hopes Rodney can work some kind of magic on it, get it to light up, but he’s got a nagging feeling that they’re both going to have another disappointment.
“Do you have one?” asks John.
Rodney turns to face him, brow furrowed. “One what?”
“No. I’m terrible at relationships. Women never hang around that long.”
That surprises John. Underneath all the bluster, Rodney seems like a good guy. Maybe he never let anyone get close enough to see the real him. Or maybe he did and they didn’t care.
Two temporary worker trailers sit on wheels across the tracks from the main building, the kind you often find on worksites in the Arctic circle (thin walls and tiny windows). Rodney wants to check them out but when they try the doors they’re both locked.
“What about breaking and entering?” asks John.
“Even your scrawny hips won’t fit through those windows, Sheppard.”
To get to the dam they have to climb over a chain-link fence - “What am I, Spiderman?” - no mean feat in full winter gear. They both take off their outer layers and throw them over to make it easier, and John gives Rodney a boost up to avoid straining his leg. The courtyard is full of rusting equipment, steel cylinders and boxes of parts. There’s a pickup truck by the front steps that John checks for supplies – a battery-powered torch that doesn’t work, some screen wash and - Oh Nice! - a box of granola bars in the trunk. A few months ago this would have been a busy, working power plant, now it looks dilapidated. Inside isn’t much better. The reception area is littered with papers and pamphlets blown around by a breeze coming through a smashed-up window. A dead crow lays frozen on the reception desk, its feet pointing at the ceiling and its wings askew.
“There’s no one here,” says Rodney, turning around and looking crestfallen.
John bumps him on the arm. “We always knew that was a probability,” he soothes.
They light their lanterns and head deeper into the building, following signs for the control room. There’s a door with a keypad, but it opens easily enough with a crowbar John finds in a maintenance room. In stark contrast to the rest of the building, the control room is immaculate. Consoles run around the outside and there’s a massive wall of windows overlooking the generator room. On the wall above a computer desk there’s a tidy shelf of binders; manuals, S.O.Ps, off duties and adverse event reports. Jackets hang on pegs by the door and there’s a messy coffee station in the corner. Rodney heads straight for the nearest console and starts tinkering. John isn’t sure what anything does. “What can I do to help?” he asks.
“Coffee?” says Rodney.
“You’re not serious.”
“It would take longer to explain what to do than to just do it.”
He has a good point. John’s probably going to be in the way here. “I think I’ll take a look around,” he says.
Rodney waves him off so he goes back into the corridor. How the hell is he going to heat up coffee in this place? The ground floor is mostly industrial and he has no use for generator parts so he heads upstairs. The next floor is an open-plan office. A bunch of desks with computers that won’t be of any use to him either. With no power it’s not just the computers that won’t turn on, the only sources of heat in this place are electric heaters. Unless Rodney can pull a miracle out of his Merino wool hat, they’re going to have to sleep in their clothes.
If he’s honest with himself, he already knows they’re not going to get this place up and running. He knew before they even came here. Whatever happened, whatever took them down, it’s big. Bigger than two men can fix, even if one has an IQ over 200 (as Rodney informed him yesterday during a game of snap). Like the trip to the lookout, the best outcome they can hope for here is a bag full of supplies. John comes to a decision. His gut says they’re in it for the long haul. That’s okay. His new mission is to keep Rodney alive and well until someone thinks to come looking for them. It’s not a hardship; half way along the trip here John realised that he kinda likes this cranky, genius Canadian. Maybe Rodney would like to go for a beer when they get back to civilisation. And some pizza. God, he’d do just about anything for a Bud and a pepperoni pizza. Some onion rings. And an apple. It’s been two days on tinned food and already he’s craving fruit. At some point they’re going to have to figure out a way to hunt, but this is rural Canada. He’d be willing to bet his next chopper that somewhere on the island is a hunting rifle or a bow.
He pushes the furniture against the walls to make space for their sleeping bags, peering into drawers as he does for anything useful. There’s a pack of printer paper and pencils in one desk, they go into the rucksack. Aside from being useful tools for planning they might help stem Rodney’s boredom. John imagines him sitting at the counter in the office, drinking coffee and breaking the laws of physics by the page while the snow falls outside and it makes him smile. In another drawer, underneath a bundle of financial data, he finds a bottle of Vodka. Useful for cleaning wounds and warming up on cold nights, so into his bag it goes. Maybe they’ll have a little tonight to keep them warm.
When John gets back to the control room, Rodney is sitting slumped in the desk chair, one leg tucked under him and the other absentmindedly spinning it around with gentle little kicks to the floor. He has a binder in his lap and he’s reading through it by the dim light of the lantern.
“How’s it going?”
Rodney doesn’t answer so John grabs the armrests to stop the spinning and leans down. Rodney looks up from the papers and John can feel his warm breath on his face.
“I thought we agreed on John?”
“Sorry, yes, John.”
“Learn anything useful?”
“Yes.” Rodney ducks his head. “We’re not getting off this island any time soon.”
That’s a bold statement, but John’s not surprised Rodney came to the same conclusion he did. He stands up and leans on the desk. “When you say any time soon...?”
“I think it’s going to be a while before anyone will be sent to look for us.”
“Why do you think that?”
“These reports...there have been a number of incidents over the past year, events just like the one that crashed us. Massive EMPs disrupting the power grid and all the electronics in Western Greenland and Northern Nunavut. When we crashed I thought it was a solar EMP but those affect the entire sun-facing side of the planet, not a single region again and again. Every time it happened they had to reset the generators in the dam, but each time they did they had diminishing returns. There’s a compulsory relocation order in one of the drawers; the whole population of the island was moved to Newfoundland before the power was lost completely. There’s also a copy of a non-disclosure agreement they had to sign, which explains why no one has heard about this place or what happened here. I think...I think the last one, the one that landed us, took out everything irreparably. I won’t be able to get us any power back.”
“What do you mean ’Okay’? The only people who could think to look for us are stuck in Thule airbase with no power and no working vehicles. God knows how long it will take them to be rescued, and how long it will then take to rescue us! We could be here for months or even-”
“Rodney, it’s going to be alright.”
“I don’t think you grasp-”
“Listen to me.” John leans down and forces Rodney to make eye contact. “We’ve been here for a couple of days now. We’re still alive. Even if it takes months, we’ll still be alive.”
Rodney looks surprised, like he didn’t even consider the idea. “We will?”
“Yes. I’ve survived longer in worse conditions.”
“I’d really like to hear that story,” says Rodney in a small voice.
“Sure thing buddy. I’ll add it to my list of conversational topics.” John stands and pulls Rodney to his feet. Time for resident geniuses to stop thinking so hard. “C’mon. I’ve laid out the sleeping bags upstairs. There’s no hot water but I found some Vodka. Let’s go play some r ummy .”
Rodney puts the binder back and grabs his lantern and rucksack. “If we find another deck of cards somewhere, I’m going to teach you Bezique.”
“Sounds a little risqué.”
“It’s French. There are marriages and royal marriages and orgies and illicit affairs between a Queen and a Jack. It’s scandalous. You’ll love it.”
John’s just drifting off to sleep, a happy vodka-induced warmth and a blanket of peaceful silence when he hears a snuffle and a low, stuttering exhale. He turns his head slowly and looks at Rodney in the moonlight. Rodney’s crying into his pillow, his shoulders shaking with the effort of keeping quiet. A small moan escapes, like he can barely contain it. John waits a couple of minutes, happy to feign sleep for the other man’s dignity but it doesn’t stop, just becomes more unbearable for both of them by the second. Rodney’s not far away so John shimmies closer in his sleeping bag.
“Rodney?” he whispers.
“No, it’s ok. Want to talk about it?”
“I've already said it all. I just want to go to sleep.”
John hesitates, then puts an arm around Rodney, pulling him close. “C’mere.”
“ Shhhhh . C’mere . It’s okay.”
Rodney relaxes and turns his head into John’s shoulder. “I failed, I’m sorry.”
“No, you didn’t fail anything. Sometimes things just can’t be fixed, you know?”
“Everything’s gonna be okay buddy.”
Rodney sobs for a while and John just holds him and lets him get it out. Despite spending his entire adult life in the military, he feels no shame in crying. Sometimes you just have to get everything out in some tangible way, and sometimes that way involves a punching bag or the firing range, but other times only tears will do. It’s not great, this place that they’re in, but they’re both alive and they have each other. It’s more than he had last time he was lost in a strange place, and he’s not alone this time.
Chapter 6: Rodney - Shortcut
Rodney wakes up he has a numb arm trapped under him and someone else's arm draped over him. He opens his eyes and is greeted with the sight of John’s stubbly neck and wound dressing. In the seconds it takes to register what’s going on, he has a few fleeting thoughts. This is nice. I have to change that bandage today. He smells good. Really good. Especially for someone who hasn’t bathed for days. The arm that isn’t his squeezes him and John breaths in deeply through his nose, the kind of inhale that someone takes when they’re waking up from a deep sleep. When John hugged Rodney last night this is probably not quite what he had in mind, waking up in a full-body snuggle, so Rodney does the smart thing; he closes his eyes and pretends he’s still asleep. The numb arm can wait a while. It’s never a good idea to be caught actively snuggling into a sleeping military man.
John’s jaw cracks as he yawns and he whispers a quiet “ fuck”, probably from the pain of his burned skin pulling as his mouth stretches open. He doesn’t remove his arm, just pulls in a little closer and tucks his chin into Rodney’s hair.
“Yeah?” Shit, there goes his plausible deniability.
“Uh...my arm’s kinda numb so I guess I slept right through.” Not to mention he still has his face in John’s neck. “What time do you think it is?”
“Late. There’s daylight.”
They lie in silence for a while and Rodney wonders what to make of this. Both of them are wide awake but neither of them makes a move to pull away. Rodney’s parents didn’t hug him much when he was a kid so he’s not entirely sure of what constitutes good hug etiquette, but he knows this: grown men don’t cuddle. Which, in his opinion, is the stupidest thing in the world because right now he’s hugging John and it feels amazing.
John breaks the comfortable silence. “Time to get up Sleeping Beauty.” He doesn’t make the first move though.
Rodney’s not ready, cosy and snuggled as he is. “ Ungh . Coffee?”
“Not this morning. There’s no stove here, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, okay.” Rodney reluctantly pulls away and reaches for his jacket. Somewhere in one of the pockets he has- “Ah ha.” He pulls out some caffeine pills and pops one in his mouth. “Want one?” he asks John as he crunches the pill in his teeth.
John raises an eyebrow. “Is that something you do regularly?”
“Only when coffee stops affecting me and I have to keep working.”
“That can’t be good for you.”
“Science waits for no one and nothing, especially not sleep.”
“This explains a lot.”
They pull on their outer layers and roll up the sleeping bags. It feels colder than yesterday, but that might be because he just got out of a warm bed and a warmer embrace. He’s still a little bit confused about the hugging, but they’ve slept next to each other every night since the crash and for two of those nights John’s had his arms around him. Maybe it’s a hypothermia thing.
When they get outside, it’s bright and sunny and bitterly cold. Rodney really wants to get away from the disappointment that is the hydro dam, not least because he feels the need to apologise for his failure constantly and it’s probably starting to get on John’s nerves. They’re going to be spending a lot of time with each other for a while so Rodney is determined to be his least annoying self. His best self. A self that John doesn’t want to defenestrate or decapitate or disembowel. All of these things have been suggested by various people in the past, and during a particularly heated disagreement Carter once threatened all three at once.
When they’re safely back over the chain-link fence John grabs Rodney’s arm. “Hey, I have a crowbar...”
“We could break and enter now.” John gestures with his head to the two trailers they couldn’t open yesterday.
“What’s a little criminal activity between survivors, huh? The owners can always bill the United States Air Force.”
Rodney tries to imagine General Hammond’s face when he gets that bill. He’s only met the man a handful of times, but he isn’t known for his sense of humour. Breaking into the cabins is made quick and easy by the combination of crowbar and John’s military prowess. Inside the first they don't find much, just some tea and powdered milk that Rodney is quick to swipe, but inside the second they hit the jackpot.
“John! Look what I found!”
“Oh, hey, careful with that .”
Rodney hands the rifle over to John. “You said you wanted a gun.”
“Can I get a pizza too?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” He should be able to emulate the taste...they have crackers, tomato paste, oregano, and fake cheese spread. It’ll hardly be a Quattro Formaggi , but it might satisfy John’s craving. “There’s a few boxes of ammo, I packed them up.”
“God, it’s a vintage Lee–Enfield .303,” says John with a moan. He unloads the rifle and flips it around. “Original stock...extended mag. ..this is a hell of a find Rodney.”
“Is it a good gun?”
“It’s a great gun! Perfect for hunting. This could take down a polar bear at seven hundred yards.”
“Oh, well that’ll be handy if we come across any.”
John puts the gun down on the counter and rubs the back of his neck, shifting from foot to foot. “I. ..uh ...I found something you might like too.” He picks up a one litre flask from the sideboard and gives it to Rodney. “For your coffee, next time we have to go on a trek.”
“Oh! This is brilliant, thank you.” It's a long time since someone gave him something, especially something he actually needs. He looks up at John and catches the end of a smile. It suddenly occurs to him that in the three days they’ve known each other they’ve become friends. He’s never really had a friend before, never wanted one. Science is a cut-throat kind of vocation, everyone’s trying to step over each other to get to the top. Rodney’s always been a few steps ahead of the others which makes it hard to get close to anyone. That he can recognise friendship in this airman is something in and of itself. “I...I guess we should get going then. It’s a long trip back.”
“Yeah, I’ll just reload this first.”
Rodney waits outside for John and as he looks around the landscape he gets an idea. The map agrees with his assessment, so when John comes out the trailer he immediately says: “I can cut three kilometers off our trip.”
“Is there a catch?”
“No catch. There’s a hunting trail on the map that follows the river south. It cuts through the hillside and comes out onto Mystery Lake. Then we walk around the North shore of the lake and get to the office in no time.”
John’s not as excited by the idea as he should be. “How’s your leg?” he asks.
“It’s fine. Hurts a little but walking isn’t a problem.”
“It’s just that a hunting trail isn’t going to be as level as the train tracks.”
“I got down the stairs just fine.”
“True. Okay, if you think you can handle it. Lead the way.”
They head South from the cabins down a snowy slope to the frozen river. John walks behind carrying the gun in both arms, and Rodney's conflicted by its presence; he doesn’t know whether to feel more or less safe now that they’ve found one. He’s worked in the US for most of his life but there’s a difference between knowing people are armed and seeing a gun carried out in the open. John’s carrying it like he’s been reunited with a missing piece of himself so Rodney’s glad they found it, but he keeps getting images in his head of it going off and him being in the way when it does. Still, John’s a Major in the Air Force, he knows how to handle a gun safely and not accidentally shoot anyone.
“Um...Rodney...?” says John after a while.
“Is that safe? Walking on the river like that...”
“What? Of course it is.”
“Global warming ring any bells? Vast swathes of the arctic melting and washing away?”
“It is, at most, minus thirteen on a bright sunny day this far North. We’re not going to fall through the ice.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. This is at least twenty centimeters thick. It could hold a car. Look.” Rodney jumps up and down on the river to prove his point but it makes John go a little pale.
“Okay, okay, Jesus, I believe you, please stop with the jumping.”
Rodney rolls his eyes but he stops. “I’ve lived in Canada all my life. Trust me, we’re good.”
John clearly doesn’t believe him, because he keeps to the overgrown bank even though it’s far easier to walk on the ice, but he doesn't say anything about it again. To his obvious relief the path diverges from the river after a while, heading up and over a hill into the trees. It’s peaceful, the occasional bird calling out from the treetops and sound of the branches swaying in the wind. Rodney can almost convince himself that he’s on a regular winter hill walk, that John is a colleague from work and they’re making the most of the crisp, fresh air in their lunch hour, not stranded on an abandoned, remote island trekking from one failure to another.
Snow starts to fall as the path opens up into a wide clearing full of Arctic hares chewing on bark and hopping around under the trees. There’s a hunting lookout tower in the centre and a bunch of saplings dotted around that turn out to be snares.
There’s a frozen, half-eaten hare in one of them.
“Oh, that’s gross,” says Rodney.
“Caught by a trap and left too long,” says John.
“ So meone just forgot about it?”
“Probably when they all got relocated.” John starts digging the snare post up.
“Uh, what are you doing?”
“I’m taking them back with us.”
“But the dead hare...”
“These are useful tools, Rodney. I noticed some more hares closer to the cabin when I went to get firewood. I’ll set the snares up and hopefully we’ll have a reliable source of meat.”
“You know you’re very- um...”
“You know...handy. In a survival situation.”
“Well, I’m gonna take you with me so you can learn how to do it.”
“I’m not entirely sure I have it in me to kill and gut a bunny.”
John grimaces at him. “You’d be surprised what you can do when you’re starving.”
“I take it you’re talking from experience?”
“ Mmm . Do me a favour, start digging out some of the others.”
