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Eurydice Turns Left

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It was not as serious as it initially appeared. Hard experience had been their teacher too long, and so they assumed a disaster was about to begin. Teyla had to remind herself sternly, later, that people slip off of boulders all the time, especially when they are showing off and calling their best friend "a wuss" instead of being careful. She saw John throw out an arm, stunned at himself, but in the moment between her seeing and the horrified laugh that flew from her throat, he had fallen out of view.

She clapped a hand to her mouth, and saw that Rodney was in the middle of his own bark of shock or amusement or something else. He bounded forward, rucksack jolting awkwardly on his back, and stumbled to find John. She was at his heels, jostling elbows with Ronon in the narrow ravine between stones.

He had not knocked himself unconscious, as she had feared. Instead John was levering himself up from a sprawl, cursing quietly in the yellow dirt. He turned toward the sound of them, still lying on one hip, and Rodney gasped next to her: John's dark hair glistened and his ear was drenched red with blood, which suddenly flowed freely down behind his jaw and to the point of his chin. It dripped: one two three and then many splashed down onto his black shirt. His team sprang into action.

Rodney kneeled and mashed his meaty palm into the side of John's head, chanting, "You're all right, you're all right." Teyla stripped off her jacket for padding and Rodney wrapped it around the wound hastily.

They ignored the muffled "hey!" that emerged, as Ronon stooped to offer his shoulders. John was up and hanging, folded in half so his booted feet kicked at Ronon's waist, before any of them had made a decision. It did not require speech for them to spin and jog as one unit back towards the gate they had left behind less than an hour before. Rodney came last, still pressing the jacket to the side of John's head; Teyla was too busy alerting Atlantis to the emergency to hear anything but the tension in their voices as the three men exchanged words.

Once back in home territory, John jackknifed on Ronon's shoulder, ripping the bloody jacket off his head and out of Rodney's grasp. "I said, I'm FINE!" he bellowed, and while they all stood gaping he snatched up a handful of Ronon's hair and pulled.

Ronon pivoted on one heel, eyes wide. John whirled with him, limbs flying, and Teyla raised her hands to stop them from falling over. She caught Ronon in the middle of his back, her palms flat against the spasming tension of his long muscles. He stopped then -- or else he might have knocked her right down without even noticing -- and in one convulsive move he shuffled John off his shoulder.

Still bleeding, John flopped to the floor.

"Where the hell is Carson?" asked Rodney, venomous, as he recovered the jacket and scurried to John's side. But John was having no more of this treatment, and achieved his own two feet through stubbornness and some careful yanking on Rodney's rucksack.

"Cancel that red alert," he said, and paced woozily away from the closing gate. Teyla saw in front of him two Marines, the standard defensive detail, staring at them all in surprised inaction. John passed the two men, reached the stairs, and sat down gingerly on the third step. "Really, guys, it's nothing serious."

That was the moment Dr. Beckett chose to appear, in a full sprint and with his mobile kit in hand. He detoured to John without losing a stride.

"Stop it," John groused, his own hand now covering the wound on his head. "I'm not dead yet."

Dr. Beckett kneeled before his patient, clucking with his tongue. "Who controls the analgesics here? Hm? Now let me look at it." He peeled John's fingers away one by one. Teyla could see that there was blood under the nails.

"He will be all right?" she asked. John gave her a dirty look, which reassured her even more than Beckett's reply.

"Likely so. Maybe concussion, but if he can complain, it's not life-threatening."

"Thank you very much," said John.

Rodney was making indistinct noises of displeasure behind her, a crescendo that peaked as he stomped past her and up the stairs. He did not appear to notice that he still held the jacket in one hand, and both his hands were red. "Don't come crying to me if you've got a broken skull," he spat as he passed John.

But the shock was wearing off, and Teyla could see his heart wasn't in it. He stalked toward Elizabeth's office while Dr. Beckett pressed gauze into the side of John's head. Teyla stood by helpless, unsure whether to laugh or to sigh in despair. Ronon came up next to her, still panting and flexing as if under attack.

John said a curse word, and fingered gravel out of his ear canal.

***

Elizabeth did the same thing Teyla had done, back on the planet: she shrieked a laugh and then covered her mouth, amazed at finding danger funny. Ronon could not decide if all foreigners were confounding this way, or if it was a ritual of Atlantis women only, taboo knowledge Sheppard could not teach him. "Oh my God," she said. "Is he all right?"

Teyla had a very reasonable voice. "Dr. Beckett says he will be fine. He could walk, to the infirmary."

"Oh, yes, he's fine," McKay growled. "He's so fine we should have left him there, bleeding all over that yellow hellhole of stone!"

This inspired some further laughter from Elizabeth, subtler this time and swallowed into twitching cheeks.

They did not ask Ronon what he thought.

Elizabeth controlled herself, and turned to the papers in front of her. "So much for that mission," she shrugged. "Do we need to reschedule?"

"Yes, of course we do," said McKay. His lips turned down at the edges, anger or righteousness or that default slow burn. Ronon suspected he had an acid stomach -- that would make anyone sharp-tongued. "There was an energy signature there I've never seen before, faint but real."

"Useful?" asked Elizabeth.

"I don't know." McKay hit keys on his laptop. "I was in the middle of trying to take readings, with an extremely defective hand-held by the way, when Colonel Wallendah decided to impress us with his agility. It was a low-level field, really a unique pattern of frequencies. Definitely something there inside the static, and I --" He gripped the edge of his screen.

Elizabeth smiled at him. "Words, Rodney?"

"Too many gaps in the data. We have to go back."

"We can schedule a flyover --"

"No." McKay made a cutting motion with his hand. "A puddlejumper won't fit through the gate. I measured." This brought up Elizabeth short. "The stones are too close. They're exactly the distance of the gate's backwash, no less, and a jumper is zero point three two meters longer than that. The body just won't go, unless you're willing to chop off part of the back ramp."

"Don't you think that's strange, Rodney?"

"I have heard," Teyla interjected, "that is a strategy for keeping away Wraith darts: obstacles in front of the Stargate, like a primitive shield." Good idea, Ronon thought to himself. At the least it would take out the first wave, unsuspecting. The second wave would not be fooled.

Elizabeth rounded on her: "You mean there are people on PX1212."

"Or were. They do not seem to be there any longer." Teyla considered. "The stones are not very tall; a dart might fit above them, and the Wraith took them long ago. Or they have migrated away from the mountains and toward territory more fruitful."

"Sounds worthy of a second look. I want you to take some experts with you next time, and --"

Rodney shifted, closed his laptop. "Look, whatever. The energy readings are reason enough."

It annoyed Ronon, that McKay was allowed to speak peremptorily to his superiors, when so many did not. He was beginning to know the new Marines from the old ones merely by how they reacted to McKay's behavior: the ones who appeared to consider killing him were the ones who had only just met him. Ronon could roll his eyes like any veteran, but inside he was unquiet, worried. Without discipline, how did they manage?

But they did manage, and methodically lessoned him in their customs. He had learned never to touch an American man except for fighting, and to touch a Frenchman always, and to touch but not linger on a woman of any flag. He watched, and watched others watch him, and whatever he was told he often witnessed something different. These were alarmingly contradictory people.

Ronon blinked. He stood up automatically when the others stood, and watched them offer the kind of meaningless phrases that Sheppard called pillow talk. He realized that key details of the meeting had occurred without his noticing. Teyla was giving him a wry look, as if it was to be expected. Meetings were another alarming new custom to get used to.

They all left Elizabeth's office at the same time, as if they had agreed in advance. Ronon studied them as they shuffled to the door, but could not see the cues that they all read without effort. Elizabeth was standing behind her desk like a benevolent queen.

"We call days like this thrill-a-minute," she said. She chuckled. "In an ironic way."

He knew what irony was, and showed his teeth to signal his appreciation. Sheppard had kind of made irony clear. Elizabeth's laugh faded. He had done something wrong again.

"It's a -- ask Colonel Sheppard about carnivals some time. Artificial excitement, for people who lead lives more boring than ours."

"I will ask him," said Ronon, stiff. "Thank you." She blinked away from his gaze, and he knew it was time for him to go as well.

He wandered the halls, puzzling, patterning. It was natural to find his way to the American soldiers; they spoke a language he knew. Three of them were practicing, dirty tricks with play-knives and stiffened wrists, while a fourth watched and drank water. Lorne. Ronon sat by him and watched.

It was a pleasant way to waste time, rhythmic and practiced and precise. Ronon liked to see that the soldiers knew their bodies well, used them well. It was a familiar thing. Lorne sat with him, fresh sweat and calm idleness, demanding nothing.

"Tell me about your custom," asked Ronon.

***

John's team abandoned him to Beckett's gentle grumbling and that sharp stink of antiseptics. They were surely all conferring in Elizabeth's office even now, hashing out the mission objectives completed and left undone, while the mission commander was busy receiving two dozen stitches in his scalp. Because there were three different gashes above and behind the ear, Beckett informed him solemnly that he would have to shave the side of John's head from neck to crown to situate the stitches properly.

John took a look at the electric razor and wondered, "It's like The Boz all over again."