It only takes them a few minutes to gather the rest of the snares, six in total, but they’re both running out of room in their rucksacks. John solves the problem by draping them over their shoulders. He wipes down the bloody one with some snow and keeps it for himself, which is probably for the best. Rodney doesn’t think he’d manage to remain his least annoying self if he had to carry that one around his neck.
When Rodney suggests sheltering in the hunter’s lookout for a while, John vetoes it in favour of a cavern he spots on the other side of the clearing; three walls and an overhang will protect from the snowfall a little better than an open windowed hut. They’re settling down on some rocks inside it when Rodney spots something that shouldn’t be there; a massive pile of something, rope or some kind of furry land octopus coiled in the snow. He gets up and heads over, hovering over the lump for a minute, trying to make sense of what he’s looking at. He figures it out just as he hears John call his name but he can’t find the words so he kneels down and brushes the icy flakes off their faces.
“Oh my god. Oh-my-god-oh-my-god-oh-my-god. John.” His voice cracks and he feels his eyes welling up.
“Oh.” John kneels next to Rodney.
“John. They're people.” Two people. A massive dreadlocked man wrapped around a petite woman, frozen over and half buried under the snow.
“They must have taken shelter here but it was too cold.”
"We have to do something. Bury them or-”
“We can’t just leave them here!”
“I know how you feel Rodney, but we can’t do anything for them. The ground is frozen, can’t be dug up without machinery.”
Rodney looks around the cave desperately. “I...fuck.”
“I know buddy. Look, I...did you read about the bodies on Everest? They were in the paper a few months ago.”
“They can’t be buried up there and it’s dangerous to try to move them. It’s the same in the Arctic circle. They wouldn’t ask that of us anyway.”
“How can you know that?”
“I just do.”
“So we’re just going to leave them here?”
“For now. When we get rescued we can see about finding their next of kin, maybe one of the people who got relocated knows who they are. Then someone can come get them, properly, with a snowmobile and equipment. They’ve been here a long time and they’re not going anywhere.”
Neither of them is religious so they don’t have anything they could leave with the bodies; a rosary, a crucifix, a religious text. There’s no way to know the beliefs of strangers anyhow, but it feels wrong to leave them there without marking their passing so Rodney grabs a few berry-laden branches off a bush, ties them together with some of John’s duct tape and lays them at their feet. John’s quiet, and Rodney gets the feeling that he’s humouring him, but it feels important to mark their passing so he doesn’t care. They set off again in an uncomfortable silence, and Rodney can feel John mocking him telepathically so he starts to feel a little ridiculous for reacting so childishly to the bodies. It’s a couple of minutes before John finally breaks the peace.
“I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies, been in more than my share of firefights and-”
“Yes, alright,” snaps Rodney. “You’re a badass and I have a sentimental streak. I get it.”
“Rodney. I’m...I’m trying to open up here.”
Oh, crap . “You are?”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Carry on. Lots of firefights.”
“It’s just...being in the military you get overexposed to death and sometimes you forget that a body was a person with a life and feelings and family and friends. The way you treated them, it was a slap in the face. I would have noted their location and carried on but you...you mourned their life back there. I’ve forgotten how to do that.”
“I don’t think you can be good at what you do and not need to find a way to cope, but I also don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
“I just worry sometimes that I’ve lost my humanity.”
“You’ve been taking care of me since we crashed, don’t think I haven’t noticed, and I’m pretty sure you’d feel sad if I got mauled by a polar bear so I know that’s not true. But even if it was, I’m soft enough for both of us. Please don’t tell anyone when we get rescued cause I have a reputation to uphold. I’m known all around the world as an exacting, scathing, sarcastic asshole and I earned that reputation fairly, I wouldn’t want to lose it.”
John grins and bumps him with his shoulder. “I think people just don’t know you very well.”
“And I think you don't know yourself very well. Lost your humanity indeed. I can’t quite recall, who was it that shared body heat with me when I was so cold and wet I couldn’t feel my extremities?”
“To be fair I’d do that for anyone.”
“Okay, okay, you win.”
Conversation lightens up for the rest of the journey back, both men eager to keep the sadness at bay. When the river opens up into the lake, they follow the North shore back round to the office, spotting fishing huts out on the ice and deer in the trees. The office comes in to view through the falling snow and Rodney feels such relief to be back. It’s an abandoned tourist building in the middle of nowhere, but for now it’s home and it’s especially welcome after the cave, even if it has lost all of its heat in their absence. They settle in and Rodney lights the stoves as John unpacks their salvage, then makes dinner. Salt cracker pizzettes with anchovies. They taste a lot better than they look and the expression on John’s face is worth the unholy amount of fiddling.
When John makes the beds upstairs, Rodney feels a little disappointed, like it’s the end of something. Sleeping next to someone these past few nights has been so comforting, he doesn’t want that to end. John must think that they’re both capable of keeping their own body temperatures up by now. Oh well. It was nice while it lasted. Tired from the two days of trekking they go to bed early, forgoing their card game (and isn’t it extraordinary that that’s become a habit too?). The bunk is freezing cold, but it warms up slowly after Rodney gets in and he feels the pull of sleep tugging at his eyelids so he relaxes into the lumpy mattress and lets it come.
“NO! HOLLAND! GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF HIM!”
Rodney jerks awake to the sound of shouting. In the eerie glow through the window he can see John moving under his blankets. He must be dreaming. It sounds bad so Rodney slips out of bed and tries to wake him up.
“John. John, wake up, it’s just a dream.” It doesn’t work so he tries to shake him, but the second his hand touches John’s shoulder he finds himself flung unceremoniously to the floor. He rolls and scoots back until his back touches the wall, narrowly missing a punch from John’s swinging fist.
“IF YOU HURT HIM I’LL KILL YOU!”
“JOHN! I’m not...” Rodney grasps for some words to break through the fog of the nightmare. “John, it’s me. It’s Rodney. I’m not going to hurt anyone.”
John’s on his feet, looking dishevelled and dazed and shaking with fear, glistening in the dull light from the sweat dripping down his face and chest. “Rodney?” He covers his mouth with his hands. “Oh god...Rodney...I am so sorry.”
Rodney sits up straighter, resting against the wall. “It's okay.”
“I didn’t mean to...I was...”
“You were having a bad dream, I was just trying to wake you up.”
“I know, fuck, I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
“No, I’m okay.”
“Let me see, let me-” John crouches down in front of Rodney and peers at him assiduously.
“I’m not hurt. I promise.”
“God I...God. I thought I was...I thought you were...”
“I know. It...it sounded bad.”
“It was worse in real life.” John’s gaze drops to the floor
“Come on, let’s go have some of that whisky we found on the train.”
Rodney pulls John up and takes him down stairs, settling him down on the rug while he searches for the Yukon Jack. He thought it was on the top shelf of the pantry but it’s not there...
“I haven’t had a nightmare in years,” says John. “It was...there’s a. ..I had a thing...”
Rodney takes pity on him as he checks the cupboards next to the stove. “PTSD?”
Rodney stops searching for a moment and turns to John. “Afghanistan or Iraq?”
“Okay. That’s maybe not a discussion we need to have in the middle of the night.” Rodney’s about to search the filing cabinet by the counter when he notices that the rays shining bright through the shutters are tinged with green. He goes over to open the front door and the light from the Aurora Borealis pours in, bright enough that he can just make out a cabin at the far end of Mystery Lake and the silhouette of the lookout towering over the tops of the trees. John comes up behind him and looks out too. It’s just like the night they crashed.
“God, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” says John.
“You said you haven’t had a nightmare for a long time...you don’t suppose...” Rodney closes the door.
“It’s really stupid.”
“Hey, I like stupid things. Hit me.”
“There’s a theory that geomagnetic storms can affect whale’s migration behaviour, stranding them on beaches, and other animals too, birds, insects...the evidence is shaky at best but with the strength of the event that crashed us and the brightness of the Aurora tonight, I just wonder if it’s affecting your brain somehow. I’m not a biologist but...maybe it made your dreams worse. I mean, you’ve been sleeping peacefully since we crashed and-”
“I haven’t had a nightmare in a long time. Years. Maybe it’s triggering bad memories somehow?”
“Yeah. It’s not my field. I mean the geomagnetic part is, but the brain part really isn’t. I have a colleague, Carson Beckett, he’s a medical doctor who specialises in genetics and neurology. He’s always talking about the things that can affect-”
A green flash lights up the office, blindingly bright like in the helicopter, and suddenly the bulbs in the room flicker on and the radio on the counter blares out some music – If God had a face what would it look like? And would you want to see if seeing meant that you would have to believe... – through the speakers. Rodney knows what it is, a massive bombardment of static electricity pouring itself through the path of least resistance down the power lines through to the building, but he's startled all the same. John rushes to the radio and before Rodney can warn him about electrical discharge, he’s retuning it to another frequency, speaking as he turns the dial.
“Thule Airbase, this is Major John Sheppard. Over...Thule Airbase thi-”
“This is Sergeant Harriman at Thule Air-”
“Oh thank God-”
“-requesting assistance on all channels. We have a critical overload of all systems. Requesting emergency evac at the following co-ordinates. 76.5333 degrees North, 68.6999 degrees West. This is Sergeant Harriman at...”
“It’s on repeat,” says Rodney. “The message was probably recorded before we crashed. It’ll be the last thing they sent out.”
John looks up from the radio. “I hope they got their evac. There’s nearly seven hundred people living on base.”
“Even if they didn’t the fact that there is a residual transmission means it’s still standing.”
“Yes, I do.”
“It still doesn’t help us though.”
“No. But like you said before, we’re gonna be okay. Could you maybe step away from the radio now? If the power overloads like last time there’s a good chance it’ll stop your heart.”
“Oh.” John steps back and seconds later the power sparks out with another bright flash, shrouding the room in darkness again. As Rodney’s eyes readjust John grabs his wrist and pulls him back up the stairs. He walks them wordlessly past his bunk, grabbing his pillow as they go, and over to Rodney's. They settle into the bed together by silent agreement, still warm from before Roney got out of it, laying side by side and listening to the wind whistle through the trees as it picks up outside.
“Do you believe in an afterlife?” asks Rodney, tucking the blankets under his chin.
“Me neither but I hope...”
“The people today?”
“I hope they’re somewhere happy and warm.”
“If it helps, death by hypothermia is like falling asleep. You stop feeling the cold and you start to feel warm, then you get sleepy and slip away.”
“Sounds like a good death I suppose.” Rodney chews his lip. “Do you think they were lovers?”
“I think they were close.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Rodney thinks about everything he knows about geomagnetic storms and EMPs as the light fades from the sky. What causes them, what they are theorised to affect versus what they are known to affect, how big an event must be to power up the island’s main grid like that. John falls back under quickly, soft snuffles escaping with every breath, and as he turns in his sleep, he shuffles an arm across Rodney’s chest. Rodney’s focus zeros in on all the places they’re touching and he lies awake in contemplation for the rest of the night.
John has an EMP induced PTSD nightmare and lashes out, and they come across a couple of frozen bodies in a cave in this chapter.
Chapter 7: John - Survival Skills
Chapter warnings at the end.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Rodney’s already pottering around downstairs when John wakes up for the second time. He’s quietly singing the song that came through the radio last night; snippets of the chorus and hummed guitar riffs float up through the balcony’s railings along with the sounds of breakfast being made. The bed is warm and John’s reluctant to get up, but the smell of frying meat and coffee draw him downstairs.
“Morning.” Rodney looks uncharacteristically cheerful. “I hope fried spam and powdered eggs are alright.”
“Sounds great. I don't suppose the morning paper has arrived yet? I usually do the crossword with breakfast.”
“Oh, har-de-har.” Rodney stirs the eggs. “I did find some sudoku puzzles in the old newspapers lying around if you’re interested.”
John pours a coffee and sits down. “Listen, about-”
“Hang on.” Rodney brings over a tin of condensed milk. “Here, you like it sweet and creamy, yes?”
“How did you know that?”
“Coffee in Resolute.” Rodney pours the milk into John’s cup and hands him a spoon. “My brain has a habit of retaining anything and everything it processes. There are things that I don’t know I know until I need them. I figured after last night we needed a pick me up. If we were somewhere with a supermarket, I’d make us bacon and eggs. This is as close as I can do.”
“First pizza, now breakfast?” John smiles. “This is great Rodney. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome .” Rodney dishes up their food, brings his own coffee over and tucks in.
“Uh, so, yeah, about last night. I’m really sorry. That must have been terrifying.”
“It’s fine.” Rodney waves his fork dismissively. “And I know people say ‘it’s fine’ even when it isn’t, but I’m the kind of person who says what I mean. I’m not hurt, you’re not hurt, I’m just sorry you had experiences that could give you such a bad dream.”
He does seem fine, but John still feels like the biggest asshole in the Arctic Circle. He makes a start on his breakfast. It’s really good considering it’s all long-life food. If they’re going to be here a significant amount of time then they’re going to have to supplement it with fresh meat. There’s enough food for a while, months if they ration, but it would stretch a lot further with some regular hunting and fishing.
When John finishes his spam and eggs, Rodney takes the plates to wash in a bucket of melted snow. He starts humming music mindlessly again as he scrubs them with some torn up fabric.
“You’re awfully chirpy this morning,” says John.
“Am I?” says Rodney. “I guess it’s because I had a thought. It’s very likely the Northern Lights will come again soon, and when it does we can try to make contact with someone. I found a list of emergency frequencies in a book by the radio. Even making contact with another person on the island, if there’s anyone left, would be a good start. We could combine resources.”
It’s a good idea but ... “ You’re assuming another person on the island would be of the sharing and caring kind. If they’re a prepper they’re more likely to shoot us.”
“Well, yes, okay that is an assumption. But most people are inherently good. Even me.”
“I just don’t want you to get your hopes up.”
“Either way, I’m going to teach you how to shoot today.”
Rodney drops the plates on the side with a clatter. “Do I have to?”
“I need to know you have survival skills in case something happens to me.”
“What’s going to happen to you? Are you sick?” Rodney dries his hands and feels John’s forehead. “Oh my god, do you have cancer or hepatitis or HIV or something?! You can’t die, I need you!”
“Woah, slow down. I’m not sick.”
Rodney looks absolutely terrified. “I’m serious John, I can’t do this alone! Please don’t abandon me.”
John’s horrified by the panic in Rodney’s voice. “God, Rodney, I would never...I swear, I’ve never left anyone behind, I won’t abandon you.”
He stands and grabs Rodney's shoulders. “Rodney. I won’t abandon you.”
Rodney takes a shaky breath and looks down. “Sorry. Sorry. I’m being silly.”
“Look. I would just feel a lot better if I knew you’d be alright on your own. That’s all. Nothing’s gonna happen.”
Rodney swallows then takes in a shaky breath. “If you weren’t here, I wouldn’t have survived the first night,” he says quietly.
“ Of course you would have,” says John. “Everyone doubts their own ability to survive.”
“No. I fell over and I was so cold and numb and tired I decided to just stay there. If you hadn’t shot that last flare I. ..wouldn’t have gotten up again.”
The thought that Rodney had given up really rattles John. How could he do this without him? He wouldn’t have the first clue what’s going on, he would just know he was alone on an island with no way off. He wouldn’t be able to- Oh. “Everything worked out okay. And I-I’m not going anywhere.” He’s never promised anyone that, not even Nancy (and that might have been half of the problem right there), but he means it. And Rodney obviously understands. He looks John in the eye and nods, and John knows it’s a promise back.
Time for a lesson. They set up some empty tin cans on a fallen tree outside, and John demonstrates how to shoot them off from various distances. Then he gets technical, tells Rodney about each part of the Rifle, what it does and how to maintain it, and tries to instil the mantra that ALL GUNS ARE LOADED through gentle repetition. Rodney picks up the theory quickly and he instinctively keeps the barrel pointed away from them both at all times. The practice? Not so much.
“I am never going to get this and we’re wasting bullets,” he says sullenly.
“Patience, young padawan . We have six hundred bullets and it only takes one to take down an enemy if you take the time to learn how to shoot.”
Rodney aims the rifle and looks down the barrel. “What kind of enemies do you expect to attack us here?”
“I don’t know, but the fact that there was a gun lying around in a cabin means the locals felt they needed protection against something. Always trust the local's experience Rodney.”
“Bloody hell. Bloody snow and guns and EMPs and-” The next shot pings straight through a can, knocking it to the ground. “Did you see that?! I hit it!”
“That’s great, now do the other five.”
It takes fourteen more bullets, but Rodney brings down the other tin cans, and turns to John, grinning, rosy cheeked from the cold and the rifle hanging from his arms. He’s adorable when he’s excited, thinks John, then he spends the next few minutes trying not to analyse that as he talks Rodney through reloading the gun and packing away the boxes of bullets.