"What?" asked Beckett, over the noise of the machine. Thick dark tufts and handfuls fell onto John's shoulder and the floor. He flashed back for an instant to being a cadet, seeing himself bald for the first time.

"Or, Wild Thing from Major League? Never mind," he said. "Just wondering what I'm gonna look like." He kicked his heels against the table's legs, already bored.

"With the cheekbone and your ear and the state of your forearm, you look like a man who's been pressed to the world's largest cheese grater." Beckett hummed to himself as he washed the wounds with warm saline.

John tried to imagine a civilization of giants, making pizza from scratch, and failed. "Or like a ten year old kid who's just wiped out on his dirt bike."

"If you're very lucky, the bruising won't settle and leave you with a black eye as well," lilted the good doctor. Rodney walked in just in time to hear that last, and smirked like somebody who had told you so.

"Chicks dig scars," said John, hopeful.

Rodney snorted his triumph. "It's probably less painful to get a tattoo. I think you'd look good with a nice red heart, with 'Mom' in the middle of it, right on your butt."

He couldn't just sit there, being squirted with warm salt water (that was getting in his ear, and who knew how long that would take to shake out) and take it. "You've never seen me naked. How do you know I don't have one already?"

"Carson, if you could just move over for a minute, the patient suddenly requires a de-pantsing to prove that he is, in fact, a big fat liar."

"Better a liar than a wuss, hm?"

"Is this an infirmary or a primary school?" asked Beckett, who had put down the squirt gun and had picked up a fishhook. Or it was the needle he was going to use for the stitches, but damn it looked like a fishhook. "I've seen him naked, Rodney. He's got no tattoos."

"Aha!" crowed Rodney. "Better a wuss than the biggest klutz in two galaxies."

Beckett was breathing gently into his ear, focussed on the stitch. John felt the needle's point, marrying one hot ridge of skin to another. Gentle pulls, as the thread slipped through. "Says the man who cut himself opening a sardine can that time."

"The key was defective! And if you'll recall, my sliced thumb did not require an all-out rescue."

"Neither did my sliced noggin."

Beckett interjected, "Children, if you don't hush, Mummy will never finish her sewing, now will she?" He tugged a bit harder than was strictly necessary at the knot he was tying behind John's temple. He sat quietly after that, giving Rodney funny looks (and only cracking up once, really) for twenty minutes, until Beckett was finished.

John slithered off the table (he was fine, by the way) while Beckett fetched a way-too-small plastic bottle of medicine from the unlocked cabinet. The good doctor stretched out a palm dotted with two pills. "Thanks. Drugs still rationed?"

"Yes, until people stop bashing in their own skulls on a weekly basis. I don't think we should be trading pharmaceuticals so enthusiastically, even with bimonthly resupply. No more than two every four hours."

"Right," said John, and took the bottle. Rodney was standing up, a flapping folder in his hands. John was just as happy to be shooed out of the infirmary and back to work.

***

Sheppard didn't arrive to the next morning's meeting (scheduled, at his own insistence, at stupid o'clock in the morning), so Rodney grabbed a Sergeant by the uniform sleeve and dragged him off to find their ranking military officer.

"Come on, soldier. Your Lieutenant Colonel has gone missing." The man was unfamiliar, so probably new. But not so new he had not already mastered rolling his eyes in an annoyingly Sheppard-like manner.

He was dark and shaped like a fireplug, short and with all his weight in a bull neck and shoulders. The Sergeant introduced himself: "Matty Melo, uh, dude," and the impulse to sir an obvious civilian was absolute proof he was a newbie. He sported that bizarre haircut all soldiers adopted, that made his head look like an anvil, and shook that anvil at Rodney.

"Doctor Rodney McKay, and a key member of the first team. Let's get this search party started."

"Basics, man." Melo looked up up and down with faint amusement. "Probably overslept."

"Basics, yes," muttered Rodney, puzzling over his search plan, and followed Sergeant Melo toward the military quarters. "He's not the sort to sleep in --"

"Colonel Sheppard is a morning person," concurred Melo darkly. They eyed each other then, in sympathy, as they stood in front of Sheppard's door.

"Right." Rodney warmed to the topic. "He could be behind that door with his brain swelling, expanding in the skull casing like those prepackaged tubes of biscuits if you leave them out in the sun, mashing against their cardboard walls until they ex --" Melo was frowning at him. "I have some experience with traumatic swelling. Fatal allergies, you know. Anyway, if his brain is acting like a squeezy stress toy, better we should break in and rescue him for immediate cranial surgery. He can thank us later."

Melo said, "Uh --" but Rodney had thought the door open and was stepping inside.

Inside was dim, windows covered. There was nothing on the flat surfaces of the furniture, and everything on the floor. The bed groaned a dull query.

"Colonel!" exclaimed Rodney.

"Sheesh," muttered Melo behind him, but Rodney was busy leaping manfully across the room, tripping over a pair of trousers, and barking his shins against the edge of the bed.

"Ow. Sheppard, wake up. Do you have a concussion?" Sheppard lay on his belly in a heap of blankets, the stitched side of his head resting carefully on a mashed pillow. Groggily, he levered himself up onto one elbow.

"Ngh." His tags clinked as they lifted off the mattress. "Too early. My feet better be on fire." He turned his head to see his visitors, and showed off the spectacular bruising across his cheek.

Rodney grabbed him by the shoulder. "You have a concussion. Your brain is swelling deathly even now. You missed a morning meeting and you never do that and there is something truly wrong with you and remember the part where I said don't come crying to me if you have a broken skull?"

Sheppard flopped theatrically back onto his pillow, and then spoiled his own performance with a grimace. "Damn," he muttered to himself, and rubbed the side of his face that wasn't black and blue. "Time izzit?"

"Considerably after sunrise, which is never a time you're still asleep, and what did you do with that bottle Carson gave you?"

"Top drawer," said Sheppard. He rolled over under the blanket stiffly and started to sit up. "I'll need five or six of 'em."

Rodney rummaged through the drawer and came up with the bottle. It was half-empty. He eyeballed Sheppard, half his head shaved naked and with his hands tucked into his armpits. He'd taken off the bandages from his forearm, which was pulpy with scabs. "You look terrible."

"Thank you?" said Sheppard. "Oh, hi, Sergeant."

Melo snapped to attention.

"Yeah, yeah," waved Sheppard. "Do you know if breakfast is still out?"

"I'm sure they can work something up for you, sir!"

"No need to shout." He reached up to scratch above his left ear, where the three rows of black knots sat in sticky, be-gooed relief against his swollen skin. Rodney stretched out a warning hand just as Sheppard realized what he was about to do, and tapped at his ear instead. "Okay, I'm up. You can go bother somebody else now."

Rodney shook two pills into his palm, mimicking Beckett from yesterday. "Take." Sheppard took. "You want water?"

Sheppard knocked back the pills dry in lieu of answering. "Look. I promise I will go get myself checked out again today. I promise I will not keel over in the middle of breakfast. Speaking of which, I'm in need of a shower." He made good on his word immediately, throwing his blanket at Rodney's head and groaning as he climbed off the mattress.

Rodney had just time to divest himself of sweaty bedding to see Sheppard's blindingly white butt, the whiter by contrast with his bruised hip and ribs, disappearing into the bathroom. "Cripes, Sheppard, warn a guy," blurted Rodney.

The shower started, and Sheppard poked his head back out. "Wait, who lives here? Oh yeah, me."

"Don't get the stitches wet! Carson said so specifically!"

A flapping wave was all the response Rodney was going to get. Melo stood by, hands stiff at his sides, until Rodney shrugged at him.

"I guess I'll go find him some grub," said the Sergeant.

"I guess Beckett wasn't lying about the tattoos," said Rodney.

***

It wasn't a concussion, although Beckett admonished him first for painkiller abuse, and second for washing all the antiseptic gel off his scalp. It was in the middle of this dressing-down that Elizabeth "happened" to arrive, and told John to take the day off. Which he did.

Or, half the day, waggling his toes in the ocean while failing spectacularly to catch any fish. He relaxed in the shade, closing his eyes against the bright waves and his still-throbbing head, and napping was about to commence when his new exec, Lorne, found him. The guy was disturbingly undisturbable: John hadn't gotten his number yet. He'd worked for General O'Neill, which was a good sign; but he seemed to enjoy paperwork, which was -- bizarre.

Lorne called a greeting, fair warning from the end of the pier, and gave a low whistle when he got close enough for a look at his boss's bedraggled face.

"Day off," said John, and tried not to smirk. "Doctor's orders."

Lorne had a face like a plank of pine, and when he worked at it a manner to match. "Status reports. Basic stuff," he said, "I figured you wouldn't mind signing it, sir." There was something a little too correct in him, his back a little too stiffly straight, and John had been around the block a time or two.

He signed everywhere that Lorne pointed. "Say, you know what would be the best prank ever?"

Lorne handed him the next form. "Sir?"

"Not that you would, I realize. But, theoretically. It would be totally awesome if I found out my superior officer slept in his birthday suit --"

Lorne strangled a cough.

"And then," continued John, smiling, "I could pull the gate alarm in the middle of the night, and wait for him to come charging out in a panic wearing nothing but dogtags!"