The bulk of the afternoon is spent setting up the snares in a glade half way between the cabin and the derailed train. Rodney gets the hang of it much quicker than he did shooting, but he’s skittish at the thought of “hurting the bunnies”. John tries to reassure him that they won’t actually be harmed, just trapped, and carefully doesn’t remind him that the whole point of the exercise is to kill them for food. One thing at a time. When they’re finished they collect as much wood as they can carry and head back to the cabin.
“It ended my marriage.”
It says a lot about Rodney’s metal acuity that he doesn't need to ask what John is talking about. “How?” he asks, huffing his bag over his shoulder.
“She said she couldn’t cope with my mood swings and lashing out in my sleep. Said it made her feel unsafe, so she left.” He doesn’t know why, but it’s important for Rodney to know this, to understand this thing about him.
Rodney looks horrified at the revelation. “You had a mental disorder and your wife abandoned you because of the symptoms? She was a bitch. I was right.”
“She wasn’t a bitch, Rodney, she just wasn’t prepared for what being a military wife could mean. And...and I wasn’t prepared for what being in the military could mean. We were both very young and idealistic. Anyway, she remarried. A lawyer from Arizona. I sent flowers. She sent a thank you card. That’s the last time we spoke.”
“I don’t think any lawyer could measure up next to you, John, I really don’t.”
John’s stomach lurches giddily. “Aw Rodney you say the sweetest things.”
The cabin’s chimney is in view when Rodney drops his own non sequitur. “Did we finish the Yukon Jack?”
“No. There’s about half left.”
“Only I couldn’t find it last night and I looked this morning and it didn’t turn up.”
“You sure you looked hard enough? I left it in the pantry. Top shelf.”
“I thought so but it’s not there. We didn’t take it to the dam did we?”
“So it’s gone missing.”
“It’ll turn up.”
“And I think there’s some honey missing too.”
“I inventoried the pantry, If I remember correctly there’s ten sealed and one opened.”
“There’s only ten in total.”
“So either we’re getting forgetful or-”
“Or there’s a honey obsessed bear breaking into the cabin when we’re not there.”
“You really think there’s a thief?”
Rodney sighs. “No, not really, I just don’t like unkno-” He stops short on the tracks. “John.”
“There’s someone in the cabin.”
John drops his bag of wood and snaps up the rifle to peer down the sights. “Where are you seeing them?”
“Downstairs window, left of the door.”
John locks onto the window and holds position. He’s not going to shoot, if there really is another person it’s not necessarily a bad thing but then again desperate people sometimes do unthinkable things to survive, so a little caution can only be a good thing. There’s no movement so he checks out the other windows in turn.
“Can you see anything?” hisses Rodney.
“No,” whispers John. “I want you to stay here while I go check it out.”
“What? No! You can’t go alone.”
“Rodney, I’m military. I know how to take care of myself. If there’s someone there then either their intentions are either good or bad. If they’re good, great. If not, you could end up a hostage or worse. I’m not taking that chance. I want you to stay here and keep watch.”
“Okay, fine, but I’m counting to fifty and if you don’t come back out by then I’m coming in.”
“Fair enough. Shout if you need to.”
John heads towards the house, keeping the rifle up and aimed ahead of him. He steps onto the porch as softly as he can and listens. There are no sounds coming from inside, but that doesn’t mean anything. Could be they were spotted from the upstairs window and whoever is in there is lying in wait. He unlatches the front door and listens again. The corner of the cabin that he can see through the gap is clear. He wishes he had a handgun; rifles are great for distance shooting but not so much in close quarters. Swinging the door open he pivots the door frame slowly from one side to the other, taking in as much of the ground floor as he can. The back door and windows are closed. There’s no one in view and the only places he can’t clear are the bathroom in the far corner and the balcony upstairs. Bathroom first. He steps inside and sidesteps across the room, keeping the stairs in his line of sight and his back to the outside wall. The bathroom door is open and it's empty, so he heads next up the stairs. Taking them one at a time he goes up slowly until he can peek through the balcony’s railing. There’s no one under either of the beds and nowhere else anyone could hide. He goes all the way up, just in case, and clears behind the dresser and the curtains. The window is closed but the shutters are open. He can’t remember if they were open when they left or not. Looking out the window he can see footprints around the back of the cabin, but there’s too much undergrowth to see if there’s a trail and besides, Rodney was out the back this morning to empty the dishwater, they could be his.
The sound of footsteps makes him jump and he runs to the railing in time to see Rodney walk through the front door. “John?”
“Up here Rodney.”
Rodney looks up. “Anything?”
“I’m not crazy. I know I saw something.”
“I don’t doubt that you saw something, but whatever that something was I don’t think it’s was a person. Could have been a reflection. An animal or a bird moving around outside.”
Rodney’s unconvinced, and he spends the rest of the afternoon freaked out and inconsolable until it's time to change John’s dressings and they find the missing honey in the first aid kit. The Yukon Jack doesn’t turn up though, no matter how hard they look. Rodney makes John search the cabin top to bottom for it as he boils the used bandages on the stove. “I’ve already looked everywhere. Maybe fresh eyes will find it?”
They share a bunk that night without discussing it, shoulders and knees pressed together as they make plans for the next day. When John wakes up in the morning it’s still dark and Rodney is wrapped around him from head to toe. They’re damp with sweat from the heat of their bodies but he can’t bring himself to care, even if they’re starting to smell a bit ripe. He peels Rodney’s limbs off him and gets up to stock up the fires.
They both have regular washes, heat up some snow and top-to-toe with a bar of soap and a washcloth, but Rodney’s grumbled numerous times about his need for something more substantial and John’s feeling charitable so he drags the fish crate from the shower and empties the fishing gear into a cupboard. It’s big enough to sit down in with knees bent (he tried it out) but small enough to be economical with water. It’s perfect and he can just picture Rodney’s face when he comes downstairs and there’s a warm bath waiting for him. He eats a quick breakfast as he melts and boils pans of snow. By the time he’s heated enough water to fill the crate the sun is coming up and Rodney’s still asleep, soft snores filtering down from the balcony above. There’s very little in the way of toiletries in the cabin, a couple of packs of cheap razors and some bars of soap, but there’s some eucalyptus oil in one of the drawers (presumably for someone’s blocked nose). John pours a couple of drops in the water and the rising steam fills the room with the pungent scent. It’s a little girly maybe, but Rodney had made some interesting comments a few nights ago in the dam.
“I get all my best ideas in the bath.”
“Seriously, I cracked the Yang-Mills problem in a bubble bath with a mini white board and a glass of wine. It’s my happy place. What’s yours?”
“The range. Me and a semi and unlimited bullets.”
“Shooting holes into paper targets.”
“Better than shooting them into people.”
John heads back upstairs. Rodney’s lying on his stomach, face mashed into the pillow, not a care in the world. “Hey Rodney.”
“You always sleep this late or...?”
“Huh?” Rodney turns over. “What’s that smell?”
“I’m going to go check on the snares. I left you a present downstairs. Make the most of it while it’s still warm. I’ll be back soon.”
He makes no move to get up so John grabs the blankets and throws them onto the other bunk. “I’m serious, McKay, get your lazy ass out of bed.” Bit harsh but he doesn't want all his hard work to go to waste. He leaves Rodney to it when he finally sits up and stretches. Hopefully the self-proclaimed genius will have some ideas about survival or rescue by the time he gets back. If not, maybe he’ll have solved another millennium problem and they can cash in when they get back to civilisation.
Four of the six snares are triggered, but only three of them have caught anything. John releases one hare because it has a distended stomach and that can only mean one thing: babies. He makes quick work snapping the necks of the other two; they’re too exhausted from trying to escape the traps to put up much resistance. He strings them up by the feet and resets the traps for tomorrow, debating whether it’s worth heading further out to go through the bags on the train for supplies. The train isn't all that far from here, it’d be efficient use of his time. But he’d be carrying dead animals and that could attract unwanted attention; they’ve heard the calls of wolves in the night. Maybe it’s better to do it in the morning, before he picks up tomorrow’s bounty.
As he swings the carcasses over his shoulders, he catches some sudden movement above him out the corner of his eye. For just a moment he thinks he can make out a pale figure between the trees, light fabric billowing in the wind between tree trunks, but then it’s gone. A trick of the light? He calls out but there is no answer and when he climbs the hill there are no footprints to be seen but the snow is disturbed in places. Could be a person, could be an animal, or just the wind. Maybe the fourth trap did have a hare in it and someone took it before he got here.
More likely Rodney’s paranoia is rubbing off on him.
The cabin’s empty when he gets back but Rodney left a note:
THANK YOU FOR THE BATH. GONE FISHING. IN FIRST HUT. BACK SOON. MRM
It’s short and sweet and makes John smile. He pins it to the notice board and hums Johnny Cash to himself as he sets up to prepare the hare carcasses. Arctic hares have high body fat, hence why they thrive so well in the Arctic circle, so they’ll have a decent calorie count per pound but rabbit species in general are scrawny when you get rid of all that fur. John’s prepared animal carcasses before (out of necessity and extreme climate survival training) so he doesn’t balk at the idea, just skins and guts both hares with ruthless efficiency. He gets a little squeamish when actually handling the innards so he doesn’t bother this time to pick out the offal; they’re not that desperate yet, and there’s no way Rodney’s ready for that kind of reality. Fuck, he’s not ready for that kind of reality. Besides, if Rodney is successful on the ice they’ll have a feast for dinner and it’s not like they have a freezer to store things in. He wonders idly if the innards would make good bait for fishing. He’ll have to ask Rodney when he gets back.
Actually, John’s surprised that Rodney isn’t back already. He’s not the kind of guy who can sit for hours with a pole and a line waiting for something to bite. He’s the kind of guy who thinks hard about what he has and what he needs, and picks the most expedient way to get from A to B. Oh. Shit. What if he’s fallen through the ice? John throws on his jacket, grabs the rifle and some rope, and runs out of the office and down the slope onto the lake. He can see the fishing hut in the distance. The door is closed so he can’t see inside. But he can see-
“Oh. My God.” He throws himself to the ground.
There’s a bear stomping around from the back of the hut. If he’s honest, he already knew there’d be bears on the island, what with the rifle and all. But this isn’t a polar bear. It’s a fucking enormous black bear. It’s massive, bigger than the biggest bear John’s ever seen, far bigger than he was led to believe they could grow. And it’s stalking around the hut with an attitude that screams hunger. Oh, fuck no, Rodney’s not gonna be some bear’s dinner. Okay. Ten bullets in the magazine. He knows this because he watched Rodney reload it this morning after practice. Ten bullets, one bear. He only needs one lucky shot. It'd be a shame to kill it though. He’ll fire a warning shot first. The bear is sniffing at the door of the hut, digging at the ice with a massive paw and snorting hot breath that mists around its nose. John aims at its head then up a little, close enough to be noticed but not actually maim. He squeezes the trigger then quickly chambers the next round. The bear is startled by the sound of the shot echoing across the lake, and makes off at a thundering run, away from him and, more importantly, away from the hut. John waits until it’s out of sight before he heads down, calling out as he approaches.
“It’s safe to come out now.”
Rodney opens the door a crack. “It’s gone?”
“Yup. Trust you to attract the only black bear north of the Arctic Circle. What did you do, smother yourself in honey ?”
Rodney flushes red all the way down his neck and mumbles something.
“Didn’t catch that buddy.”
“Something that, perhaps, in hindsight, might not have been all that smart. In my defence I was just trying to be efficient.”
“I’m sure you were.” Rodney opens the door fully and John peers in at the mess. “You didn’t.”
“Um, maybe just a little bit?” There’s blood on the ice and fully dressed fish carcasses in a metal bucket. Rodney’s been busy. John’s pleased to see Rodney’s using the flask he found, even if it is covered in fish guts. “I didn’t know there were bears!”
“Okay, I can forgive that cause, seriously, black bears this far North? But you’re Canadian, you should know there are always opportunistic predators in the wilderness.”
“Maybe next time leave the gutting till you’re indoors. How about we get those home?”
Rodney looks morosely at the fishing hole. “I only caught three but it should be enough for dinner.”
“Three fish and two hares.”
“Oh, the snares worked?”
“Like a charm. Wash away that blood and let's get going.”
They walk back up to the cabin keeping their eyes peeled for a return of the bear. Rodney turns around and scans their six frequently, like it’s going to rise up from the ice behind them, claws ready and jaws wide open.
Back inside the cabin Rodney gets a little squeamish at the sight of the bowl of guts on the table. “Oh that’s gross.”
“If you can gut a fish you can gut a hare,” says John as he pulls off his jacket.
Rodney dumps the bucket of fish on the counter. “I wasn’t sure there’d actually be any hares in the traps, hence the fishing.”
“Think you can use any of this as bait?”
“Uh...my aunt used to use chicken liver as bait. I’m sure hare liver will work just as well.”
“She teach you how to fish?”
“Yeah, Aunt Beatrice. She’s a fisherwoman in Quaqtaq. Me and Jeannie spent our holidays with her. I wasn’t all that interested at the time but I guess some of it sunk in.”
“Oh. I have a brother.” He winces a little at how he just blurted that out. “We...uh...we don’t talk much. Phone call at Christmas, but it’s always a little awkward.”
“I usually spend Christmas with Jeannie and her daughter Madison.”
“I usually spend it on duty.”
“Really? Well if we get rescued before Christmas you should come spend it with my family. They’d like that and you’re clearly overdue Christmas leave. When we were little our parents didn’t really do holiday celebrations so we make a big deal of it for Maddie. Sometimes Jeannie invites her neighbours over just to make it livelier.”
John’s a little stunned by the invite, but there’s nothing he’d like to do more. “I’d, uh, yeah...sure...I’d really like that.”
“Great. And if we don’t get rescued in time, we’ll just have to have it late.”
They’re in bed before it hits Rodney. “They’re going to be so worried,” he says, twisting the blankets in his hands.
“Jeannie and Maddie?” asks John, but he already knew this was coming.
“I call them every Sunday. If I’m somewhere I can’t call then I always email. What day is it?”
“They’ve been freaking out for two days then. I can’t bear the thought...”
“Hey, first thing we’ll do when we get rescued is find a phone and call them. Then I’ll fly you straight there in my new chopper.”
“You’d really do that?”
“Of course I would. I know it’s hard but I’m sure they’re tough enough to cope until we can contact them.”
“Not knowing is the worst.”
“If something happens to me-”
“Jesus, don’t say that.”
“No, I’m serious. If something happens will you tell them it was quick and painless, even if it wasn’t?”
“Because Maddie’s young and Jeannie’s had enough bad in her life without that kind of worry.”
John nudges Rodney over by the shoulder then curls up against his back. “I will, but nothing’s gonna happen, okay?”
“Get some sleep.”
Rodney’s asleep in minutes, exhausted from the day’s excitement, but John’s awake a little longer, listening to him breathe and wondering what it would be like to have a family like Rodney's. People you call regularly, spend the holidays with, who actually want to be a part of your life even if they don’t necessarily agree with your life choices.
There's some hunting, fishing and animal gutting in this chapter. Nothing too squik though.
Chapter 8: Rodney - ???
Chapter warnings at the end. (This is the chapter that warrants the rape/non-con archive warning.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When John finally drags himself downstairs Rodney’s been up for a while having woken up in the middle of the night with thoughts about the EMP. He’s reading through the binder Carter sent with John. She was so close to realising ZedPM energy as a power source, but there are critical errors all over the place. Math that doesn’t tally, forces not accounted for, yield estimations that are off by several orders of magnitude. It doesn’t make any sense. She shouldn’t have been able to maintain a connection with all the mistakes. What the hell could she have done that caused all this chaos?
John slumps down on a chair and rests his head on the counter.
“Good morning,” says Rodney.
“Mmngh.” says John. He has a bed head and pillow creases on his face. Rodney thinks he looks rakish. His face would sell a lot of magazines.
“I thought you military types liked to get up at four am for your daily marathon?”
“I can’t stand mornings,” grumbles John. “And you’re thinking of the marines.”
“Here, have some coffee.” Rodney pours a cup, adds some leftover condensed milk and presses it into John’s hand. “I’ll make some breakfast.”
He whisks up some powdered eggs then flakes in the left-over fish to make an omelette. It’s a little singed around the edges but at least it’s edible. He serves it up with some ketchup and passes a plate to John, who wolfs it down with a boyish enthusiasm that’s only matched when he’s shooting his gun.
“This is really good,” says John, shoveling his food in his mouth. “Did your aunt Beatrice teach you how to cook too?”
“Yes. But don’t let her catch you calling her Beatrice at Christmas; it’s ‘Bey’ or ‘auntie’, even if you’re not family.”
John swallows the last of his breakfast. “You really like her.”
“Anyone would compare favourably next to my parents. But, yeah, she’s great. She taught us a lot of things. God knows our parents didn’t make time for life skills. Jennie got her first period at Bey’s house, thank goodness cause our mother didn’t tell her anything about them. She came out of the bathroom crying, thinking she was going to die.”
John looks up, stunned. “That must have been horrible.”
“Aunt Bey spent the evening shouting down the phone at mom and dad, told them we were staying with her for an extra week till Jeannie was feeling better. I’d have loved to see their faces when she called.”
“Your parents sound...uh...” John’s clearly looking for a diplomatic word.
“Terrible,” says Rodney. “They were. There’s no nice word to describe them really.”
John picks at the scraps on his plate with his fork. “My dad wasn’t much better.”
“She died when I was young. Breast cancer.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“She was...you know...”
“A good mom ?”
“Yeah.” John’s eyes drift to the open binder on the counter. Rodney takes it as a subconscious plea to change the subject.
“You might as well read it,” he says as he gets up and collects the plates. “Forget about your clearance level. You’re affected by it after all.”
John pulls the binder closer. “I’m not sure I’d understand it.”
Rodney explains as he washes the dishes. “ Basically, there’s an unlimited source of quantum energy in the universe and they’ve built a device that will eventually be able to suck it out of subspace. It's called a Zero Point Module. But their math is all wrong and their science is flawed. I don’t think they could have made a stable connection with subspace until I got there and corrected everything.”
“ So it didn’t cause the EMP?” asks John.
“It must have done, but I still don’t see how. I’ll figure it out. Up until now, I’ve been more focused on our survival, but since that’s gone from impossible to improbable, I can direct some attention elsewhere.”
“Well, I think our chances of survival are pretty good.”
“We have a reliable and replenishable source of food, plenty of water, unlimited fuel and a place to sleep. It’s not like we’re living in a cave.”
“You’re assuming we don’t get eaten by a bear.”
“Or fall over a cliff.”
“You’ve already done that and survived.”
“So I have,” says Rodney as he dries his hands. “Okay, I’ll try to be a little more optimistic. You are the expert here on survival situations.”
“Speaking of survival...” begins John.
“Oh God, what?”
“Are you up for killing a defenseless bunny today?”
Rodney considers it for a minute. “Only if you let me teach you to fish.”
“Deal,” says John, and he makes to go upstairs. “I’ll just go get dressed-”
Rodney points at the chair. “Sit back down. You’re not going anywhere. You need a bath. Desperately.”
John gives his underarms a quick sniff. “Okay, you have a point.”
“I’ll go get the poor, defenseless bunnies while you bathe, then we’ll go fishing.”
“You know how to break an animal’s neck?”
“Bend it straight back till it snaps. Do it really fast so it doesn’t suffer.”
“Bend it back, right.”
“Or you can hold it upside down and slice open its throat so it bleeds out quickly.”
“Slice its throat. Got it.”
John crosses his arms and grins. “You’re just gonna let them all go, aren’t you?”
“I am both appalled and insulted by that statement,” says Rodney. “I’ll probably only let half of them go.”
They heat up water for the bath on both stoves as they wait for the sun to rise. The days are getting shorter quite rapidly. It won’t be long till they consist of only twilight and night-time and they’ll have to hunt and fish in the dark. Rodney suggests deep freezing some animal carcasses out the back but John tells him the smell will only attract predators. At least the snares do all the hard work for them and fishing’s just a waiting game. But they’ll be more likely to encounter wolves when they have to go out in the dark.
“I’ll be back in a bit,” says Rodney when he’s geared up in his outdoor clothing. “Be ready to go fishing!”
As Rodney heads out the door, John hands him the rifle (“Worst case scenario, you can just shoot the hares in the head!” “Oh, hilarious...”) and his boot knife (“If you decide to go the throat-slitting route be careful, it’s very sharp.” “Yes mom.”).
Rodney leaves John in the warmth of the cabin to have his bath. He really appreciated the bath John made for him; it was the best kind of surprise. It feels so good to be clean, especially his hair. That’s one thing he’s going to do when they get rescued, have a hot shower followed by a long soak in a bubble bath. After he calls Jeannie of course. And Christmas - it will be so good to have John come with him, assuming they make it back in time. He’ll invite Bey this year. She comes as often as she can but she missed last year because the weather was so poor there were no planes flying out of Quaqtaq for a week. He really wants John to meet them all.
It’s particularly cold today, but it’s clear and sunny and still. A nice day for a trek in the snow. Not a nice day to kill an animal. John said people can do all kinds of things they think they couldn’t when they have to, but Rodney isn’t there yet. If he doesn’t kill a hare today they’ll still be able to eat. But if they eat all the pantry food they won’t have a very varied diet, both now and later. He has to do it. Not least because John might laugh at him if he chickens out. Be bold, Rodney. You’ve got this. But what if he doesn’t? What if he just messes it up and only half kills the hare, snaps its neck but doesn’t break the brain stem? Then the poor thing will be alive and aware but in pain. Oh God, what if the neck breaking doesn’t work? He took John’s knife to humour him but he doesn’t think he can actually pierce a living creature’s flesh like that. All that blood and twitching and...
He comes up on the pathway to the glade where the snares are set up, a break in the treeline flanked by two rocky knolls. The snares are evenly spaced and even from here, Rodney can see that two of them have caught something. He goes over to the closest one and breathes a sigh of relief. It’s pregnant, like the one John told him about. It might actually be the one John told him about, but are they really dumb enough to get caught twice? He lets it go, glad he doesn’t have to kill it, and watches it hop feebly away into the forest as he resets the snare the way John showed him.
There are several types of mushrooms in the clearing, it might be a good idea to see if there are any books on edible fungi in the cabin so they can pick some. Maybe make some kind of soup? Or fry them for breakfast? He doesn’t trust himself not to poison them without a guide...and he’s procrastinating. Okay, time to check the other snare. He gets up off his knees and shuffles over. The next hare isn’t moving and for a moment Rodney thinks it’s already dead (hallelujah) but then it twitches and he realises it’s just exhausted. Probably from spending the night trying to escape the snare. There’s some blood where the wire’s dug in through the fur. Poor thing.
Oh god, this is it. Crunch time. Literally. He picks up the hare in one hand and removes the wire. It squirms a bit but it’s truly depleted all of its reserves of energy so it doesn’t actually wriggle. Deep breaths, McKay. Deep breaths. You’re a survivor. You survived a helicopter crash; you can certainly kill yourself some dinner. It’s no worse than killing a fish to eat it and you’ve been doing that since you were twelve. Rock to the head and... Oh, hey, maybe a rock to the head will kill a hare? A big, heavy one. Let’s see. Wait, no. If he puts the hare down it might run away. He puts the snare back over its head and tightens it, then drops it back down on the ground. It makes a weak attempt to escape but is foiled by the wire around its neck. Rodney searches for a large rock, finds one the size of his fist, bigger than the hare’s head if you exclude the ears. The ears are actually kind of small for a hare, it looks a lot more like a rabbit but – focus. Task at hand. Smashing the animal's skull in. If he ever writes a biography of his life he’s going to gloss over this. Or maybe big it up? He kneels down next to the hare again and it twitches its little nose up at him as he removes the snare again, but really, it’s time to get this over with, so he raises the rock and slams it down as hard as he can in one fluid motion. The twitching stops and Rodney can tell be the way it lies so very still that it’s dead.
And then he realises his mistake. There’s so much blood and brain matter, how the hell is he going to get it home? He doesn’t have a plastic bag or anything. Oh god, he’s going to have to carry it, dripping with blood and leaking all over the place. He picks it up in one hand and holds it as far away from his body as he can. Oh, so gross. He leaves the snare as it is; if he puts the hare down he might not manage to make himself pick it back up again. There are five others ready and waiting, they’re bound to catch something for tomorrow. Oh, the blood is warm...and dripping down his gloves and onto his wrist. Oh, that is not nice. And it smells. Rodney swallows his disgust and heads back home, hare in one hand and rifle in the other, leaving a trail of blood in his wake. John is going to laugh at his idiocy, he just knows it. Still, he might take pity and forgo making Rodney skin and gut it this time. And, hey, they’re gonna go fishing together, that’ll be fun. He’ll make a flask of coffee or Bovril and they can sit and play cards while they wait for a bite.
As Rodney comes up on the cabin he hears voices. Muffled, angry voices, like an altercation on a TV in another room. For a moment he gets excited, thinking John got the radio working, but then he hears the crash of something shattering on the floor and John crying out in fear. It chills him to the bone to hear John afraid of anything. Someone else is laughing, a low, gravelly laugh of amusement. Rodney sprints the last few meters to the cabin and slams open the door. Time stands still for a moment. John’s naked and bent over the counter, chest pressed into the wood, arms trapped behind his back by an extremely tall, naked man... Rodney throws the dead hare at the stranger, who fumbles with it and flings it away. Iit buys him just enough time to bring up the rifle and – WHAM – smash the stock into the man’s face, crunching his nose back up into his skull. He drops to the floor, lifeless and naked, eyes wide and unseeing. Rodney brings the rifle up into position and aims it at his head, hands shaking with fury.
John slumps down from the counter onto the floor, utterly silent, and stares at the man on the floor.
“John. Go upstairs.”
Rodney can feel John look at him, but he doesn’t/can’t/won’t take his eyes of this stranger, the one who broke in when Rodney was away and put his goddamn hands on John when he was naked and vulnerable and unarmed, who put his dick...FUCK. “John, go upstairs. Get warm, get dressed.”
John circles around Rodney and the man, keeping his back to the wall then rushes up the stairs, feet pounding on the steps as he takes them two at a time. When he’s out of sight, Rodney swings the rifle strap over his shoulder, grabs the man by the hands and drags him out the front door. How the hell does someone get rid of a dead body? He can’t bury him in the tundra. Can’t dump him in the river cause it’s frozen over. Can’t hack him into pieces cause...just no. What he really needs...is a nice big black bear to come and eat him. Circle of life and all that. God bless Maddie and the Lion King. He drops the man’s arms and runs around the back of the cabin to get the sled that hangs on the wall. He’s been considering using it for transporting wood. Transporting a body won't be so difficult with equipment. He sets the sled down on the snow and rolls the man on top of it. The arms and legs flop out, brushing the snow. God this guy is tall.
He needs to take the body far enough away that John will never see it again, but not so far that Rodney leaves John alone for too long. Not the lake, he doesn’t want to attract the bear towards the cabin. Not towards the train, that’s the direction of the snares. But if he follows the train tracks in the other direction he’ll get to the collapsed rail tunnel. They already know it’s blocked so they won’t have a reason to go that way. He can just follow the tracks and dump him off to the side somewhere.
Rodney starts pulling the sled, anger thumping around his body.
“Fucking asshole, how fucking dare you.”
It’s hard work, the man is heavy and his arms and legs are dragging through the snow, but Rodney is fuelled by his anger.
“John’s my friend. I’m not sorry I killed you.”
This is the first time Rodney has tested the concept of dead weight. It’s totally true. He couldn’t have been this heavy when he was alive.
“I wish I killed you slowly, painfully.”
As the rail tunnel comes into view he sees a trail divert into the forest. It’s as good a place as any so he drags the sled down the bank and into the trees, stopping when he can’t see the tracks anymore. This looks to be near where he came out of the forest first night. They definitely won’t need to come this way, there’s nothing but snow where he came from.
Rodney dumps the body unceremoniously onto the ground, steps back and takes a long hard look at the man who dared to hurt John. He’s tall, long-limbed but strong, with long white hair and a pale, sallow complexion. No eyebrows, no body hair at all and isn’t that a strange habit in a place like this? His eyes are pale and fixed, utterly lifeless, mouth gaping open over rotting teeth, nose flattened from the impact and blood splattered all down his front. He was imposing alive, dead he’s pitiful.
“I’m done dragging your ass, I’m gonna leave you here. Frankly, there’s a more important man that deserves my time.”
Rodney knows the man is dead, knows it in his bones, but he has to make sure so he aims the rifle and fires one bullet right between the eyes. It’s his best shot yet. John would be proud, except he’s not going to tell John about it. He’s just going to leave this fucker here to get eaten by a bear or a wolf and never speak of him again.
When he gets back to the cabin it’s tidy, John’s cleaned up the man’s blood and put everything back where it belongs. You wouldn’t know there’d been an attack. But John's upstairs and Rodney can hear him crying. He’s torn – would he prefer to be left alone to work through this or would he be better with some company? It’s hard to know the right thing to do, but Rodney’s desire to check and make sure he is safe wins out. John can always tell him to go away if he wants. So he sheds his outer layers, washes the blood off his hands and pads upstairs in his socks. John’s laying on his stomach in the bed, blankets wrapped around him tight. He doesn’t turn to look at Rodney, just sobs into the pillow.
“I, uh...he’s gone. I took him away...”
John sniffs, he’s been crying so hard his nose is running. Rodney passes him a handkerchief from the dresser.
“Here, it’s...it’s clean.”
He watches as John wipes his face and blows his nose noisily, turning to face Rodney. His eyes are puffy and red and it kills Rodney to see him this way.
“I don’t know what you need, I’ve never-”
God, John, please tell me what you need from me.
“I just ....he’s dead. I killed him. Twice. So he’s not going to come back, I swear.”
You haven’t asked me to go away, so maybe you want me to stay?
“I don’t know exactly what he did to you and it’s-”
“Nothing,” says John through the tears. “I mean he was going to...but you came back and. ..I -I don’t know why I’m crying, I just can’t stop.”
“Tea,” says Rodney quickly. “I’ll make you some tea. Aunt Bey always made tea in a crisis.”
John looks at him. “Could you just...?”
“Anything. God, John, anything.”
“Could you just get in here?”
Oh, thank God. “Yes, absolutely, I can do that.” But Rodney just stands there, feet stuck to the hardwood floor.
“Some time today, Rodney?” says John, sniffing into the hanky.
“Right. Okay.” Rodney lies down on the bed facing John. He doesn’t move, worried that even though John asked him here he might not be allowed to touch, but John reaches out and pulls him close, mashing his face into his chest. Rodney holds on while John sobs into his T-shirt .
“I should have been able to stop him,” says John a few minutes later when the tears stop flowing.
“No, don’t think like that,” says Rodney.
“I’m military, I know how to get out of all kinds of holds, he was just so strong.”
“Well, he’s not strong now.”
John lifts his head. “What did you-”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Rodney pulls John closer, and John squeezes him tighter.
“Tell me about your aunt,” he says.
So Rodney tells him. About her red braid and pale freckled skin; how she’s the only nonindigenous fisherwoman in Quaqtaq but she can beat just about anyone in an arm wrestle; about eating whale meat (surprisingly nice) and muktuk (unsurprisingly disgusting) and cloudberry jam; about winters spent ice fishing and summers spent foraging; how she didn’t understand the math but was always supportive of his scientific endeavours, smiling when he explained (at the age of eleven) why all the famous physicists throughout history were wrong.
John falls asleep half way through the story about the time his aunt let him try alcohol for the first time; a smuggled bottle of Canadian rye whisky that the locals politely tolerated, where he (at the grand old age of sixteen) drunk so much he stripped off and ran outside in his underwear in minus something degree temperatures yelling about Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and had to be carried back in over her shoulder. He remembers only flashes of that night; the rest was filled in by a giggling Jeannie while he nursed the hangover of hell and swore off alcohol forever. It wasn't until later in life that he figured out that was the whole point of the exercise.
Rodney doesn’t realise he’s fallen asleep till he wakes up to the sound of John dropping something downstairs. When he goes downstairs to check out the noise John is swearing as he picks up the pieces of a smashed mug.
“Hey, want a hand?”
“No,” snaps John.
“It’s just a mug,” says Rodney.
“We only have four mugs! We can’t fucking replace them!”
Rodney knows this isn’t really about the mug so he lets it go and doesn’t argue. He’s going to play this John’s way. Whatever he needs. Instead, he makes dinner. John’s been busy; the hare Rodney brought back is prepared and ready to cook. He fries it with some dried apricots and they eat in silence, the only sound the wind howling outside. Rodney notices the key in the front door and covertly eyes the back which is also locked. They should have done that from the start, it was incredibly naïve of them not to.
John gets out the bottle of vodka when they’re done, and Rodney grabs the deck of cards and deals a hand of rummy. John’s reticence continues through the game, and Rodney desperately wants to talk, to ask questions - A re you okay? How can I help you? What do you need? - but if John wants peace and quiet, that’s what Rodney will give him, it’s not going to kill him to shut up for a while. They drink the vodka neat while they play, each hand a little sloppier than the last.
John finally breaks the silence six hands in. “I think I saw him,” he says.
“When I was collecting hares. I saw something moving in the trees. Couldn’t find anything though.”
Rodney considers this. “And...the day I saw someone in the cabin. The missing alcohol. And that morning you, uh, reacted to something in the trees.”
“He’s been watching us.”
“He’s been watching you,” corrects Rodney. “He waited until I left. That’s a sign of...well, premeditation.” John doesn’t look in the least bit surprised at this. “What haven’t you told me?”
That goes against Rodney’s ‘let John lead’ rule, but John doesn’t balk at the question. “He came in the upstairs window. He...stripped off and folded up his clothes..."
“That’s almost ritualistic.”