"That would be hilarious, sir," said Lorne, straight-faced. It was as impressive a performance as John had seen in a long time.

"And the sad part is, it really would be." Sheppard reached out and joshed him, got an uncertain grimace in return. "If I weren't the CO in question, I'd absolutely pull that one off. So, fair warning, in case anybody is thinking of doing it. Anyway, I don't have a bruised ass most of the time, so there'd be no point outside of this week."

Lorne shuffled his papers back into order. He had some strange ability to make all the corners, gummy and folded as they were, line up and look formal. That and no sign of nervous breakdown after a month in Pegasus -- either a saint or the devil himself.

"You like Melo? He must be a right guy, if he's thinking of pulling tricks on his CO after only a couple of weeks."

"Sergeant Melo is -- very unorthodox, for a Marine." Lorne asked, tentative, "If you want, sir, his clothes could all have an unfortunate laundry accident."

Maybe this guy would work out okay. "Sometimes you scare me, Lorne. No, that won't be necessary. I'll think of something."

"Yes, sir." That merited a real smile. He put his fistful of work behind his back, but wasn't ready to leave. "Speaking of scare. Ronon Dex came by a little while ago, asked me whether he should shave his head."

Even with his headache John busted out laughing. Lorne cracked at last, and guffawed. John asked, "He actually wants a high-and-tight?"

"He was very concerned that you, sir, what he said was you used his hair operationally against him."

John rubbed the narrow ridge of skin between two rows of stitches. "Oh yeah," he said. "Now there's a guy who never saw the inside of a third-grade classroom."

"I pointed him toward Lieutenant Cadman as an example of acceptable hairstyles, but --"

John sighed. "I'll talk to him."

***

With John out of action, Teyla enjoyed her time off. She beat Ronon at sticks three times running, daring him every time to pull her hair, before he would admit that it was an unlikely tactic. (Upon her report of this to the Colonel, he bestowed upon her the High Five.) She visited Halling on the mainland and luxuriated in freedom, and when after fourteen days John declared himself combat-ready, Teyla was vaguely sorry to return to dutifulness.

She assembled her rucksack mindfully, aware after days of inattention of the purpose of every object. She was ready when she approached the gate room, but on her arrival realized that the rest of the party was not.

"...and this is Judith Yu," said Elizabeth, her hand on the shoulder of a compact woman. She had a moon face and the kind of curved body that John liked to stare at. She was the rock-scientist, the geologist, accompanying them. Teyla looked over her nervous energy and rough hands, and decided to like her. She was massively overpacked for a simple overnight, rucksack mounding high behind her head, and Teyla stepped forward with her advice.

"I am Teyla Emmagen," she said, and the geologist responded instantly to her smile.

"Call me Judy," she said, and offered a hand to shake. "I haven't been offworld since I got here."

"It is something to become accustomed to," said Teyla. "Here, I will show you what you need." They crouched together, and began to sort materials. Elizabeth looked on for a moment, benign, before turning to collar Ronon.

"This is our intellectual hanger-on for the day?" asked Rodney, looming suddenly over them. Teyla had long observed his ignorance of his own physical presence; Judy shrank back from his closeness and his height even before she registered his verbal insults. She made a face, and did not stand to greet him.

"This is the geologist," said Teyla, moving into Rodney's way. "You will be kind to her, since she will rely on you for experience in the field."

"Of course," said Rodney, beaming. "I am the most battle-hardened scientist here."

"Not counting that Israeli microbiologist," interrupted John, strolling up to them with two soldiers at his flank. "And the guy from Spain down in botany, who did his compulsory military service as a UN Peacekeeper in Zaire. Actually, there's also --"

"Yes, yes," said Rodney. "Our enlightened countries do not require that their brightest lights be shot at before they can write down their brilliant thoughts. Of course, -- oh, hey, I know you."

John introduced his soldiers. "Sergeant Melo, Lieutenant Van Arden." They nodded at their names. "They're both fresh off the boat, so I thought a nice, sunny training exercise would be a good introduction. To the whole. Violent death and destruction thing."

Melo widened his eyes, swinging his P-90 by its strap. Van Arden frowned. She cocked her head at them all, gave them her sharp good looks as if telling both John and Rodney that she was too clever for their humor. She was pale and narrow and yellow-haired, with a pointy chin, and tightened the straps of her rucksack compulsively. Teyla said hello, to diffuse the woman's tension, and got back an intense blue gaze, wary, excited. Together they turned back to helping the geologist, while John bickered with Rodney, kneeling to re-tie his bootlaces. Melo wandered the gate room, feigning nonchalance.

"Dude," said the Sergeant, low. Teyla had never mastered this piece of slang, though Ronon used it comfortably. She assumed Melo was expressing the same awestruck fondness that still overcame her in such an ancient setting.

Then John was ready, in some way he had where he never called for attention. They all just ceased speaking and looked at him, that long rangy body and permanent irony on his face. The time off had done him well; he was tan and the stitches in his scalp were gone. The hair had grown back a little, so he only looked very strange instead of badly wounded. "Got your gear?" was all he asked.

On went the rucksacks. Teyla stood between Judy and Van Arden, offering them her surety against the unknown of the Stargate. John nodded at Elizabeth, standing at the base of the staircase, and then the gate made its water-music and they were through. John did not stand on much ceremony or anticipation.

They tramped up dust in the clearing of PX1212, which stood impassive as they had left it: sandy-brown rock before them and the black and snowy crags of the mountain peak behind. The breeze was low, swirling down off the cliffs, and the sky bright. John immediately put on his sunglasses, the black lenses like a mask. Teyla was not bothered by the daylight, but Rodney squinted, displeased. It was midafternoon, the sun past its peak but heat still building, radiant off the stones. The boulders in front of them were above man-height, sharp-edged, as far as they could see. They crowded close up near the gate, like a row of ill-tended teeth.

Now that she saw them that way, the mountain was a foreboding sentinel, looming. Teyla saw how its peak cast a shadow onto the stones like a day-clock.

Judy jogged forward out of Teyla's reach. She touched the stones reverently, slow passes of tenderness. "Not much weathering," she called. "These aren't natural."

She stood before the stones in such a formal manner, as if introducing herself to a dance-partner. All the stones were tall, even taller than Ronon. Suddenly Teyla gasped to herself: "Of course, they are patterned."

"Who are?" asked John, but Rodney was already tumbling on ahead of her.

"I wondered about that last time. Cardinal directions, quarters and sixteenths." He spun all the way around, slowly. "If they'd wanted a whole circle, I don't know why they placed the Stargate so far back, up against the cliff face like that."

John laughed. "We're standing in the middle of Stonehenge?"

"I think the stones are younger than the Stargate," called Judy. "They're -- hey, those are tool marks." She had disappeared from the circle directly around the Stargate. Teyla hated to lose visual on her, and as she moved she noticed the entire group was moving together. They did not like this human-made place any more than she.

Rodney's mouth galloped to keep up with his thoughts. "Who moved them here? Is it a temple to worship the Ancients? Is this where the readings come from? Maybe we're seeing some kind of primitive battery or solar collector --"

Teyla reached the edge of the ring, looked past the first row of stones and saw Judy again, darting about. The stones were placed in an alternating pattern, so that wherever the eye looked a stone was in its way. Someone could be hiding at ten paces' distance and never be seen. The geologist asked, "How far do these things go?"

It was when John made a noise behind her that Teyla realized they all had entered the maze of rock, and realized that she did not know where it ended.

Chapter Text

John couldn't remember which direction they'd originally gone, two weeks ago, so he was pretty sure they wouldn't find the rock he'd gone tumbling off, unless he was really unlucky. He was too busy to look anyway, corralling Melo forward when all the Sergeant wanted to do was stare. Van Arden was more orderly, stiffening her spine any time he looked at her, and John was pretty sure she had something to prove.

That was all right with him; he'd have to think of some way she could do that and get over it, something heroic and nonfatal.

They turned left, then right -- there was no way to walk in a straight line, much less get good sightlines. It kind of creeped him out. Ronon was idle, playing with his knife and bringing up the rear. "Hey," John muttered to him. "You're making sure we don't get lost, right?"

The look he got back needed to be bottled and sold to teens and punk musicians everywhere. "Climb up on rock. Look for huge Stargate. Go in that direction."

"Oh. Right. Go back to your goofing off, then." Rodney gave that a glance over his shoulder, and it was much more of a problem if he was getting bored. The last time, he'd made his own fireworks in the field from scratch, which, John had been really sure you couldn't do that outside of a Star Trek episode. Pretty, though. Except for the interplanetary incident they'd caused.

"The hand-held isn't working," said Rodney, and smacked it twice.

"All right," Sheppard announced. "Two more hours of Cretaceous rapture, and then we take a break, and then we try to find the edge of this puzzle and see what there is to see."

"And then we can go traipsing home with gravel in our boots," said McKay, "And sunburn. Whatever this thing is, I can't get at it a broken hand-held, without a control panel, and with no aerial map, which we can't get if the jumper won't fit. Which means this part of the adventure is a gigantic waste of time."

"You know it won't fit," said John, picking up his pace till he was downright ambling. "Whoever put the rocks there didn't want anybody flying in, not even us. And if you'd ever been in the service, you would have learned about how to hurry up and wait."

Melo chuckled at this.

"See, the Sergeant knows," added John. Melo gave him a look that said, I am humoring you, because you are my insane boss. There might have been a little bit of I'm a Marine and you're not, but that kind of thing got to be transparent after a while.

"You're not worried about natives, sir?" Van Arden interjected.

"Uninhabited." John paused, looked up into the sun. It was making him sweat a little too much. "MALP showed nothing but rocks and dust. If there are people here, they're pretty damned agile."

"Could be ninjas," said Melo. "Sir."

"Oh sure," said John. "The SGC didn't tell you about the advance team of extras from Jackie Chan movies, that they sent through a decade ago? I'm sure they've all settled down and had babies and established a whole ninja civilization by now."

Ronon eyed him, unsure. "What are ninjas?"

Teyla listened with interest as Melo explained a concept that was half Hollywood and half gory comic books. It would have been a fine joke, except Rodney kept butting in to point out the ludicrousness of warriors who could go invisible (with Earth technology, anyway) and cloud the minds of their enemies. Melo could clearly hold his own, and John was just as happy to sit out the war of zingers. The sun beating down, or possibly just his chatterbox team, was making his head hurt.

Van Arden kept her eyes on the wandering geologist in-between barks of embarrassed laughter. Ronon clearly thought they had all lost their minds.

"Okay, fine," said Rodney at last. "You're the expert on assassination techniques." (Me? thought John.) Rodney was looking at him funny. "Can you really kick a guy in the nose and send pieces of bone into his brain and kill him, or is that just a myth?"

"Um, I've never tried," John rejoined. "I heard Bruce Lee did that once, but people make up a lot of stuff about him."

"Dude, Jackie Chan versus Bruce Lee." Melo's face shone. "Awesomest fight ever! Sir."

Sheppard adjusted his sunglasses and dropped back to fill in Ronon's blanks. "You saw that one Jackie Chan movie. Bruce Lee was this guy -- little guy, small as Van Arden, there -- fast, good on his feet. He was a dance champion and a movie star too."

"He was a what?" Rodney asked. Teyla was laughing, just at the incredulous tone.

The answer came before John could supply it. The geologist, Yu, poked her head out from between two stones: "Dance champion. Cha-cha, right?" John gawked at her. "My mom was a huge fan. She grew up in Hong Kong. Went to his funeral, too. Before I was born." Yu shrugged, and disappeared again back into the rocks.

"So," Ronon asked, deadpan, "Who would win, Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee?"

Melo and Rodney prepared themselves for verbal battle while Teyla smirked.

John wanted to roll his eyes, but he was afraid they might fall out of his head.

***

The time allotted for a break came and they squatted companionably in a space among the rocks -- too small to be called a proper clearing. Teyla admired how John had brought together his team, joking strange Earth jokes, and now Melo and Rodney would sit side by side without glancing at each other awkwardly. Ronon ate a snack, and scaled a stone to watch over them from on high.

"Be careful up there," said John, bland. Teyla looked at him but he had his dark glasses on and she could not read him. Probably he was ashamed at falling, and made it into another joke. She watched him rummage in Melo's rucksack until he pulled out the medical kit.

Rodney saw him at it and asked, "Are there painkillers in there?" He was chewing with gusto on that foodbar he liked so much.

"Just the serious stuff," John grumbled, rattling a very small number of pills in a plastic bottle. "Painkillers are still rationed. You hurt?"

"My brain is leaking out my ears. Possibly heatstroke. Whatever it is, it hurts, and I don't see the point in suffering."

"Me neither." John grimaced, and put the bottle away.

Rodney did a strange thing then. He stood up and stepped up close to John, squared shoulders in front of him, serious and silent. Teyla had never seen him like this, using actions instead of his usual excess of words. The whole group paused to watch this weird calm confrontation.

All he did was reach out with both hands and remove the glasses from John's face, folding them absently. Without those masking lenses, John was sallow, dull-eyed as he watched Rodney warily. Teyla noticed for the first time that he was sweating, beads rolling down from his hairline, far more than the pleasant weather warranted.

Rodney asked, "What is the matter with you?"

"Nothing," said John, and snatched back his glasses.

Rodney did not push him further, and nobody said anything for a while. John packed up the medical kit back into the rucksack. He was ready again, and expected them to be ready as well. Ronon, who had watched the whole exchange from above their heads, stood and jumped to another stone.

Teyla sidled past John. He had the glasses back in place. "Rodney worries about you as he does everyone."

"I know." John waved one hand irritably.

She continued, "He said you were dying, before when you had stitches. I assume that means you were hurt more than you let on."

"Not really," he replied. "He just wants to rescue me."

She grinned at him, then, hoping for and expecting a return in kind. But John just turned away, blank. She was reaching out to touch his arm when Ronon hissed from above.

"Movement," he growled, low and carrying. He was squatting again, still, all grays and browns and those unlikely pale eyes. "My five o'clock, two or more, in among the rocks."

A high noise, far away behind them, behind Ronon. Long and gentle, twittering, like birdsong.

"You see any birds?" whispered Melo. John gestured him to silence, pointed him to guard Judy. He beckoned Van Arden and she melted to his side like a feather on wind, weapon ready.

The birdsong came back again, lower and shorter, from their twelve. It wasn't far off at all. They all had weapons out, now. Rodney screwed his eyes shut and then opened them. Sheppard and Van Arden argued in one-handed gestures, till suddenly they broke off. The small blonde woman spun and gathered up Melo, and without a backward glance she struck out laterally into the stone maze. Judy followed, eyes glassy, hands helpless at her sides. They left their rucksacks behind.

John made his gathering gesture, and pointed their direction, weapon low in one tense hand. Teyla felt his expertise and control, and followed him as he led them away from the way the others had taken. Ronon slipped down to the ground like a viscous liquid pouring.

John paused ten or fifteen strides out, spun one finger and they huddled up automatically. "When I say," he whispered, jostling his shoulder with Rodney's. "When I say, I want you all to break in opposite directions. Find your way through this damned maze, lead them on a chase. Meet up in the crags facing the gate, and keep in radio contact."

"East southeast," added Rodney, breathless. "Sight off the peak if you have to."

"Okay, go," John said, and they were all upright then, hustling away from each other. Her mouth tight, Teyla ran, birdsong coming at her from all directions.

***

They took Rodney quickly, with a scuffle. He got off one wild shot with his sidearm and then it was quick underhanded movement from three dark bodies, and him bashing desperately around him, long-armed. When two of them were sitting on his back and he was wheezing yellow dust (maximum 20 seconds), he saw that the third at least had taken a blow and was lying addled in a heap beside him.

That close, McKay saw that the bodies weren't dark, but dark-clad, head to foot in some black-brown homespun. The one in the dirt was female, long-limbed and with long, pale fingers. That was the only visible skin -- she'd just engaged in physical combat with the equivalent of a bushel bag over her head.

There was no appropriate quip to the situation. The two sitting on his back barked and muttered at each other, a language totally indecipherable and unlike any other language he'd heard in Pegasus. They weren't talking to him.

"This is McKay, I've been captured," he said, and repeated it, before realizing his radio headset had been knocked off. He turned his head, felt around in the dust with his hands, but couldn't find it.

Soon the hooded people were muscling him up, crossing his arms behind him tightly and grinding together his wrist bones harder than could really be considered humane for a prisoner. They bound him that way, tightly, palm to palm behind his back, and instantly (instantly!) the thongs cut his wrists and numbed his fingertips.

"Ow, ow, hello!" he called, in case anyone was listening to be sure he was alive. "Okay, I can walk. You got me."

He knew they really did have him when the shorter one gestured with something heavily metallic in his hand -- not a gun, not a zat, but something else that looked kind of like what would happen if you built a crowbar that could change channels on a TV. The taller one grabbed up his rucksack in one hand and jostled the one who'd fallen with the other. The hoodie-people crouched and scoured the dirt, picking up objects off the ground: broken plastic (his headset, in two pieces) and his sidearm, held upside-down and uncarefully.

"That thing's not a toy," he said, but they weren't listening to him. They knocked him in the ankles to get him moving. Together they trooped back the way Rodney had come when he had blundered away from Sheppard's hissing order.

He kicked up all the dust he could, being pushed between the boulders, and listened with all his might. There wasn't a lot to hear: four people breathing, clothes and feet and his own annoyed complaints. There had been gunfire, far away, single shots like someone with a plan, but Rodney couldn't tell whether it had ended in capture from just the noise. At least some of them had to escape, of course. Teyla had a gift for silence, and Ronon was some kind of Terminator freak, and Sheppard -- maybe Sheppard had been that gunfire.

"Look, we might as well start negotiating now," he told the hoodie people. "What exactly is it you want? Because I really --"

More gunfire, from another direction. A P-90 this time, the massive crackle of it ugly and solitary. Controlled firing, short bursts, but it went and went and went. The hoodie with the zapper-crowbar gestured sharply, spun and ran off, making low throaty barking noises as he went. Rodney's one shot had missed. They'd been too fast for him. Rodney had no idea who was who out there, and who to shout for when the rescue party came.