“I didn’t hear him come down the stairs, I-” He breaks off, shaking with emotion. Rodney waits this out too. “I was drying off after the bath when he grabbed me. He...he kissed me then he...but then you came back.” He looks up at Rodney. “Thank you for coming back.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t home sooner. I had to talk myself into killing the hare.”
John smiles weakly. “ So you smashed its skull in? It’s a little more bloodthirsty than I expected of you but it worked.”
“It was a dumb mistake. It’s just that I kill the fish that way so...”
“Yeah, transferrable skills. It’s something I like about you. You can take your knowledge and apply it elsewhere. You’re not like most scientists; experts in their field but no imagination. And now you’ve learned how messy it is to smash the head of a hare with a rock, next time you’ll try the neck-snapping method.”
They call it a draw after a few more hands, both of them feeling sleepy from the stress of the day and the alcohol. When they stumble upstairs to bed, Rodney’s relieved that John gets in next to him as normal. He was worried John might pull away from him, withdraw into himself and get torn up from the inside out by his emotions but he’s laying them bare for Rodney to see and it’s humbling. It’s comfortable in the bed, under blankets with knees touching, enough that they both start to relax.
Then, inexplicably, Rodney starts to cry.
“Oh god, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have spent so long psyching myself up to kill the damned hare. I should never have gone without you, I should-”
John cradles his face in his hands, brushing the tears away with his thumbs. “Rodney, no-”
“I knew there was someone sneaking around. I knew it. I should have made you keep the gun. I shouldn’t have taken it.”
“No, I fucked up John and you got hurt and I’m so sorry.”
“And now you’re the one taking care of me.”
“We’re taking care of each other.”
Rodney doesn’t say anything. What can he say to that? He’s not holding up his end of the bargain.
“Rodney. We’ve been taking care of each other since we crashed here. This is more of the same.”
John presses his mouth to Rodney’s temple. It’s the softest, sweetest kiss Rodney’s ever felt, genuine affection radiating from the place where John's lips meet Rodney’s face, and he idly hopes there’ll be another kiss at some point as he falls asleep.
When John wakes up in the night, Rodney strokes his back through his t-shirt, long strokes up and down, over and over. He tells him it’s all okay, go back to sleep, they’re safe. “I’m right here, John.”
This is the chapter with the attempted rape scene and secondary character death.
John is attacked and held down by someone, Rodney comes to the rescue and kills them. It's short and non-graphic, but if you want to skip it I won't hold it against you. It's the first paragraph after the scene when Rodney kills the hare.
Obviously the two of them will have to deal with the aftermath of the attack and the death during the rest of the story so it will be referred to later on in the chapter and the fic.
Chapter 9: John - Lakeside Cabins
When John wakes up Rodney’s curled protectively around his back, hand pressed firmly against his stomach and hot breath tickling his neck. For just a moment he feels warm and safe and content, until the events of the previous day spill into the forefront of his mind and he starts to panic. Rodney wakes up and mumbles soothing words, stroking his arms and chest, trying to push the fear out of his body with strong hands and gentle reassurance. How ridiculous it is; nothing really happened, he’s not hurt, but he’s left feeling hollow and empty, craving both the safety of his mother’s arms and the reassuring weight of his Beretta M9. He can barely hear Rodney’s words over the thumping of his pulse in his ears and the short, sharp breaths he sucks in. His brain jumbles every thought into one another and he suddenly finds himself downstairs, kneeling in the corner of the room, vomiting the bitter contents of his empty stomach onto the hardwood floor. Rodney wraps a blanket around his shoulders and fetches a mug of water and a ragged cloth. He cleans up the bile while John rinses his mouth out and spits into the toilet, sitting on the floor with his head resting against the cistern.
“Sorry,” says John when Rodney comes into the bathroom. “I don’t know what just happened.”
“It looked an awful lot like an anxiety attack,” says Rodney, not unkindly.
But it can’t be. He’s military. He’s been screened for that kind of thing – freaking out and throwing up isn’t the kind of thing he does. He’s served in warzones for god’s sake. He’s seen all kinds of horrible shit and done worse and has never, ever, not once vomited over it. Not even when he was captured and beaten and tortured and starved, not even when they set the dogs on Holland and-
“Hey, Woah, it’s okay,” soothes Rodney and John realises he was speaking out loud.
He clutches the blanket around his neck. “I...can’t...”
“Let’s go sit down and have some of that hippie tea.”
Rodney takes him by the hand and guides him to sit at the counter, then boils up some snow on the stove and pours it into mugs over the herbal tea bags from the pantry. The tea smells like mint but tastes like green. John holds the cup in both hands, leeching the heat from it into his cold fingers.
“So...you know you can tell me anything,” says Rodney, settling down across from him. “I mean, you don’t have to, but if you want to you can.”
“I’m not good at talking about things.”
“No, me neither. My therapist hates me.”
“You have a therapist?”
“I had a thing...she called it a nervous breakdown.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“It wasn’t. But talking to Doctor Heightmeyer has been good for me. I fire the TAs far less than I used to, which is good because it means I don’t have to apologise and re-hire them after.”
That makes John laugh. He can just picture Rodney in his office, firing people at random when they interrupt his work. “What do you do? Send flowers?”
“To be honest they don't tend to take the firings all that seriously anymore. I have a reputation of being an unreasonable bastard, but the boost to their career being mentored by me outweighs the habitual terminations. I can’t even remember their names most of the time. I’m, um, not a people person.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“Yes, well, don’t tell anyone. Wouldn’t want the scientific community to think I was becoming a soft touch.”
“You mean you don't want anyone to get to know you like I do,” corrects John.
Rodney makes a noncommittal sound and sips his tea. “Tell me about Holland. I’m assuming it’s a person and not a country.”
“Lyle Holland, he was my buddy. We served together in Afghanistan.”
“You were close?”
“Yeah. We were team.”
“Tell me about him.”
John tells him everything he can remember about Lyle. How he would whistle show tunes when idle. His love of baseball, faith in God, and unabashed adoration of his wife, Ellen. How they would race their F-16s and John always let him win. Once he starts talking, he can’t stop. He goes on to how Lyle was gunned down in Afghanistan and how he tried to rescue him but they were both captured by the Taliban and held for a month. Lyle didn’t make it and John got a black mark for the unsanctioned rescue attempt, even after being held prisoner, because leave no man behind is just words to the brass. He was given two options; honourable discharge or a dead-end posting. John didn’t want to lose the sky so he took the posting and ended up flying out of Thule. “I like it. Just me and my bird most of the time. I still write Ellen at Christmas. She’s the only person I get a card from every year. When she doesn’t get a letter from me this year, she’s gonna assume the worst.”
“We’ll make it up to her when we get home, okay?” says Rodney. “I’ll send her a letter too, explaining where we were and how you saved my life and taught me how to kill bunnies, everything you told me about her husband and what a good man he must have been.”
“Ellen would love that. Fair warning though, she sends letters and care packages to airmen and women with no family of their own. She’ll probably send you some hand-knitted socks.”
“Who doesn’t love hand-knitted socks? It...it must be hard losing someone you love like that.”
John feels the familiar mix of guilt and shame wash over him. “I wasn’t allowed to tell her what happened, she doesn’t know how bad it was.”
Rodney frowns, the corner of his mouth pulling down and his brow furrowing. “I think I’d want to know.”
“No matter how awful.”
“She’s doing good though. She remarried and her kid’s in school now.”
“And you are still alive, still flying. I think your friend Lyle would be proud of you.”
John doesn’t know what to say to that, but he’d like to think it’s true. “I don’t know why I told you all that.”
“It was on your mind.”
“I miss him sometimes, but I don’t think of him that much anymore.”
Rodney fiddles with his mug, spinning it round on the counter. “Heightmeyer says all your trauma lives together in the same part of your brain. It’s a soft science so most of it’s questionable, but that’s quite possibly true.”
“Yesterday was...I mean...I’m okay. I’m not...traumatised.”
Rodney looks up at him, his gaze so piercing that John feels stripped down to his component parts. It’s unnerving, being the subject of Rodney’s full attention. “You think it wasn’t bad enough to count?”
There’s a pause while Rodney gathers his thoughts. “You were vulnerable and afraid and at his mercy. It counts. Doesn’t matter what didn’t happen; it’s about what could have happened as much as what did.”
“Rodney.” John licks his lips. “I’m fine.”
Rodney rolls his eyes and gestures at John with his mug. “You’re about as fine as your president is smart, which is to say not at all.”
John laughs at that, it’s such a Rodney comment. Lyle would have liked that. “You’re lucky I didn’t vote for him.”
“Of course you didn’t you’re not a moron.”
They finish their tea, get washed and dressed, and stock the fires up. The woodpile is getting low again. They’re going to need to spend a lot of the daylight and twilight they have left cutting up fallen branches before the Polar Night kicks in – using a hacksaw in perpetual darkness isn’t going to be a safe option – and Rodney wants to do a supply run to some of the locations close by. They decide to do a loop of the lake today, visit the hunting cabins and bring back anything they find. They can do a run to the logging camp tomorrow, and if the weather’s decent they can set off in the dark and make it there by daylight. They won't be able to bring back much wood but they might find some decent tools they can use closer to home.
Rodney locks up as they leave and tucks they key into an inside pocket for safekeeping. They’re bundled up warm and though the sun hasn’t risen yet, the twilight is bright enough to see where they are going. John has the rifle loaded and loose in his arms, and Rodney is dragging the sled behind them by its rope. It’s still and quiet out, there’s no breeze to speak of and the trees are motionless, silhouetting against the glow on the horizon.
They make a bee-line towards the first set of cabins as best they can in the low light conditions, footsteps quiet but the sled scraping noisily across the ice. Rodney reassures John, again, that the ice is more than thick enough to hold their weight and neither of them is going to slip under the frozen surface and drown.
“-especially considering that there are permanent fishing huts bolted onto it. Stop being an idiot please.”
John does his best to be stoic, but he’s been trapped under ice before and that kind of fear memory isn’t easily ignored. He’s shared a hell of a lot with Rodney this morning, he’s not going to burden the man with anything else if he can help it, so he puts one foot in front of the other and keeps reminding himself of the time they’re saving by cutting across rather than following the shoreline. They can’t afford to waste daylight. Rodney is talking non-stop, a running commentary on everything from the freezing points of fresh versus salt water (“...in Celsius if you please, we’re not Neanderthals...”), to Doctor Zelenka’s not-too-moronic design for the new solar panels in the Hubble Telescope retrofit due next year (“...at a fraction of the cost of a complete replacement...”). When he segues into the horrifying gestation method of the Surinam Toad (“...the eggs burrow into the soft tissue of the mother’s back like some kind of avant-garde honeycomb full of maggots, it’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen...”), John finally get a clue; he’s filling the silence, and he’s doing it to keep them both safe from wayward thoughts. And as the sun rises and Rodney pushes a little ahead, he sees a tell-tale stain on the slats of the sled and it clicks. Rodney killed a man yesterday.
Rodney looks back and scowls as he falls behind a little. “Keep up!”
“I’m coming. Keep your pants on.”
The cabins come into view up on the snowy bank. All three of them have become dilapidated in the absence of human activity. Like the Hydro Dam there are broken windows and open doors. Animals nest in the rafters and under furniture. Rodney takes the first cabin and assigns John the second.
“Grab anything that might be useful and anything else you’re not sure about,” says Rodney as they part ways. So John boxes up the books and the tins of food, the sleeping bag and the socks from the drawer. There’s a lot more left behind than he expected, the evacuation must have happened in a rush. A child’s doll sits on one of the beds and a Rosary spills over a windowsill. John pockets the rosary just in case they find another body somewhere. It’s been a long time since he held one and it brings to mind the day of his communion, aged fourteen, back when he was still able to believe in the possibility of a god and a plan, of good triumphing over evil. It wasn’t long after that he lost his mom and turned his back on the teachings his father and brother clung to, so steadfast in their faith that even his mother’s suffering couldn’t break it.
Rodney walks in just as he finishes filling the box. “There wasn’t much in the other cabin,” he says. “I’ll give you a hand with the next.”
The third cabin was packed up for the winter; the furniture is covered in plastic sheeting that they fold and store on the sled but the drawers and cupboards are empty, so they set off to the next set of cabins further East. John wants desperately to ask Rodney if he’s okay, but he doesn’t know how. He remembers his own first kill (God he hopes Rodney's first is his last). It was quick and clean, a bullet to the head of a man whose face he can’t even remember anymore, a body he could just leave behind to be collected by the enemy in the wake of the destruction of the combined military forces of the USA. But Rodney...god he killed a man with a single, bloody blow to the head then carried him off into the forest. It didn’t escape John’s notice that Rodney had to wash blood off of his jacket this morning, no way was it all from the hare. He wonders idly where the body is now, if he found some way to bury it or hide it or set it alight. No, he couldn’t have; he must have left it somewhere to be eaten by wild animals. Rodney’s not the kind of man who could tamper with a body. He isn’t really the kind of man who could kill another man...but he did, he had to. How is he so calm about all this?
“Am I what?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course I’m not alright. I’m stuck on a frozen island in the middle of nowhere with no way off, no computing or lab equipment of any kind, no minions, no electricity, no readily available convenience foods, and no Star Trek. I’m about as far from alright as I can get. I even miss arguing with deGrasse Tyson and Zelenka.”
“That’s not quite what I meant.”
“Well, what did you mean?”
Rodney huffs and turns away, dragging the sled in earnest. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You killed a guy.”
“Oh. Yes, I did do that. But he had it coming, so.”
“Just like that?”
“Rodney, it’s a big deal.”
“ No it isn’t. It’s probably a big deal when you’re sent to a foreign country by a President you didn’t vote for to kill a bunch of nameless people that want to be left alone just because some rich assholes want someone else's oil, but what happened yesterday was necessary to our survival. So, yes. I’m alright.”
“If you’re sure...”
“You’re important John. Not just because you’re useful. You’re my friend and you’re important and if someone else tries to hurt you I will kill them too.”
That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to John and it’s all he can do not to smile about it. He drops the subject for now, but he knows the conversation isn’t really over. Rodney’s just not there yet.
They luck out at the next location. Three bottles of alcohol, two fully equipped medkits and some boxes of ammo for the rifle. These are the cabins of the serious hunters, the ones who stay all season and live off the land. Rodney dashes from cabin to cabin, collecting food and clothing while John boxes up some equipment; ropes and a gun cleaning kit and a real fishing rod. Displayed on the wall of the next cabin he finds an honest-to-god hunting bow and a quiver of arrows. It's a thing of beauty and he shouts Rodney to come look as he’s whizzing past outside.
“Bow and arrows? How archaic.”
“Yes, but Rodney! Reusable. Ammunition.”
Rodney’s eyes widen and he lets out an enthusiastic little “Oh!”, rattling the box he’s holding as he steps from foot to foot excitedly. “So, no more shooting lessons?”
“Oh, no, plenty more shooting lessons. But also archery lessons.”
Rodney’s crestfallen expression betrays his disappointment.
By the time they’re done with this location the sled is getting a little heavy. John suggests splitting the rope in two and dragging it together. Rodney agrees reluctantly , because it means John won’t have the gun ready in case of bears, but it’s still light out and they can see for miles. If the bear comes back it will stand out like a sore thumb against the ice.
According to the map in the camp office, there’s only one cabin left on the Easternmost shore of the lake. As it comes into view it’s obvious that this one is different to the others. It’s has signs of permanent residence; plant boxes by the front door with rosehips growing in them, outdoor storage with a snowmobile, lined curtains visible through the glass and a bench tucked under the front window. Everything about this cabin screams home. And it looks whole and in one piece, enough that John actually knocks on the door before he enters because it’s a very real possibility that there’s someone still living there. No one answers so he pushes open the door and peers inside, and he’s hit be a feeling of déjà vu. It’s abandoned, but like the lookout tower and the train it’s a snapshot of a moment in time. A coffee mug on the table next to an open book, some laundry is hung out over a fireplace to dry, odds and ends litter the mantle and the windowsills, photos and personal trinkets, signs of a life.
Rodney sits down at the table and picks up the book. “It’s a handwritten and illustrated book on local plants and their uses.” He turns a page. “Did you know Rosehip tea is a natural painkiller?”
“I do now.”
Rodney flips to the front cover. “Oh my god, David Parrish, Katie Brown. They’re world-class botanists. Fell off the radar a few years back, I had no idea they were in Northern Canada. If they wrote this book it’s the real deal, not just a collection of old wives' tales.”
“There’s a lot of knowledge in local anecdotes.” If John’s a little abrasive it’s because of years of his superiors looking down on native knowledge in Afghanistan; knowledge that saved his life and those of his brothers in arms a number of times. He’s annoyed to hear that kind of attitude from Rodney too.
“ Of course there is, all legends have a root in truth, but Peter and Katie would have taken those anecdotes and proved them scientifically. It’s a little strange that they left this behind, this is years of work.”