The bullets kept flying, and now Rodney heard screaming and the high ping of ricochets. With rock on all sides, whoever it was was probably in grave danger of shooting himself accidentally, while he mowed down these defenseless secretive freaks. Their bodies would pile up between the stones, bloody and heaving, until he -- surely not Van Arden? -- cut off his own retreat. Unless he could climb through the gore, God, a foot on someone's hooded head and a hand grabbing a cracked ribcage --

"They want us alive!" He bellowed out, thoughtless.

The firing paused. The cries went lower, raging: attack noises. Oh, I've doomed him, thought Rodney to himself, even as his captors kicked him forward. Without his arms to steady him, he stumbled hard and had to stagger.

All he could do was walk and listen to the sputtering gunfire, and if he was really stupid shout more useless advice. Really, it was only a question of the number of bullets, and the number of the cowled enemy, and which number was larger.

The screaming voices turned again, throaty and full, echoing in the labyrinth and redoubling like the breaths of some horrifying animal. The firing stopped entirely, and didn't start again. Out of bullets. Rodney imagined himself trying to reload, hands shaking on the clip and botching it while crazed faceless monsters came leaping at him from every direction, and closed his eyes. The roaring hoodies were triumphant now, high descants over the thrum of male basses: they had him.

McKay had to walk, thumbs tapping his own lumbar spine, lost among the stupid stones that all looked alike. The two hoodies left with him mumbled to each other, unreadable noises. Even if he did shout now, he wouldn't hear a reply over the din, and not hearing a reply would make it impossible to tell whether that was because a reply wasn't coming. He put one foot in front of the other, shaky.

They came upon the clearing where the team had rested, a million years and forty minutes ago, and McKay realized that was where they had been heading all along. Van Arden and Judy Yu were there, trussed and sitting back to back, bruised. Teyla was unconscious by their side.

"Doctor!" breathed Van Arden, and Judy whipped her head around to see. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," he grumped. He opened his mouth to ask about Melo, and shut it. "Looks like we're all here," he said. Van Arden gave him a grateful look.

The hoodie he'd knocked around took special care to kick him squarely in the backs of his knees, so that he flopped in a heap in front of Teyla.

"They just brought her in," Judy supplied. "Tied her anyway, even out cold. Motherfuckers."

Rodney boggled at that carefully enunciated expletive. She had a split lip, and spat blood with every syllable. "Yeah," he muttered. "Have they let on whether they can understand us?"

"No," Van Arden whispered back. "But who knows."

Teyla groaned on the ground. Hands tied, they crouched over her and wished her awake.

She was still lying on her side, groggy but answering to her name when Sheppard tumbled into the camp, bound like all the rest of them and staggering. His sunglasses were missing. A short, round hoodie kicked him over and he crashed shoulder-first into the dirt while they stared. He didn't say anything, and lay on his face for a long moment.

"Sheppard?" asked Rodney, just as Van Arden was blurting,

"Are you all right, sir?"

"I've had better days," said Sheppard, rolling over and sitting up. The light was failing, but the finger-bruises on his neck were pretty obvious. His forehead, all sweat some hour ago, was caked with yellow dirt.

"Was that you with the single shots?" asked Rodney, as carefully as he knew how.

"Yeah," Sheppard grunted. "They've got their own weapon, funnylooking. Like a taser." He didn't mention Melo either, or Ronon. They sat like that, all together in a circle, for a long while. The shadows grew tall and the light lower in the sky, and Rodney wondered to himself about meals, and shelter, and where their two missing people were.

In the end, they heard him before they saw him. The hoodie people had lasped from full aria to a dull hum, and his cry of agony pealed above the stones so clear he seemed to be closer than he turned out to be. Sheppard was on his feet instantly, breathing hard, and the rest rolled over and stood, waiting, helpless.

Sheppard darted forward, tried to muscle aside a hoodie standing in his way. The creature whipped around and bashed him with a zapper-crowbar, and then zapped him with it for good measure. Close up, Rodney could hear the hum of it, see the writhing of Sheppard's shoulder muscles under the current. Sheppard took a while to shake it off and get to his feet again, Van Arden by his side with gritted teeth.

Nobody could see far in the maze of stones. The two of them had already guessed what was going on, but didn't say.

That horrible cry rose and then fell, and rose again lower. Now it came in half-articulated swear words, moans, pleas. They listened all of them, speechless, as this awful noise moved closer and closer. His progress was tortoise-slow, and his voice was growing hoarse. He was sobbing bitterly when he hobbled into view, surrounded by humming hoodies: Sergeant Melo.

"Son of a bitch," breathed Van Arden at Rodney's elbow, and then raced Sheppard to their fellow soldier's side. Rodney saw it clearly now, how the man's left leg turned in the wrong direction halfway down the calf. His boot glistened with blood. He'd been walking on it that way, who knew how far. His face was a mass of new bruises, bloody nose, tears and snot and that stupid dust turning his hair yellow. He opened his mouth as if to cry again --

"I'm sorry sir," gasped Melo. Van Arden gave him a terrible look. Sheppard didn't answer at all, just shouldered Van Arden out of the way and knelt in the dirt in front of his Sergeant.

"Get on," he said.

"Sir?" Melo stared down at him, clueless.

Judy Yu, beside Rodney, said, "Oh," to herself, a terrified noise.

Sheppard raised his head and his tone was savage: "Shut up and get on, you dumb grunt." He lowered his head again, flexed his shoulders.

Comprehension dawned on Melo's face. Rodney was watching Van Arden, her blonde hair plastered to her forehead. Rodney realized that if Sheppard hadn't volunteered, she would have been the one in the dirt, trying to lift a man bigger than her. Melo was short, but he wasn't small. She brushed against Melo's bad side, steadying him while he drew up his weight.

At the moment he committed to throwing himself over Sheppard's shoulders, one of the hoodies behind him kicked him in his good ankle. It was more of an uncontrolled flop, and both of them gasped out hard. Van Arden used her shoulders to help push Melo into a balanced position.

Sheppard lurched from two knees to one, and then lurched again and was standing. With 180 pounds of Marine on his back, he duck-walked, bent and slow. Van Arden danced behind, trying to help steady the load. Rodney looked into Sheppard's face, and he wasn't sallow any longer. His face and neck were flushed, tendons corded. A vein pounded visibly in his forehead as he lugged his man back to the group.

***

They stood in the darkening twilight in their sunny-day clothing, and Teyla shivered. As if they understood his grim anger, the No-faces allowed John to carry the Sergeant, and allowed his forward momentum to continue as the whole column of creatures turned and directed them through the maze of boulders. Teyla could not decide if it was mercy -- surely not, not these monsters that would force the injured to walk -- or urgency, or distaste for their captives. The No-faces were as inscrutable as their absent features.

Her head pounded, and she was thirsty and sore. John would pause and hitch his whole body, hard, to keep Melo from falling off. Melo would mutter "fucking ninjas" like an imprecation to a god, while John grimaced. They were all very clumsy, but bunched together with No-faces on all sides, their shock-weapons poking, there was no room to fall.

She said, quietly, "Ronon, can you hear me? Please come in." Rodney looked at her funny, but he had lost his earpiece. She could not reach hers, to activate it. She stopped and pressed her ear to Rodney's shoulder, trying to trigger the device. "Ronon, can you hear me?"

Ronon did not speak his life or cry his death-cry, and he did not come to them alone and armed or captive and tied. It was possible he was dead, or that he had escaped through the gate. Teyla could not know, and as the No-face people stomped forward and sang their low chant, she realized she could not do anything about the lack of knowledge. He would have to come to good or ill without her input, for now.

This was no consolation, when the No-faces behind her kicked her heels, propelling her forward faster. Night was growing cold, that stiffness working into her bones. But John could not keep to a straight line with a man's weight on him, and drifted always to the left as if on an incline. Rodney walked ahead of him, turning often to see his progress, muttering advice and encouragement and the occasional cheerful death-threat.

John responded with many curse words Teyla knew, and several she did not. Sweat rolled down his temples, clearing runnels through the dust on his face. It was a very long walk, or seemed so.

But the dark was still not complete when their strange quiet column began to disappear into the mountain. Teyla watched the No-faces ahead of them, there and then suddenly not, their deep unintelligible voices humming as in ritual.

Judy was first in the line, and balked at what she saw. "No way," she said, slow and firm, but the No-faces were on every side, their black shapes looming. One of them kicked her hard and she tumbled past a turn and away into darkness. Rodney gasped and stumbled forward, and as they all moved Teyla could see it was stairs, down and to one side, next to a tall stone like a camouflage screen. Each step was rounded, worn down with a thousand years of feet, and the rock above sanded by passing hands. An enormous door into the dark, with Judy Yu already inside and the No-faces everywhere, voices insistent. Teyla took the first step.

"You will want to take the steps sideways, Colonel," she said, "I will guide your feet downward."

"We won't let you fall," added Rodney, and in tandem they all struggled into the black maw.

It would have felt so much more like an accomplishment that they reached the bottom without falling if Teyla had not seen Judy sitting, with her head covered in a black hood. She had only time to gasp before the rough fabric was slipped over her own face.

***

Evasion was a comfortable discipline. He knew the ways of it, silence and trickery and murder as a last resort. Ronon had seen that the others did not know and it pleased him a little to confirm his exceptionalism. He had listened to the weaponsfire and to the shouts that accompanied it and later to the cries of the tortured prisoner. He heard Teyla's voice in his ear, and might have responded, but evasion was a discipline. She might have been coerced to speak to him.

There was no way he could have rescued all of them, and to choose among them was untenable. He waited, and listened, and planned. He observed the enemy, their ragged lines of soldiers slipping among the stones as if born to it, pivoting gracefully. They did not look up at him. He crouched atop a boulder unnoticed, close enough to reach out and snatch a dark mask from one of those enemy heads. It would be easy.

The enemy had no notion of the intelligence it was giving away.

He leapt from stone to stone, carefully arrhythmic in pattern and speed, following the column. He glimpsed the prisoners, Sheppard's black-clad back bent with the weight of the tortured one. They did not look up either. Just as well; they would have tried to signal him, and gotten him caught.

Here was the dangerous part, the gap where the stones ended and the mountainside began. Anyone could turn and see him, crouching there in the open -- but they did not think to turn. The enemy column found the narrowest point and hurried across, jogging, the low thrum of their ritual speech everywhere. They did not slow as they approached the cliff. The first of them disappeared into rock from one instant to the next.

Ronon watched carefully, disbelieving, and soon he saw the trick of it: they were agile and sinuous all of them, and turned a corner into an entrance hidden in the cliff face. He leapt to another stone, and then another, watching as the enemy slipped one by one around the natural-looking baffle and into their stronghold.

The prisoners plodded forward, prodded and kicked into line, and began to disappear into that dark entrance. As soon as they were gone from view, the advantage would be lost and rescue would become difficult. It was an easy decision to make, and even easier to take action: Ronon waited for a straggler to slide past his stone, someone the right size, and he reached down and snapped that dark-covered neck.

It was a human, because it expired its last breath into Ronon's palm. He lifted the body high, and stripped it of its clothes. It was a man, skin no particular color and hair like dust, yellow-gray. He thumbed the prominent eyes open to check: more gray, almost pink. Albino. Quickly Ronon donned the roughspun sweater and hood, the faint smell of animal in the fabric. The dead white creature he folded carefully and balanced on top the stone. Down in the dirt, his vision narrowed to the rocks on all sides, Ronon tucked his hair into the back of the sweater and rejoined the troop. They did not say anything to him, rapt in their ritual, and he did nothing to invite notice. At the heels of his enemy, he turned a corner and tracked his way into the bowels of their prison.

***

Well, this was sucking very much. It wasn't the dark so much, and it wasn't the itchy hood that caused it. He had carried people around on his shoulders before (usually, with free hands to steady, and mostly in swimming pools), and had the flu on duty before, and he'd even spent his fair share of time tied up among unpleasant people. But having Melo disappear suddenly, that weight off his back making him pop up like a folding lawn chair -- and then the screaming. No fun at all.

On the up side, Melo's hysteria gave a pretty good sound-picture of what had happened, so John wasn't terribly surprised when grabby hands shoved him forward, stumbling, until one boot stumbled over a big pile of nothing and down he went. "Incoming!" he called, and felt the rough stone on one shoulder as he slid down into an extremely deep hole. By the time he landed, Melo had heeded his warning and managed to roll out of the way. John wasn't quite smart enough to do his own rolling, and he got a nice Teyla-sized boot print on his chest.

At this point, he began thinking that possibly there was a dental surgeon down here, and a swarm of biting black flies, and his seventh grade French teacher. It's better to know you're in hell for sure than always to be wondering.

The bizarro Indiana Jones villains echoed and faded, scraped away with an echoing thunder of stone on the move. John listened to the tick of falling pebbles, and realized that the hole was being closed, with them inside. Outside? Wherever, someplace probably bad.

"Uh," he said, and listened to the echo. Under that was Melo, hyperventilating, his shocky breaths just this side of crying. John rolled over to to his knees and nudged around till they were touching.

"Sounds big," said McKay, somewhere nearby. "Tall cavern, some kind of -- baffles or chambers. Do you smell that?"

"Groundwater," said Yu, the geologist. "Limestone, I think -- calcium carbonate in solution. There'll be drips and pools all over."

Sheppard caught that hard, metallic whiff, something dank and inorganic. "At least we've got a water supply," he muttered.

They began to shift, shuffling with their feet and knees, searching. Someone was exploring the space, stumbling around. Pebbles skittered everywhere. "Oh! Oh!" said a high voice. Judy Yu again. "Sharp edges here. I think I can cut --"

"Do that." He listened to the woman huffing and shifting, and to the blessed blessed noise of friction. None of the cowled bizarro guys stepped in to stop her, which meant they really were alone.

"So hey," said Sheppard, low. "Can I convene a little council-of-war here for a second?"

Scuffling noises around him. He was tickled to realize, suddenly, that Van Arden on his right, and Teyla and McKay on his left, had all had the same idea: they backed towards him, crouching. They convened by reaching out backwards with their bound fingers, little fluttering touches and quick thumb-grabs. It was impossible to tell whose hands were whose, in the disorienting absence of light and weird position -- just hands, anybody's. They were all freaking out in the dark a little; he really hoped he still had glow-sticks stowed in his vest, or things might get ugly.

"So here's the deal," said Sheppard, to get them all focussed. "We'll be missed in how many hours?"

"We're due back midmorning tomorrow," supplied Van Arden. "Probably twelve hours, fourteen maybe, sir. I can't read my watch."

"Okay. Well, we're in jail at least till then, or till Elizabeth negotiates some kind of peace treaty or something. Maybe Ronon made it back, and we can start the clock early." He stopped and thought. "Even in jail, we have to stick together, take care of business."

McKay rustled next to him, impatient.

"McKay, as usual, you're on escape plan. You find us a way out of here, and work with the geologist. If they don't turn the lights on, we're gonna need a sense of night and day – Van Arden, that'll be you handling a schedule, working out shifts, and please tell me you've got a flashlight up your sleeve. Teyla, you're quartermaster and inventory, since we don't know if we'll be fed." That was her hand, squeezing his thumb. "Melo, you've got some medic training?"

"Yes sir," said Melo. He inched a little, his arm against Sheppard's knee.

"Good," Sheppard told him. "As soon as Yu gets us all untied, you and I are gonna set your leg."

Melo breathed long, like somebody who's just been told about a guy who didn't make it back. "Yes, sir," he mumbled.

Yu was quick, and Yu was tough, cutting herself free and her wrist to ribbons in only a few minutes. She was a lot slower locating Sheppard's knife (her hands shy, tracing down his body) and practically glacial putting the blade to the thongs that bound him. "I'll try not to cut you," she blurted, and the ties parted instantly under the sharp edge. "Oh!"

"Good job, Yu," he said, (Call me Judy, she grumbled) and set her to cutting loose all the rest. He ripped the hood off his face, and there was still no light at all. Sheppard patted himself down for glowsticks, cracked one and saw faces emerge one by one. They all looked a little haggard, blinking and shuddering in the dim green light, so he blended in just fine, but intelligence was way too important --

It was awfully nice to find a heap of military-issue stuff, rucksacks in a pile, just left there where they'd all fallen. John didn't bother searching the dark ceiling for the hole; he wasn't sure he wanted to know how far up it was. And anyway, he had a heap of stuff to play with, that probably still had a medical kit and a huge beacon flashlight. "You're in luck," he told Melo.

Luck turned out not to be the right word, not for Melo's tibia. Sheppard got to know it real well over the next while, and he couldn't give the poor guy a dose of morphine till he'd found out all the Sergeant knew about compound fractures.

"Fucking ninjas," came the whimper, for the millionth time. Sheppard hadn't decided whether that was an active delusion or just some really terrified irony. Van Arden came, and sat with Melo, talking him through it. Sheppard watched them, how she held his hands so he wouldn't reach and interfere, how she would breathe deeply and coax him to breathe. She threw Sheppard foul looks, until at last the break was stabilized with a pair of collapsible spades from Judy's pack, and the bleeding stanched.

"Just say yes to drugs," he muttered, jabbing Melo in the hip with an ampule. "Half-dose, and save the rest for the morning." John repacked the medical kit and thoughtlessly stood up. Immediately he sat back down again, brains whirling.

Van Arden didn't say a word, but the line between her brows sent out some kind of distress signal, because Rodney dropped his stack of rucksack inventory and scuttled up close.

"What just happened? Are you hurt? Oh my god did they beat you up and you're such a goddamned stoic you wouldn't admit it and now you're bleeding internally? You know I'm not qualified for thoracic surgery, right?"

"I got banged around," John contradicted. "No worse than you. But --" Rodney's hands were on him, searching down ribs and tickling fiercely. He batted them away. "Stop that, McKay. I just have a bug."

This went over considerably less casually than he'd said it. The cavern echoed with dismayed silence.