John has an awful thought. “You don’t think those bodies in the cave-”
“Oh. No. David isn't the type to grow dreads and Katie is a redhead. Besides, I would have recognised them, even as frozen as they were. We worked on the- uh...I mean...we worked on a project together years ago.” He stands up and slides the book into a pocket. “We should take the plants outside with us.”
“At some point we’ll run out of Tylenol and ibuprofen. A replenishable supply of analgesics isn’t something to be sniffed at, even a botanical one.”
They cut across the middle of the lake to get back to the camp office. The sled is heavy, even between the two of them, but neither of them can think of anything they’re willing to forgo so they push on, dragging the weight behind them with great effort. The rosehip plants fall off, twice, until Rodney wraps them in a sleeping bag and stuffs them down between the boxes. Everything else stays secure for the whole journey and John is too tired to worry about plunging into the lake. Half way across they spot a handful of crows circling above something on the ice. As they draw close they realise it’s a deer carcass; its abdomen splayed open, ribs exposed and guts spilling out. John waits for Rodney to comment but he says nothing, just lets go of the sled and inspects the remains.
“Looks like wolves killed it,” says John.
“How can you tell?” asks Rodney, turning to look at him.
“It’s been torn apart by multiple smaller animals rather than one big one. Seen similar corpses in Afghanistan, killed by hyenas and jackals.”
“Oh God. Holland? Oh, shit, sorry, I shouldn’t have asked that. It’s just that you said something this morning and it’s been on my mind and-”
“Holland was...dogs. Pack of Kuchis. They kept them starving. Not the dogs’ fault.”
Rodney looks back at the deer. “It sucks to be here, but at least it isn’t a warzone.”
“Isn’t it? We’re fighting out here, just not people with guns.”
“Don’t forget the oil.”
John kicks at the deer’s hind leg. “Think we can salvage any of this?”
“What?! Are you nuts?! I’m not eating anything a wolf has chewed.”
“Seriously, John, we’re not that desperate...are we?”
“I’m kidding Rodney. Your face!”
The office is still warm when they get back, just as the sun falls below the horizon. They take their salvage indoors and sort through it while they eat dinner – warmed up peaches drizzled in honey. When Rodney makes dinner it’s always homely, he has a knack for making decadent meals out of the utilitarian pantry. Rodney gathers all the books and puts them away in alphabetical order by author. John thinks it’s all very domestic, the two of them in a cabin with a roaring fire and a bunch of books. It’s been a very long time since he was anywhere that wasn’t a military base and here he is stranded on an arctic island with another man, thinking about bookshelves. What would Rodney think if he told him he felt more welcome here than his father’s mansion? That even when he lived with Nancy, home was a foreign concept? But maybe it’s just as much the company as the place. Rodney brings out the best in him, makes him feel like talking and laughing and it’s been such a long time since he had a friend, since Holland died and all he had left were Christmas cards from his buddy’s widow and a photograph of his mother.
It feels so natural when Rodney brushes past him to grab his wrist and pull him into a suffocating hug, feel both their hearts beating in tandem as Rodney squeezes back. They’ve been snuggling in bed but neither of them has acknowledged it in the light of day and it feels good to do this, to connect physically with Rodney in a time and place that neither of them can deny it. When they pull back they’re reluctant to part, hands gripping onto arms and fingers digging into flesh. Rodney’s eyes are closed and his breath is ragged with something tangible, something John can feel thudding around his own body. He leans in and presses his lips to Rodney’s, sliding his arms around his back and pulling him closer until there is no space left between them and they are breathing into each other's mouths, warm and rapid, lips gently sliding over each other.
Rodney pulls back and sucks in a breath to speak. John quickly says “I don’t wanna talk about it” and Rodney just nods and kisses him once more, chastely, then pulls away and finds a home in the pantry for the foraged food, meticulously checking labels and dates. They’re still not talking about it when they get into bed, but John wraps his arms around Rodney, and when Rodney puts his head on John’s chest, it feels like home.
Chapter 10: Rodney - Logging Camp
I promise nothing bad will happen to the dog.
"Have you seen the can opener?” asks Rodney. “I can’t find it.”
“Have you looked in the pantry?”
“Yes, of course I've looked in the pantry. It’s not there.”
“It’ll turn up.”
“What do you mean it’ll turn up? I need it now! How am I supposed to make breakfast if I can’t open the can?”
John saunters over to the pantry, grabs a tin of pork’n’beans and puts it down on the counter, then flicks his boot knife out and slams it down into the top of the tin. “Like so...” he says as he saws his knife around the edge. It’s the hottest, most manly thing Rodney has seen in his life, and much like a romance novel heroine, he feels the need to sit down.
“Uh, Rodney? Are you okay?” asks John, concern permeating his voice.
“Yes, yes, fine.” Oh god, he’s so not fine. He’s still reeling from the kiss yesterday, and now John’s doing all these sexy, manly things and he can’t focus. “Is it hot in here?”
“I’ll turn down the stove.”
The thing is, Rodney’s never been kissed by a man before. He’s never wanted to be kissed by a man before. He didn’t know being attracted to a man was an option for him. If he’s honest he hasn't been all that attracted to many women either, but he’s spent the past nine nights in John’s arms and he was already feeling something, he’s just glad he has a name for it now. He was starting to get confused. John said he doesn’t want to talk about it, but it’s all Rodney can think about. It’s taken residence in the pit of his belly where it flutters and pulsates and shoots up into his chest, making his heart race and his breath quicken. He takes comfort in knowing that John is feeling something too, even if he won't verbalise it, but that doesn’t stop his heart skipping whenever John so much as breathes in his direction.
John shoves a glass of warm water into Rodney's hands and watches closely until he drinks the whole thing. “Feeling better?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“You had me worried for a minute there. You don’t have any health issues I should know about, do you?”
“Not really. I mean, I have hypoglycaemia, but it’s manageable.”
John squeezes his shoulder. “Okay, let's get some food into you, then we’ll head out to the logging camp.”
The derailed train is creepy in the moonlight. Rodney is incredibly freaked out as they pass it, all those dark windows on the passenger car that anyone could be watching from unseen, but John’s military Spidey senses don’t ping so he doesn't make a thing of it, just pulls the sled behind him and tries not to jump at every little noise. He yelps when one of the carriages creaks but thinks he manages to pass it off as a cough when John turns around. The last time they passed this way it was daytime and everything feels more sinister in the dark. He really wanted to stay in bed this morning (Is it morning? Or is it still the middle of the night?) where he was warm and comfy and woke up to John draped over him, hand lazily rubbing his chest and stomach. Rodney’s physical reaction had been immediate and somewhat mortifying, but if John noticed he didn’t say anything, just squeezes him tightly and got up to make coffee. How nice it would be to have stayed there. Maybe John would have kissed him again.
It's cold and dark and Rodney’s body still aches from all the sled pulling yesterday, but when John offers to swap he refuses. No way is he going to be the one carrying the rifle. What if someone comes running out of the tree line? He can takedown stationary tin cans with an accuracy rating of 33.33%, but that isn't going to translate well to a moving target. No, Rodney knows his strengths and weaknesses and he tells John as much, who just shrugs and says the offer still stands. Rodney can’t fathom why John is so laid back when they're sitting ducks out here, especially after what happened. Who’s to say there was only one perpetrator with nefarious intent on the island? There could be more. There could be an entire sect of pale-faced, Beelzebub-worshipping, pseudo-pagans who engage in ritualistic rape and cannibalism by moonlight just waiting in the underbrush for unsuspecting helicopter-crash-survivors to come along. No, best that John has the rifle. If there’s one thing Rodney has learned in his life it’s that military men plus guns equals safety. At least, when said men are on your side.
John stops them as twilight dawns and points into the treeline ahead. “I think we should take a shortcut through the trees.”
“Probably not a good idea,” says Rodney. “We could get lost in the forest, especially in the dark.”
“I have a map and a compass and I know how to use them,” confided John with an air of amusement.
“I have no doubt that you possess exceptional orienteering skills, what with you being military and presumably a boy scout in your youth, but this is unfamiliar terrain in extremely poor lighting conditions and very low temperatures. This isn’t the Midwest where you can lose yourself in the ass-end of nowhere but still find a diner serving bacon and eggs. This is Northern, rural Canada. When people get lost here, they die.”
“C’mon Rodney, where’s your sense of adventure?”
“I left it in the tree after I fell out of the sky. That was enough excitement for one lifetime thank you. My heart can't take any more.”
“Look, it’s another three kilometers or so. According to the map, we can cut that down to one if we go through the forest instead. The earlier we get there the more daylight we’ll have to explore and head back home.”
“I’m going to regret this.”
“That’s the spirit!”
So they head through the trees, swerving around trunks, John checking his compass periodically and helping to lift the sled over roots when it gets caught. If he’s honest with himself, Rodney knew they’d be taking the shortcut as soon and John started whining. But it doesn’t feel like a shortcut. They don’t have any way to tell the time and it feels like they’ve been walking forever through the forest and getting nowhere fast.
“I think we passed that tree already.”
“We’re almost there.”
“You said that thirty trees ago.”
“I think it’s just over this hill.”
“You said that as well.”
They crest a hill as the sun breaches the horizon and they come to the edge of a clearing. Dead tree stumps as far as the eye can see and piles of cut logs awaiting collection. If the machinery worked it’d be a godsend, all that wood just waiting to be sawn and split. There’s a couple of work trailers on the far side so they head towards them. As they walk out in the open, it starts to snow and Rodney pulls his hood up over his hat to keep it dry.
“You think we should relocate?” asks Rodney. “Move all our stuff to one of the trailers here?”
“There’s a hell of a lot of cut wood...”
“It’d solve our polar-night-wood problem.”
“But it would create a polar-night-food problem. The lake is our safest bet for replenishable food when we lose daylight and it’s possible to survive without a fire, but not without food. We’d have to live off the tinned stuff and I’d rather that didn’t run out so quickly.”
“Yeah, good point.”
“Besides, there’s plenty of fallen branches close to the office. If we can find some decent saws and a couple of axes we should be able to stock up on enough wood for a few months in the daylight we have left.”
“Maybe we could-”
A loud bark echoes across the clearing and a massive mound of white and grey fur comes tumbling down the hilly bank towards them.
“OH MY GOD, A WOLF!” shouts Rodney and he jumps behind John in a blind panic. “What are you waiting for?! Shoot it!”
John laughs and steps aside. “Rodney, it’s not a wolf! It’s a dog!”
The not-wolf comes bounding up to them and jumps up on its hind legs, front paws landing on Rodney’s shoulders. Rodney’s still panicking as the dog licks his face with its soggy tongue then burrows its nose under his scarf and into his neck. He pushes the dog back down to the ground and it spins around in a circle and sits down.
“She’s a Canadian Inuit Dog,” says John. He scratches the dog’s neck with his gloved fingers. “Hello girl, are you happy to see us?”
Rodney takes one look at John and knows he’s in for a world of trouble. “Oh. We’re gonna be taking her home, aren’t we? ”
“Yup. Unless her owner turns up, but I’m guessing...” John trails off as he fiddles with the dog’s collar.
“Think she got left behind?”
“ Mmm , probably. Her name is Miska.”
“How the hell do you know that?!”
“Nametag on her collar.”
Rodney sighs. It’s not like they could leave her out here on her own, even if John wasn’t enamoured with her. “Okay then. Let’s go check out the trailers. Maybe she can help pull the sled.”
They hit the jackpot in the first trailer they check out. It’s a workshop. Four walls lined with every kind of saw, hatchet and axe imaginable. There are chainsaws sitting on a table in the middle of the room and John tries a few of them out but it’s no surprise to anyone when none of them start up. John insists they take as many hacksaws and axes as they can carry, as well as a couple of two-man saws and hatchets, but he makes Rodney try out various sizes and weights before he commits to any of them. Rodney isn’t sure what the qualifying criteria is so he leaves it to John to choose. He learned how to use an axe with Aunt Bey, remembers the bone-deep ache of his chest and arm muscles and how well he slept after a day of chopping firewood, but he no longer has the energy of youth and the thought of spending days on end building a log pile is misery-inducing. Still, needs must, and Rodney isn’t the kind of man to balk at the idea of hard work, he just wishes there was something they needed to do that used brain, not brawn.
Miska chases her tail as they load up the sled and tie everything down, snow falling silently around them. Even Rodney has to admit that she’s cute. He wipes his face as John makes one last, sullen, attempt to get a chainsaw to work, secretly glad they don’t because he just can’t stop picturing John accidentally sawing through a leg and bleeding out on the snow every time he picks one up. Each dangerous thing that John doesn’t get to do is a plus in Rodney’s book because the man is a walking hazard magnet, starting with his gravity-defying hair and ending in the long, drawn-out sigh he makes as he finally puts down the last chainsaw and comes outside.
“Are you done?” asks Rodney.
“Yeah,” replies John, and, oh God, he’s pouting. His bottom lip is slung out in defiance of his age and his shoulders are slumped in a way that can only be described as the onset of a teenage tantrum. Desperate to avert this oncoming sulk, Rodney does the only thing he can think of: he grabs John's shoulders and pulls him into a clumsy hug. John burrows his face in Rodney’s neck and sighs again. “It would be so much easier with a chainsaw.”
“Yes. Yes, it would. But I’m happy that you won’t lose a limb and, hey, we got a dog so-”
John grabs Rodney’s head and kisses him, hard, and Rodney forgets what he was going to say and clings on to John through multiple layers of winter clothing. When they part, their faces are flushed with something other than the cold.
“Are we still not talking about it?” asks Rodney.
“It’s just that...eh...well. Let’s, um, let’s check out the other trailer.”
They let go of each other as Miska barks for attention, which she gets from John in the form of a neck scratch. Rodney opens the door to the second trailer and stops dead. On the camp bed against the wall is a person, and Rodney’s had enough experience with bodies recently to know they’re dead, even if they’re not covered in snow. Miska comes through and jumps up on the bed, nudging the body with her nose and whining, and John comes up behind Rodney and squeezes his shoulder.
“You okay buddy?”
“Maybe I should take this one. Why don’t you and Miska play outside?”
So Rodney finds a stick and throws it through the snow for Miska to chase, absolutely not thinking about the body in the trailer as John flits in and out, boxing things up and tying them to the sled for safekeeping. When he finally comes out for the last time he pulls the door closed and Miska paws at it and whines again.
John pets her head. “Sorry girl, he’s long gone. But you knew that, didn’t you?” She looks up at him quietly and something passes between them, something that Rodney can’t quite understand but he thinks that maybe Miska just took ownership of them because she jumps up on John and barks, then bounds over to Rodney and does it to him. He accepts the face full of slobber, gracefully this time, before he tells her to “get down you mangy mutt, I already bathed today”. This sets John off laughing and the ridiculous sound makes Rodney smile. Today is a good day.
Today is absolutely not a good day. Today is a terrible day. A few minutes down the road the snow started to fall faster and heavier, reducing visibility to a couple of meters and blocking out most of the daylight. John turned them around, back towards the logging camp and Rodney is freezing his ass off while he waits, patiently, for John to remove the body from the trailer. He won’t let Rodney help, insisted that he stay inside the workshop with Miska while he takes care of it and it’s been an awfully long time. Rodney is starting to worry that John has gotten lost in the snowstorm when he finally comes back, noisily banging the door wide open and calling them into the other trailer. Miska rushes ahead and slips inside, she's sitting on the bed when they finally close the door.
It’s cold and cramped and miserable in here, not at all like the camp office that they keep warm and inviting. John lights a couple of candles and makes a start on getting the stove going, talking away while he stacks up the wood.
“...and he had a broken leg, a compound fracture. I don’t know how he managed to get back to the trailer with it...”
Rodney doesn’t want to know; he’s glad he didn’t have to handle this body.
“...but I’m not sure if he died of shock or sepsis...”
Christ, imagine dying alone in a trailer with a broken leg after everyone else has evacuated the island.
“...his ID. His name was P eter Grodin . He must have been some kind of immigrant worker...”
God, he wasn’t even from here. Not just left behind, forgotten. No one even noticed he wasn’t with them when they left.
“...how long Miska’s been out there alone because-”
“STOP. Please. Stop. I can’t-” Rodney heaves and has just enough time to grab a box before he throws up, his stomach emptying painfully, burning his throat. John unzips Rodney’s jacket to help him breathe and pulls him into his arms, rocking him as he rides out the nausea and the panic .
“... s’okay buddy, everything’s okay...just gonna wait out the blizzard then we’ll go home...Miska’s gonna love the office...”
“John, I can't-”
“I know, I know, just breathe, deep breath in...and out....in...and out...”
Rodney starts to sob, he can’t hold it back. He’s always been someone who cried when stressed, his dad used to call him a cry-baby when he was little, and here he is crying in John’s arms, again, like he’s a kid, and this is going to ruin this thing that they have between them and-
“I killed him, I killed him, I killed him and I didn’t care and then I left him in the snow to get eaten by wolves. Oh, God. W hat have I done? And now I’m ruining this and it’s the worst place I’ve ever been but you are the best thing that ever happened to me and-”
“ Shhh , nothing’s ruined. We’re good, okay?”