"Not a bug bug. The flu, or something. Came on a couple hours ago, while we were in the rock maze." He shifted, awkward. "Headache, chills, and the vertigo is a really nice touch. I have a policy about not throwing up in front of friends, by the way. The dark was kind of a nice rest from all that spinning."

"I knew you were acting like a freak," hissed Rodney. Everyone else sat quietly, even Melo, his eyes shiny and far away. They were waiting for him.

"Nothing serious," he said, and Rodney replied instantly,

"Take the painkillers in the kit. There were at least a few, right? And then we can start you in on morphine."

Judy Yu was sitting on her haunches, rock in hand. She needed that wrist bandaged -- he should have remembered that before packing up the kit. She told Rodney, "You're the kind of guy who traded his Prozac for Ritalin in college, aren't you?"

Come to think, she was probably right. Rodney would have traded his left nut for Ritalin, and would today if anybody had some.

"The kit is packed for trauma, not viruses," answered John at last. "Anyway. We stick with the plan, and the plan is to sit tight until diplomacy or crooked thinking gets us out of here."

"You weren't going to tell us," said Teyla, from across the space of the cave. She was with the rucksacks, counting MREs. How did she always know?

He decided on rearguard action. "Hey, in case it's catching, don't let me lick any spoons."

Sheppard turned off the flashlight, to conserve the battery for emergencies.

***

He followed the humming band, silent, hanging back but not too far. Sometimes Ronon wondered whether it was a brain-skill, convincing the enemy he was not there simply by thinking it; but McKay's trashing of ninja powers this afternoon suggested not. He was there, and the enemy did not distinguish him from their own. The whole group moved as one, taking right turns and traveling down, deeper, into the mountain.

Their voices rumbled lower and softer as the passages they crossed grew larger: caves, natural caves with hanging columns. These had not been dug but found. The enemy as one crossed some invisible boundary, and yellow fingernails pulled at masks till all faces were clear. Ronon hung back farther. He saw those pop-eyes gaping wide, some albino some not, as they sang reverence and fear and tramped onward. They pushed their prisoners more gently now, hands-on, guiding. The prisoners said nothing to each other.

Down deep, the daylight gone, they struck sparks near one wall and created light, a bright arc of electricity, blinding at first. Ronon hung back to regain his vision and assess, but the enemy surged forward. It was a signal, an arrival. Enemy men and women leapt foward into an alcove, a hole man-high and wide enough for ten abreast. Mechanical sounds like chain, echoing. He could not see inside.

Ronon watched the prisoners stumble in, prodded from behind. The enemy sorted themselves, still humming low, ranging outside the alcove in a half-moon -- like the stones before the gate.

A scream, terror, that went thin and far even as it emerged. Someone echoing away, like the pitch-change of a bullet after it goes past. Another shout, low and warning: that was Sheppard. The rest made no call. A strange noise followed, like grain among millstones, and that was all.

After a few moments, the enemies who had gone in came out again. There were no prisoners. The assembly roared, arms high, masks falling off their shoulders. It was a triumph, the last note to their ritual. They stopped humming after that, and turned to one another to slap shoulders and catch each other up in embrace. They laughed, and their gray teeth reflected the sparklight along with their unnerving eyes.

The enemy struck smaller arcs, little personal lights here and there, and let the bright white light lapse. They looked to each other then, exclaiming, and grouped off in threes and fours. They disappeared down corridors, satisfied, their jobs done. Ronon faded backwards into the dark. They did not see him.

When they were all gone, no guard at all, he came forward again, into the alcove, if only to carry home mementoes of the honored dead. His night vision was powerful, but even he saw nothing, his head brushing the ceiling and the walls blowing back his breath. The prisoners made no sound and their blood did not taint the air. In the middle of the space was an obstacle, and he clicked his tongue to find the echoing shape. Large, all the way to the ceiling and just as wide. He touched it: a perfect round stone, like the soccer ball the Marines played with. A made thing.

Ronon traced his way all about the space, felt the small, regular holes in the walls, and came back to the rock sphere. He examined the ceiling, how the low roof sloped upward just so, space for the stone to move within that alcove but no further. And then, on his knees, he touched the ground it sat on: a hewn floor, a dip just so, space for the stone to sit still without rolling. He guessed it held a secret, a passageway or a transporter or the mechanism for opening another chamber, and knew with shuddering relief that the prisoners were alive.

But the stone would not move under his effort. He heaved at it, quietly at first and then groaning, with everything he had: immense, implacable stillness. He leaned against it, panting, and felt it leach away the warmth from his body. It would not move.

Chapter Text

The hoodie-people had to be the stupidest captors in the galaxy. They had seven rucksacks just lying there in a heap, all of their gear -- down to Sheppard's Top Gun cool dude Mister Testosterone sunglasses, only slightly spidered with cracks -- left with them as if being dared to escape. Rodney McKay loved a dare, in the sense that he hated them, but this one he was going to beat and then he would think of something creatively nasty (a rig of a thousand sunlamps, or clothes made of flash-paper) to do to those stupid hoodie-people. He had a zillion useful things (and several decidedly useless ones) that they had to inventory on blankets or else things might fall into cracks in the uneven floor.

There were four Maglites that took AA batteries, the emergency floodlight that took D batteries, the digital camera a lithium battery, and his laptop could run on none of these. Really, it was ridiculous.

"The hand-held is totally broken," he announced, to nobody in particular.

Sheppard sat with Melo against the wall, helping him bed down as comfortably as could be had on a floor made of rubble. Sheppard murmured something, the echo making his words indistinct. Rodney didn't need to hear the exact verbiage to guess it was something like Quit freaking out, you're making the Marines look bad. Only civilians had the right to freak out, and Judy was really not holding up her end of that bargain. She was sitting on a blanket, sorting kipple by glowlight and picking up rocks to hold them close to her nose.

"It's chilly in here. Are you chilly?" he asked, noting the chemical heat packs in the medical kit.

"Of course it's chilly," said Judy, and pulled the heat packs out of his reach. She laid her hand among the gadgets useful and useless, and came up with a keyring thermometer. "We're underground. No sun, no warmth. It's probably, let's see, 61 Fahrenheit all year round."

"I knew that," said Rodney.

Teyla jiggled a half-empty canteen, frowning, and then poked Rodney. He opened the last rucksack -- this one was Ronon's, and still no idea where the man was himself -- and started pulling things out of it at random. He tossed a sheathed knife to Van Arden, who was inventorying the weapons.

"Hey, you didn't get seriously hurt, did you?" he asked her.

"No," she said, without looking at him. "Headless guy steps out from behind a rock and I crash right into him and bounce back on my fanny." She the laid knife at the end of the row. "Melo gave this gasp like the dead were come alive, and Judy pushes him out of the way and off she goes into the maze. Time I can see straight I got a headless girl sitting on my chest and two more with feet on my wrists. Did you notice they all were barefoot?"

McKay said, "No," and counted nine knives of varying lengths. The hoodies had confiscated all the guns -- despite obviously having no idea what to do with them -- but not the spare clips. (Stupid!) They still had knives and a set of brass knuckles that belonged to Judy Yu. She had also contributed the pickax, and a little hand-trowel not suitable for fighting with. "Did you fire your weapon?"

"No." Van Arden laid out the tenth and last knife, one of Teyla's. "That'll probably have me labeled a coward."

"I got off one shot, and missed," confessed Rodney. "Those zap-guns -- that was unexpected. We've seen projectile weapons, but not many cultures develop energy weapons."

"That's what they got Judy with, I guess." Van Arden took back her own knife, turned away to help Teyla with the Miscellaneous pile. Ronon's leather bag of lucky seashells went into the mix, along with toothbrushes, a spangled superball, and a romance novel.

Sheppard grunted and crawled over to them, leaving Melo behind asleep. "I forgot," he said. He got up on his knees fiddled with his pants.

"What are you doing??" asked Rodney, and his shrill voice echoed. Now Judy and Teyla were definitely watching.

"They didn't search me. Did they search you?" Sheppard stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Took the P-90 and my sidearm, but I hid the grenades on the off-chance they'd be sloppy." Sheppard proceeded to pull a pair of grenades from his pants and handed them over to his second-in-command. Van Arden gaped at him.

"You win," said Rodney faintly. "You are more man than me. You will never see me transporting explosives right next to my crotch, and if I do, I will not forget about them!"

Sheppard gave him a Look. Even sick as a dog, he could pull off a Look. "I was kind of busy," he said, and turned his pockets back right-side in. He turned away, and crawled back to Melo's side.

"So," said Van Arden, in a lame attempt at nonchalance. "Matches. Risk a small fire?"

Judy busted into a rant about the flammability of bat guano (bat guano??) while McKay was gearing up for his lecture on even suggesting that they burn up what might be the only oxygen trapped in this cavern of doom. A hissed debate about organic chemistry ensued, despite Van Arden's confused query of whether arguing didn't just burn up the same O2 just as fast. (Also, Rodney felt the need to point out, what bats?? If there were bats, he deserved to know about them in advance.) It might have gone on all -- well, day wasn't the right term in their enclosed gloom, but it would have filled the hours nicely, if Teyla hadn't silenced them all by saying, in wonder, "There is writing here."