John kisses his temple and Miska drops her head into his lap. He’s not used to this, to being cared for and comforted. Even Aunt Bey wasn’t the cuddling type. He’s gone his whole life needing this and not having it. Stealing hugs from his little sister, the only one who greeted him with open arms and joy on her face, but needing it from his parents who sent them off to boarding school and palmed them off to relatives whenever possible. They barely tolerated their children's presence when they couldn’t be rid of them, preferring to revel in their own hatred of each other and disappointment that the world around them didn’t cater to their every whim. Rodney doesn’t know what to do with this, doesn’t know how to accept it, but can’t bear the thought of losing it.
John rocks them and hums (then sings) Johnny Cash; even Rodney can recognise the opening verse of I Walk the Line. Rodney closes his eyes and hangs onto John’s off-key voice as he runs his fingers through Miska’s fur. When he opens his eyes again he’s lying under the covers in the bed and John’s sawing the legs off a wooden chair and throwing the pieces into the fire. John doesn’t notice that he’s awake and Rodney is content just to watch him work for a while before he has to face the aftermath of what looks to be his own anxiety attack. It’s been a while since he had one, he’s a little overdue all things considered.
John’s head whips around. “Hey, sleepyhead. How are you feeling?” he asks.
“Stupid,” replies Rodney.
“I’m sorry I freaked out.” God, he wants to h ide under the covers.
John dismisses his apology with a raised brow and a head tilt . “It was your turn. Anyway, I’ve been kind of waiting for it to happen.”
“You killed a guy. It’s part of the process.”
John crawls over to Rodney on his knees. “You’re officially a badass now that you’ve thrown up over it.”
Rodney doubts that but doesn’t argue. “What’s going to happen when we get home?”
“What do you mean?”
“Am I going to go to prison?”
“What? No!” John looks horrified at the idea. “We’re not going to tell anyone what happened. Ever.” It’s both a promise and a warning, and Rodney takes comfort in that. John takes something out of his pocket, a shiny sliver of silver foil and hands it to Rodney. It’s a piece of gum.
“Oh my god, you’ve been holding out on me!”
“It’s just a stick of gum Rodney. I’ve been saving it. For when we really needed it. I think this qualifies. ”
Rodney breaks it in two and hands half back to John, who pops it in his mouth and gets up to sit on the bed.
“ S’warm in here,” says Rodney, stuffing his h a lf into his mouth. “You got the fire going.”
“Yeah, for now. There’s not that much wood so I’ve been burning the furniture. I’ll go out now that you’re awake. Get some real firewood.”
“Is it still snowing?”
“Yeah, and it’s getting dark. We’re gonna have to spend the night.”
Luckily there was some food left in the cabin and Rodney heats up a tin of soup while John chops firewood outside. Miska’s playing in the snow, chasing flakes with her tongue and rolling around on the ground. When they come back in John has snowflakes in his hair and a goofy smile on his face.
“What?” asks Rodney.
“Nothin’,” says John.
“It’s not nothing.”
“ S’just nice.”
“Coming inside from the cold to you cooking dinner.”
Rodney feels a warmth spreading through his body. “Oh...well, that’s just...soup?”
He dishes the hot soup into mugs and empties some warmed - up dog food into a bowl for Miska. They eat sitting on the bed because John sawed up the table and chairs, and Miska curls up on the end when she finishes her dinner. With no chores to do, John brings out the pack of cards he habitually keeps in his jacket pocket.
“Oh, I found another pack in the workshop,” says Rodney, reaching for his own jacket. “I can teach you Bezique!”
“The one with the scandalous affairs?”
“Yes, and the orgies.”
They play till they’re tired, keeping score in the margin of a newspaper. John’s in the lead when they quit but Rodney insists that he’ll catch up next time. “It’s a game of luck, not skill,” he insists.
“Next time we leave the office we should account for the weather in our supplies,” mumbles Rodney into John’s neck. They’re curled up together in the bed, jackets draped over the covers and Miska warming their feet. Rodney can feel John’s smile tugging his hair.
“You wanna carry firewood in our bags?”
“No, of course not. Just food and stuff. Lantern. Coffee.”
“Can’t forget about the coffee. What are you going to do when it runs out?”
“Throw myself off a cliff.”
“You might survive again.”
“Knowing my luck I probably will. Or I’ll die and find out the afterlife’s caffeine-free.”
“Perish the thought.”
“Actually , I was reading the book we found by David and Katie last night. You can make a tea from rosehips or reishi mushrooms, and both grow readily on the island. I guess we’ll have to try them.”
“You don’t like mushrooms?”
“I hate mushrooms. I swear they’re not a real food group. Most mushrooms are poisonous, I take that as a sign not to eat them. And there's the fact that they grow on decaying matter. They’re like the septic tanks of nature.”
Rodney lifts his head. “Wow, you really don’t like them, huh?”
“I really, really don’t.”
“I won’t be making you any reishi tea then.”
“We’ll have to try the rosehip tea though. Think you can get used to that?”
“You know, I’ve recently learned that I can get used to a lot of things.”
“You’re still thinking about him,” says John, rubbing his thumb across Rodney’s knuckles.
Rodney lays his head back down onto the pillow. “Yes.”
“I don’t know what to say to make it easier. I’m glad you killed him. I’m thankful you came back when you did. I’m sorry you had to do it.”
“I’m not sorry I did it, not really, I just...”
“You really left him out in the open to be eaten by wolves?”
“I didn’t know what else to do with him. I just wanted him gone. It’s not like I could have buried him.”
“No, you did good. Nothing else you could have done. I’m sorry you had to do it alone. I should have come with you I was just... ”
“I think it was for the best really.”
When John presses his forehead against his, Rodney closes his eyes and breathes in the scent of him. Is this a desert island thing? Well, a tundra thing...Is it something that ends when they get rescued? Or something that would have happened even if they hadn’t crashed? What would John think of him back in the real world, where the only predators he knows are the lesser scientists waiting to steal his theories and bask in his rightful glory? Where it’s just him, his cat and his Nobel. Not so impressive really. Would John still like him then?
“You’re thinking again,” says John. “ S’loud .”
“Sorry. It’s nothing.”
The blizzard stops some time in the night and they don’t wake until the fire dies down and the heat haemorrhages out of the trailer. Pulling on their outer layers they head outside to see a pristine covering of powdery snow. John can’t contain his excitement; he jumps down from the trailer and throws himself onto the ground, flailing his arms around to make a lopsided snow angel.
“What are you, twelve?” says Rodney.
Miska barks happily and dashes through the snow angel and into the bank where she rolls around in a poor imitation of John, and it’s utterly adorable so Rodney lets John pull him down and they roll around on the snow until Miska ploughs into them too. By the time they dig out the sled and knock the snow off the top, twilight is dawning and they can see their way down the road so they set off, noses cold in the icy breeze and warm hearts beating in their chest.
Chapter 11: John - Bunker
Chapter warning at the end.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Rodney’s quiet on the journey back and John’s giving him some space to think, glad that he’s starting to process what happened. This whole situation is a nightmare but they’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got, and that’s all anyone could ask of them. The sled is heavy, but John doesn’t complain because Rodney finally relented and took a turn with the rifle. John didn’t realise how hard it was going to be, dragging the sled along behind them on his own, especially down train tracks. Rodney clearly has some upper and lower body strength that he doesn’t brag about because John is huffing with the effort and Rodney had made it seem easy. Effortless. John’s thoughts drift to Rodney’s body, his legs strong and sturdy under the layers of thermals and winter trousers, what it would feel like to be tangled up in them. He already knows what it feels like to be held in Rodney’s arms, safe, secure. It’s funny, he’s never been with a guy before, had plenty of offers - who doesn’t in the military – but there were always rumours about him and Lyle and he wonders if there was maybe some truth to them. Perhaps if Lyle had never met Ellen...it’s not something John ever took much notice of, but he’s certainly noticing Rodney now, and Rodney seems to be noticing him back. John said he didn’t want to talk about it, but Rodney’s whole MO is talking things through so maybe that isn’t fair of him. Maybe when they get back they can have some vodka and play some cards and John will try to get some things off his chest. It doesn’t fill him with as much dread as talking with Nancy always did, that’s gotta count for something.
Miska is relaxed and happy, scouting ahead and sauntering back periodically. She seems at ease in their presence, accepting that she belongs with them. Not once has she looked back towards the logging camp. When he was a kid, John’s mum took him to an animal shelter to get a dog. He came home with a pit bull terrier called Nova. His father was furious but John loved her to bits and they were inseparable for the rest of her life. The day they met she jumped up on him like she knew he was her new owner, just as Miska did back at the camp. People always say they choose the dog, but John thinks the dog chooses them. Miska has done well to survive alone for months; she’s clean and healthy, well-fed, and relatively unharmed, but they did notice some scarring to her neck, like she’d been trapped in the jaws of another animal. Probably a wolf, but it’s healed clean and neat and isn’t restricting her range of movement.
“Oh for goodness sake,” snaps Rodney. He yanks the rifle’s strap over his head and holds it out to John. “Look, if anything comes for us the dog will give us plenty of warning. Just take the gun back and we can pull the sled together. I’m sure your reflexes are good enough that dropping a rope isn’t going to slow you down too much.”
John takes back the gun and passes Rodney one of the ropes. “You really hate carrying it that much?”
“I really hate being in charge of something I suck at.”
“You don’t suck, you just need practice. With practice comes mastery.”
Rodney starts pulling and the burden feels instantly lighter. “There isn’t enough daylight left to waste it learning something you can do perfectly well. I’ll leave our corporeal safety in your capable hands. If we’re still stuck here in the spring you can teach me then.”
“I’m gonna hold you to that.”
As it turns out, Miska doesn’t growl the whole journey back and nothing comes out of the woods to get them. They stop after the train to check the snares but there’s only a couple of bloody patches. They’ve not checked them since the attack so it’s their own fault they’re missing out. They reset them and carry on, making it back to the office when the sun peaks in the sky. Miska inspects the office with the air of a dog who’s marking her territory (but thankfully doesn’t actually urinate on anything). She sniffs out the corners of the room and settles in front of the burned-out stove like she knows that’s where the warmest place is going to be. She’s in the way when Rodney tries to set the fire, and it’s really sweet how he doesn’t tell her to move, just leans over her to empty out the ashes. John takes pity on him and calls her outside while he unpacks the sled and brings in their bounty. They found some really good tools, in great condition despite being left in a freezing cold cabin for months, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot easier to cut and collect firewood now that they’re not limited to a rusty hacksaw.
They have rapidly diminishing daytime; the first day of November will be the first day with no daylight hours at all at this latitude, and they can expect twelve whole weeks of nothing but twilight and night time. John’s used to it, having been stationed at Thule for a few years now, and Rodney’s obviously spent some time in Northern Canada but John needs to be sure he can cope.
“Do you ever get...I don’t know...stressed out in the winter?”
“Are you asking me if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder?”
“No. That’s one neurosis that I managed to skip. Why? Do you?”
“No. Kinda hate the endless summer though.”
“You would. I guess we should make the most of this daylight and get started on the log pile.”
“We don’t have to go far. There’s some fallen branches on the hill up the back.”
They leave the fire open to warm up the office and cart the sled and a couple of hacksaws up the back just into the treeline. Miska sniffs around and wanders off while they start sawing the thick fallen branches on the ground into burnable logs and stack them on the sled. Rodney has a system to stop them from falling off, some kind of overlapping brick pattern. When John keeps getting it wrong, Rodney bans him from stacking and relegates him to fetching. “Honestly, it’s basic physics, you’d think a pilot with a masters degree would know how to offset logs...”. They make quick work between the two of them, a lot faster than John could do on his own and he again marvels at the hidden strength Rodney’s body possesses.
They finish up as it starts to get dark, satisfied with the amount they’ve managed to saw. There’s enough for a week if they only burn the main stove downstairs. John suggests going without the upstairs stove for the night, see if they stay warm enough; that’ll reduce the amount of wood they’d need to burn through by a third. Rodney agrees, if only to cut down the amount of sawing and chopping they’ll have to do for the next few weeks. As they pull the heavily laden sled back down the hill to the office, Miska runs up on them and barks, then rushes off towards the lake.
“Miska! Miska! Come back!” shouts John, but she doesn’t come back, just sits and barks at them. He turns to Rodney. “I think she’s sniffed something.”
Rodney sighs as they tuck the sled in behind the office. “Okay, alright, let’s go see what it is then can we have dinner? I’m starving.”
When she’s satisfied that they’re following her, Miska rushes off again, pausing now and then for them to catch up. As they follow she leads them, not to the lake, but up behind a hill on the shore. When she disappears entirely Rodney starts to panic, muttering about the time he lost his cat – it was horrible, HORRIBLE, I couldn’t find her for a whole week, what if she doesn't come back? – but John finds her burrowing underneath some overgrowth. There’s a path behind it that they’ve never noticed before, even in the daylight.
“Do we have to go up there?” moans Rodney. “Can’t it wait till tomorrow?”
“I’ll go. I’ll just have a quick look at whatever she’s found.”
“I’m not waiting on my own, I could get attacked by wildlife.” Rodney sighs, loudly. “Let’s get this over with. She’s probably found some bear droppings or a dead animal. I’m not carrying it home, whatever it is.”
John holds the branches back as Rodney climbs through then follows. The path goes up the hill in a wide curve and when they get to the top they can see both to the other side of the lake and into the upper floor of the camp office.
“Oh, hey, I can see the bedroom from here,” says Rodney with a smile. But John has a more sinister feeling. He kicks around and sure enough, there are signs of a camp under the snow, some empty tins and food wrappers. He almost trips up when his foot gets caught in a strap, but Rodney catches him and bends down to pick it up. “It’s a pair of binoculars....”
John feels sick. How long had he been watching them from here? You can see right into their bedroom window, a direct view to the bed they’ve been sharing. It’s a good vantage point; even if you can’t see the front door, you can see where someone goes if they leave the office in any direction. How long was he camped out here, waiting for Rodney to leave John alone so he could sneak in and attack? Would he have attacked Rodney if John had left that day?
Miska barks for attention. She’s sitting by a frozen mound which turns out to be a pile of dead birds, mutilated, de-feathered and debeaked. This must be what caught her attention. It’s premeditated, ritualistic, like Rodney said.
“This is...” begins Rodney.
“How long did he watch us? From the first night?”
John doesn’t know so he doesn’t answer, just keeps stomping in the snow to see if there are any more surprises. He kicks a tin so hard it bounces off a nearby tree. “Son of a bitch. Who the fuck was he?”
Rodney grabs his arm. “John, this isn’t helping.”
“I want to know who he is,” growls John.
“Yes, yes, of course you do, me too.”
John yanks his arm out of Rodney’s grip. “I’m going to follow this path and see where it leads.”
“Okay, alright, I’ll come with you, but we need to get the rifle and a lantern first. We’re not going to go wandering around in the dark unarmed.”
“Thought you hated guns.”
“No, mostly I hate idiots with guns, and there are rather a lot of them. But you with a gun is fine. Good, even.”
By the time they go to the office and back, leaving Miska safely inside, it’s dark and the moon is reflecting off the snow. It’s a clear sky, bright enough to see, and how obvious is the ‘hidden’ path now that they know where it is? How did they miss that? From the makeshift campsite they follow the path South. Even covered in snow it’s obvious this is a well-worn trail, weaving its way up a hill then down the other side, flanked by forest on one side and the lake on the other. It isn’t immediately obvious where to go when the trail meets the icy edge of the lake again, but Rodney spots a footpath hidden in the trees that snakes uphill behind them. It twists and winds its way up until it opens out in a clearing at the top. Hares are abundant here, hopping around totally oblivious to their presence. There’s a washing line hung between two trees, some clothes hanging up, frozen from the cold and swaying stiffly in the breeze. They must be in the right place. But there’s no trailer or cabin or tent in the clearing, just a hatch tucked up tightly against a rocky overhang covered in icicles.
“Looks like am underground shelter,” says Rodney. John goes to turn the circular handle and open the hatch, but Rodney stops him. “Wait! What if there are people in there?”
“That’s what the gun is for, Rodney.”
“I know but-”
“We didn’t come all this way just to do nothing. I want to know who he is. If there are people in there, they might know him.”
“Okay, just...be careful.”
When John opens the hatch it’s totally dark and he can’t see how far it goes. He steps onto the ladder. “I’m gonna go down. Pass me the lantern?”
Rodney ignites the storm lantern and hands it over. The light wobbles as John climbs down the ladder but he doesn’t have too far to go, just a few meters before the hatch opens up into a well-stocked bunker. No people, just shelves lining the walls, stocked with food and tools. There’s a bed in the middle of the room and a desk up the far end with some communications equipment; radio, telephone, fax machine, computer. When Rodney steps down off the ladder he heads straight for the desk while John hangs back and checks out the shelves. There are some old equipment and storage containers, boxes of MREs and ammunition, all stamped with US military seals. One shelf has climbing gear and cameras and SOP folders decades old. A faded and curled Morse-code poster hangs on what little wall space isn’t covered up.
“Come take a look at this, Rodney, I think this is an old US military bunker.”
“There’s all kinds of useful stuff here, we should take some of this home with us.”
John shines the lamp to where Rodney is pointing at the far wall. There’s a cluster of photographs pinned to it, must be at least fifty, black and white and developed by hand, all with the same subject. John. “Fuck.” There are photos taken from the camp spot they found; images of John through the window undressing or lighting the stove or sleeping in bed with Rodney next to him, only Rodney’s been scratched out or covered up whenever he’s been in the shot. Other photos were taken outside; the clearing with the snares, cutting wood in the forest, and one of him lying on the ground, aiming his rifle at the bear. One photo, pinned in the middle like a centrepiece shows him unconscious in the helicopter, lit up by the fire around him. It’s the kind of picture that would make for a great National Geographic cover, and it makes him feel sick to his stomach.
“John, go back up top. I’ll sort through all this.”
“No. I’m fine,” says John. “I’m gonna go box up some stuff to take back.”
“What should I do with all these?”
John yanks down some half empty boxes of MREs and pours them all into one. If nothing else they’ll have some food supplies from all this. And they can come back tomorrow with the sled, take as much as they can carry. There should be enough to see them through the winter and then some. Rodney’s tearing down the photos from the wall and stuffing them in a bag. When he’s done he sorts through the desk and flips through some folders. John grabs his box of goods and takes it up the ladder. When he comes back down Rodney has something else to show him.
“I found the Yukon Jack.” Rodney holds up the bottle that went missing when they were at the dam. It still has the red bow around the neck. “And these.” He hands over a set of dog tags and a military ID card.
GUIDE, TODD R.
His ID card lists him as a Colonel in MARSOC, but he didn’t look like any marine John has ever served with and the face in the photo isn’t familiar. He’s about to say so when Rodney speaks quietly.
“Are you sure?”
“I can’t remember his face.”
“Huh. That’s interesting. Did you not get a good look or is it cause your brain has blocked it out? Maybe-”
“Oh, sorry. Um...it’s him.”
“You’re not just saying that to make me feel-”’
“I put a bullet between his eyes, John. I’d recognise that face anywhere. It’s him.”
John’s reminded that this has been just as bad for Rodney as it is for him, and is humbled at the lengths he went to protect him. “I’m sorry. I’m just a bit...”
“Yeah. We should...let’s get out of here. We can come back for the rest of the supplies tomorrow.”
“I’ll just grab a couple more things.”
John brought back the box of food and some fuel for the lanterns. Rodney brought back some binders of printouts and the Yukon Jack. John wants to make a sarcastic comment about priorities but Rodney’s quiet, too quiet, and he’s got his thinking face on so maybe the printouts are important. John makes dinner while Rodney reads at the counter. Miska was happy to see them, wagging her tail as they came in the door. Now she’s curled up in front of the fire, right in John’s way but he doesn’t mind. It’s good to be sharing space with a dog again. He’s not had a pet since he joined the air force. What’s the point when you’re away more than you’re home? Nancy had a couple of Siamese cats, but they hated him with a passion. Probably because Nancy bought them when he was deployed to Afghanistan the second time, only a year before she gave him the divorce papers and the cracks were already canyons at that point. By the time John had met the cats, her disappointment in him must have rubbed off on them. Miska’s a lot like his dog Nova in that she’s nothing at all like her. Bouncy where Nova was reserved, loud where Nova was quiet, but they both give him feelings of companionship and home.
John heats up the entrée from an MRE pack (meatballs in marinara sauce) and dishes them up between them, dumping the rest of it on the table. Rodney frowns at the cherry blueberry cobbler.
“I can’t eat that, I’m allergic to citrus. It’s made with citric acid. I know this because someone gave it to me once on a military base and I ended up in the infirmary with a tube down my throat.”
“Why am I only just finding this out?”
“I don’t know, maybe because hares and whitefish are citrus free?”
“What about the stuff in the pantry?”
“I’ve already checked it all. Anything not safe I’ve put on the bottom shelf.”
“I’m pretty sure this comes under medical conditions, and I distinctly remember asking you about those. It’s something I should have known! You should have told me on day one!”
“Well you know now!”
“Fucking fantastic! Anything else I need to know to keep you from dying?!”
“What the hell is your problem?!”
“How the fuck can I keep you safe if there are dangers I don’t know about?!”
“God damn it, Rodney!” John picks up a stool and throws it against the wall. It hits with a loud thud and breaks into pieces. Miska rushes up the stairs away from all the commotion and Rodney watches John quietly. John just stands there, breathing hard, and as the rage dissipates, he feels shame wash over him.
“John...” Rodney comes over, hands held up as though he’s a skittish horse that needs calming down, and maybe he is.
“I’m sorry. That wasn't actually at you.”
Rodney takes John’s hands in his and squeezes. “I know.”
“I’m not...Rodney, I’m not one of those military men who lashes out all the time.”
“I know that too.”
“God, I’m sorry, I-”
“Today was just too much. For me too.” Rodney pushes John towards another stool. “Sit down and eat something.”
John does as he’s told while Rodney breaks up the fractured stool and throws it on the fire. Miska peers through the railing of the balcony when they’re both sat down but doesn’t come down and John can’t blame her. That was totally out of order. Rodney sits down opposite him and he tries to apologise again but Rodney won’t hear it. “We’re fine, John. Please eat something.” They eat their meatballs, then John splits the chocolate chip cookie, the breadsticks and cheese spread, but the cobbler and orange drink powder get relegated to the bottom shelf of the pantry. It’s the best meal they’ve had since they crashed, barring the pizzettes that Rodney scraped together in a moment of genius, and when Rodney picks up one of the binders again he has a happy, sated smile on his face. Refined sugar is clearly one of his favourite things. John briefly thinks about digging around in another MRE for some pound cake or some other kind of pudding to give him, but quickly chastises himself for forgetting that food isn’t a luxury here, and they’ve decided to split a one-man MRE for dinner each night through the winter. All he’d be doing is denying them dessert on another night.
“Why would there be a US military communications bunker on an island off the coast of Canada?” asks Rodney. “Do you think the Canadian government knows about it?”
“I don’t know. But it wouldn’t be hard to appropriate a forgotten bunker for your own use. You sure it’s a spy bunker?”
“It’s been intercepting and printing off all the communications to and from Thule, including the encrypted data from the lab. I think the US government has been spying on its own airbase.”
John ponders this. “Maybe they don’t trust Colonel O’Neill to keep them up to date. He has a reputation for being a bit of a maverick.”
“So what’s in the binder?”
“It’s mostly raw data from the lab. Some experimental notes. There’s a lot of information here, it’s going to take me a while to sort through it but hopefully it’ll paint a picture of what they were doing and I can figure out what happened.”
“Alright. I’m going to take Miska out. When I get back, we should call it a night.”
“John, I can’t, I have too much to read to go to sleep now.”
“It’s been a long day, surely it can wait till morning?”
“I suppose I am kind of tired.”
“We shouldn’t push too hard or skip sleep. We need to be sharp here. This isn’t your lab, nothing’s time-sensitive. I don’t want you exhausting yourself looking for answers. All that data will still be there in the morning. Time is one thing we have in abundance.”
John puts on his outer gear and calls Miska. She hesitates but he waits her out, this is his fault and she can come down in her own time. He gives her a scratch behind the ears in apology when she finally comes down and she goes with him out the front door.
Todd R. Guide. John knows his name now and it doesn't make him feel any better. Who is he? Why was he stationed alone in a bunker in the middle of nowhere? It can’t be because he had a charming personality. He must have fucked the brass off big time to be sent here, even John didn’t get a posting this bad. John shoulders the rifle and breathes warm air on his hands. He forgot his gloves and it’s really cold out here. He calls Miska back when she’s had time to finish her business and she comes bounding out the tree line, tongue lolling out her mouth with a joy that only a dog can possess.
When they get back inside Rodney is already tucked up in bed. John locks up and turns the fire down then pads upstairs in the dark, throwing his clothes in a pile on the spare bunk to be sorted in the morning. They really need to figure out a way to start washing clothes soon. Maybe tomorrow after Rodney’s devoured his paperwork they can brainstorm ideas. Washing them in a river is out because of the ice and the extreme cold. The fish box maybe? Doesn’t have to be a perfect solution, just needs to get the smell out.
Miska settles on the rug and John gets in the bed next to a half-asleep Rodney who squeals when he wraps his cold arms around him and burrows his cold nose in his neck.
“Bah, what are you, a snowman?”
“Forgot my gloves.”
“Fine, just...here.” Rodney shoves John's hands into his armpits to warm up. “Don’t say I’m not good to you.”
John can’t help himself; he leans forward and kisses Rodney on the mouth. “You’re the best.”
Rodney is quiet for a moment, laying still, next to him, breath hitching. Then like a tidal wave he’s all over John, grabbing him by the shoulders and pulling him in, seeking out his mouth in the dark. The kiss is urgent and proprietary and hot. John feels a shiver go through him and when their tongues come into play he moans into Rodney’s mouth. Kissing someone has never felt so damn good, not since his first kiss in the back of his dad’s car when it was all nerves and teeth and a little too wet, only this time it’s plump lips and inquisitive tongue and a spark that ignites in his stomach and spreads down to his thighs. He wraps his arms around Rodney and slides his hands down into the waistband of his boxers. Rodney squeals when his cold fingers touch his ass but moans when John starts squeezing, collapsing onto his back and pulling John on top of him. He whispers – John...please - and John shoves down their boxers and takes them both in hand. It’s quick and passionate and desperate, and when it’s over they fall asleep in each other’s arms with a smile, legs entangled and hearts beating in sync.
John has a little freakout and throws a chair at the wall in anger and fear.
Chapter 12: Rodney - Home
Two chapters up today, I wanted to get it up in time for Christmas. Thank you for reading, I hope you've enjoyed it.
Rodney wakes up before John to the sound of Miska pacing, desperate to go outside. He kisses John softly, who kisses back sleepily, then pulls on some clothes and heads downstairs to let her out. He’s a little wary of going out in the dark alone, but he takes the rifle and stays in sight of the office, letting Miska wander where she will while he ponders the information in the binders he took from the bunker. He got an inkling of the extent of the situation last night and he’s dreading what he’ll find today, but they have to know. Ignorance isn’t bliss, not really, and he’s always been someone who needed to know ‘why’.
When Miska is done he takes her back inside and adds some wood to the fire, opening up the stove for both heat and light. He throws in the photos he took from the bunker, feeling strangely violated on John’s behalf. To have been watched that way, unknowing...preyed upon...it’s unthinkable. Miska settles down in front of the stove when he’s done. She’s claimed that spot as her own and Rodney doesn’t begrudge her the best spot in the whole cabin. After months of fending for herself, she’s more than earned a little comfort. He heats up some water for coffee and scans the pantry for something for breakfast. He’s not really hungry, knows he’s just delaying the inevitable, but he indulges in his final moments of innocence as he grabs the salt crackers and sits down to open up the newest of the binders. The information printed in it is all from before they crash-landed. Figures and graphs of the data recorded from multiple EMP events and equations used in ZedPM trials in the search for clean, cheap energy to keep up with increasing demands of a constantly expanding population.
He grabs some paper and pencils and extrapolates from the given data to cover the two EMP events that he and John witnessed, the one that almost killed them and the one that lit up the office from the massive amount of static electricity it created. The growth is exponential, and he’s left with a single, undeniable conclusion; they were global.
Some of Carter and Zelenka’s correspondence paint a vivid picture. The ZedPM was thought to be complete, ready for trialing, but when Carter found evidence to support her multiverse theory she got an idea: why take energy from our own subspace when you can take it from an alternate reality? The math was incomplete but even a perfunctory review proved to Rodney that it was a bad idea; there was no way to control the energy flow in either direction through the matter-bridge, and rather than an unstable and intermittent connection (as the faulty math indicates) they had one they couldn’t drop. The ZedPM wasn’t calibrated properly and instead of drawing in zero-point energy it drew in electromagnetic radiation, triggering EM events around Thule, then all of Baffin Bay, then across Western Greenland and Eastern Nunavut over a series of months. They couldn’t contain it, couldn’t stop it, couldn’t reverse it, so it grew bigger and bigger each time. According to Rodney’s extrapolation, the EM grew exponentially and the event that crashed them was several magnitudes larger than the one before, encompassing the entire globe. They were bringing in Rodney to try to shut it down, fix their mess, just as he’d suspected, but they were far too late and Rodney can only hope that they’ve managed to shut it down because there’s no way he can get there now. The matter bridge needs to be overloaded or bypassed, and off the top of his head he can think of several ways to do it. It’s likely that Carter and Zelenka succeeded since there have been no further events but he can’t be certain of that. Whatever idiocy let them embark on experiments far beyond the scope of modern science and kept them from seeking Rodney’s help sooner has come at the cost of all technology on the planet, not to mention the lives lost. It’ll be decades before anyone finds a way to harness electricity again
God. What is it like back home? How many people died as planes shut down in the air and power surges cascaded through computers and ATMs and electric ovens? How many are still alive. struggling to learn how to live without all the things we take for granted? Are they all banding together or has chaos already spread, pitting neighbour against neighbour in the competition for limited resources? How many will die over winter when they can’t keep their homes warm and their bellies full? He and John have an entire island worth of resources all to themselves. When the perishables run out they have alternatives and the means to hunt and fish. Oh God, Jeannie and Maddie. Are they okay? Are they safe? The thought of never seeing them is unbearable. He hopes they’re alright, offers prayers to gods he doesn’t believe in that they’re unharmed and that where they are, people are working together, not torn apart.
How is he going to tell John? Does he have people to mourn too? He’s mentioned an ex-wife and the widow of an air force buddy but no other family or friends. He seems to have led a solitary life, isolated from others and trusting few. If Rodney’s honest with himself he was expecting something of this magnitude. He hopes it won’t be a complete shock to John, he’s smart enough to know something’s gone seriously wrong.
When Rodney shuffles upstairs to talk to John Miska leads the way as though she’s aware of his bad news and wants to help soften the blow. She looks anxiously between them as Rodney sits on the bed in the hazy glow filtering up from the fire downstairs and explains why they’re not going to be getting off the island in hushed tones, like the quieter he says it the less cutting it will be.
“I kinda already knew help wasn’t coming for us,” says John when he’s done.
“Me too. I-I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault Rodney.” John squeezes his hands. “They should have included you from the get-go.”
“Lots of people have already died, so many more will die over winter. It’s...”
“It’s a lot to take in.”
“I feel so helpless. I could have fixed it, prevented it.”
“Jeannie and Maddie...”
“Shhh, c’mere.” John pulls Rodney down onto the bed and into his arms. Miska is hovering next to them and when John gestures her up she lays down on Rodney’s other side. Rodney burrows in between them with his head on John’s chest, listening to his heart thumping behind his ribs. Dah-Dum, Dah-Dum, Dah-Dum. For the first time in his life he can’t cry. The feelings are too loud, too big, he can’t quantify them. John rubs his back gently and he relaxes into the touch. Whatever has happened, they’re here, alive, relatively safe. He’d give almost anything to be with Jeannie and Maddie, but he wouldn’t leave John behind, and he’s glad to be stuck here with him if anyone. Not just because of this thing growing between them. John is practical and physical where Rodney is logical and cerebral. Between them they’ll manage to survive. No, thrive. They have water, food, shelter, and fuel in unlimited supply. The crash was a blessing in disguise and he’s almost thankful for it.
“If anyone was going to bring about the apocalypse, it was Carter,” mumbles Rodney into John’s t-shirt.
John laughs. “I should have shot her for real during training.”
There are things they’re going to have to do if this is to be a permanent home. Structural repairs and insulation and figuring out a way to get the shower warm and working. Things that back home would be weekend projects for an engineer, but here in the wilderness will be a challenge worthy of NASA. Still, he’s a genius and John’s manly proficiency will make up for any of the skills he lacks. But that’s not today’s problem. Today they’re going to empty the bunker of supplies. It’ll take a few runs to transport everything, but there’s some liquid fuel that would be good for-
“You’re thinking again.”
“I’m always thinking.”
“How about we have a lie-in today? Breakfast in bed. Coffee and crackers with peanut butter and...uh...maybe a little more of what we did last night?”
“But the bunker and the firewood...”
“We’ve earned a day off.”
“I suppose. Listen...I. ..about this thing.” Rodney gestures between them. “I can be really annoying.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
Rodney lifts his head. “You’ll want me to go away.”
“People always do.”
“Well then people are dumb.” John pulls Rodney back down onto his chest. “I can be annoying too you know. I’m not very good at talking or expressing...”
“Yeah. Those. Nancy said it was like being married to a mannequin.”
“I think I do enough expressing for both of us.”
“Hmm. Well then.” John kisses the top of Rodney’s head. “We’ll figure it out. We have all the time in the world.”