She had another glowstick in hand, and was pointing at a relatively flat section of the cavern's walls. It was the same sandy rock as aboveground, a nice contrast for the black marks someone had left behind. McKay snatched the light source up close to his eyes as he leaned his forehead against the cool slab. He breathed on the lettering, saw bits flake off -- ash. Wood ash, or something like.

The weird angular script was not quite Ancient, something later and more jumbly, inelegant. The women stood by him, touching his back or his arms, low voices in awe or terror. Sheppard stayed by Melo, didn't even watch them as they mapped this new discovery. Definitely sicker than a dog.

"Obviously," said Judy, "somebody burned a fire, and lived long enough to write poetry afterwards."

McKay didn't even bother conceding the point. He eyeballed the not-Ancient pictograms, and stumbled along the wall, to another flat space. More letters. Then to a third, this area as large as a blackboard, floor up to some high ceiling they couldn't see with their paltry green light. The third wall had drawings.

Here was a circle of stones, tall heavy trees like weeping willows bending over them.

"I guess that explains the bird noises," said Van Arden.

Next was a tall circle, angular hints of the chevrons: it was the Stargate. In it and around it, smudged figures, all in dark silhouette. McKay put the glowstick right up against the wall, and saw fingerprints in the ash. Fingerprints old enough that the stone-circle forest had turned to low arid brush.

The image after that was not a scene but a set of statistics: dots in rows, seven to the row. One hand had drawn ten dots, and crossed out six of them. The ash changed color for the next twelve (one crossed out), then again for a row of five (none crossed out). There was a lot of space below those rows of dots; whoever had made those first marks had anticipated a lot of company.

The next drawing on the wall, the last as it turned out, was an arrow six feet long, pointing rightward and down, deeper into the cavern. It had tiny stick-figure people inside it, as if the arrow itself were not enough of an indicator. The first people, or some set after that, had tried to escape by going deeper.

That meant the hole in the ground that had let them into this space was not going to let them out, ever. Rodney let Teyla hold the glowstick, and turned away.

***

The flashlights being rationed, Teyla sat in front of an empty half-circle of stones staring at Van Arden's watch face. It was not bright enough to show the contours of their prison, just their faces in stark shadow and darkness behind.

It was actually John's watch, because Van Arden had discovered hers broken in the night. She sat beside Teyla, fiddling with its buttons, the light from its face glinting like mirrorlight. The watch was enormous, absurd to Teyla's eyes, even more absurd on a smaller wrist. John liked to show her what it could do, functions that seemed vastly unnecessary on a timepiece.

"The darkness will be our enemy," Teyla said. "It will eat at the mind."

Van Arden considered this carefully. "We got stuff we could burn, if we had to. Kind of a waste, though."

"We will need to set priorities, yes. When should we wake everyone?"

"Still early," Van Arden replied. She pointed her chin. "He usually up at this time?" Rodney was stumbling quietly along the cavern walls, exploring. He was holding his laptop open, its screen set to all white, and using it as a makeshift light source. It ghosted, far away, his shadow reaching backwards like a safety line.

"Probably he did not sleep. It is his way, in a crisis."

"So he just lay there in the dark thinking?" Van Arden was nonplussed at this idea.

"That is why he is escape-master. He thinks all the time."

They sat together for a short while, and listened to the sleepers stir. Melo was whimpering, and would soon awake. Teyla struggled for a thing to say. "Can you tell me, is vertigo a common illness on Earth? I have not heard of it before."

Van Arden shrugged. "It's real bad dizziness." She corralled her knees with her elbows, and used the watch like a clasp for both her hands. "You get confused about whether things are moving or not. That makes some people want to puke, I guess. I never had it, but sounds like the Colonel has."

"No, I haven't," said John, his words clear and careful. Both women twisted to see him, still lying on his side. His eyes reflected two dull green pinpoints. "I knew a guy grounded on account of Ménière's Disease, though. Some kind of inner ear problem. He literally couldn't see straight."

Teyla came to his side and checked his forehead. He was feverish. "You are feeling better?"

"Not really," he admitted. "But if it's flu, it'll last at least two or three days."

Van Arden asked, "If it's not, sir?" but John had no answer for that.

Teyla filled that gap with information. "Rodney has been working, while you slept. We have much to show you." She looked him over carefully, how he had not sat up to talk. "Will you walk?"

"Well, I won't enjoy it," he said, but after a moment he rolled over to his knees, and then levered himself upright. They stood with him, watching, while John blinked and cocked his head. "Okay, Teyla, you're with me," he said, and allowed her to thread her arm around his waist. The two of them worked their way across the open space, toward the dim glow of Rodney's laptop. John persistently tried to turn left, and Teyla had to wrench him rightwards to walk in a straight line. He apologized under his breath, but he could not correct the problem.

As they approached, Rodney gasped, over beyond the painted walls. He held his awkward white beacon in his hand, but was aiming its unnatural brightness at something at his feet, a pile of something farther in than they had ventured thus far. She did not ask John, only steered them together to Rodney's side.

They had to come very close indeed -- only an armspan away from where Rodney stood, rooted and breathing hard -- to see what he had noticed.

The pile on the ground in front of him was bones. At one point they had been arranged into some kind of order, but time and scavengers had reduced it to a mass of gray sticks, split and scattered like a badly constructed firepit. There were six humanoid skulls in the pile's center, jawless, dry.

"Oh," said John, sounding very tired.

Rodney was in a horror, but kept enough of himself to whisper instead of shout. "They went cannibal. Oh my God they killed and ate their own men waiting to be rescued."

"Come," said Teyla. "Let us think this through. How do you know they were eaten?"

"Knife marks, look at them, right on the joints." He pointed, but she did not follow his gaze. "They ate their own instead of going deeper, that's why they crossed out all but four of their census dots."

"Census dots?" asked John.

"You will see." Teyla gestured. "Rodney, there were seven dots crossed out. Where is the other body?" He lowered his arm, blinked, and could look at her again.

"I don't know. Somewhere else in the cavern? This first group, they waited too long and then realized their mistake. They're the ones who drew the arrow. They're saying, Don't bother waiting here. There's nothing here to wait for, and --"

"Stand still when you're talking to me!" John hissed suddenly. Rodney hadn't moved, and didn't move. He stopped in the middle of his sentence and did not continue. John was breathing hard, his forehead and cheeks shining with sweat.

"John," she said carefully. "He is standing still. Your illness is worsening." He turned his head to her then, looked at her close enough to kiss or to bite. The eyes in his head did not belong to a person she knew, but some other person: belligerent, cruel. Without breaking his gaze she reached out a hand and Rodney grasped it.

After a few moments, the other person wandered away and John lowered his head. He mumbled, "Sorry. Go on."

Rodney watched them both, worrying his lip, before he spoke again. "They arranged the pile of bones so that they would be found and understood. We have to go deeper."

"And give up rescue so soon?" Telya asked.

"Which do you think would take longer, attacking the hoodie-people -- who have weapons by the way -- on their own home ground and beating them, or finding us in a hole in the ground in the middle of some dark cave? Yes, I'm thinking we can give up on rescue."

John shook his head. "Hell. You're right."

Teyla squeezed Rodney's hand, drew him forward. "First, we eat. Come, help me support him." Rodney stepped into line with them, on John's other side, his hand snaking around John's waist and stroking Teyla's elbow. They turned, an awkward flanking maneuver, and shambled carefully back to the circle of their team.

***

He could not remember when he had lost his pack -- probably during the initial flight. Didn't matter. Despite shedding much of his habitual gear, he could still survive on the materials secreted about his body. That was what made him such a good runner: improvisational skills. There were the weapons of course, kept jealously, but so many other secret things. He stole from the enemy and they did not know.

They wandered their spaces, masks down about their shoulders or missing entirely, gesturing with their hands while they spoke like Atlantis scientists. They scolded children and herded small woolly animals down the passageways, away. They were at home, Ronon realized at last, and did not know to defend themselves. They thought they were safe in their electrified holes.

He climbed high, barefoot like them but with his boots tied to his back. Above their heads he watched, and listened to their nonsense-talk. They did not return to the round-stone alcove; it was taboo perhaps, and to be avoided. Their convulsion weapons had gone away, stored somewhere, and were not carried freely. Nobody ever looked up and saw him.

It was very strange, and bothersome that they should be so foolishly defenseless. Underground, they might be safe from the Wraith -- it must have made them soft as well as superstitious. He sat in an alcove, a natural crack enlarged below into a smooth-walled cavern, and ate stolen mushrooms. He watched women spin their sandy wool, idle, planning loosely.

It took him many intervals of thinking to realize that the thing on a cord around his neck, the funny electrical thing that had no meaning, was the code-object that would let him home through the gate. He kept his fingers on it a long time, sitting in the gloom, perplexed. Home through the gate?

The gate.

The people on the other side of the gate. The reinforcements. Right.

Time ticked by, not too much of it. He kept to his perch, high up in the gap. Below him, steel spindles under raw, sparking lights, and lumpen gray wool, and toddlers playing on the floor. He had to tap himself on the temple to see again the piles of bodies, dark-mask bodies, strewn between pillars of bloody stone. Unclever, that -- changed the landscape, cut off avenues of escape. Sheppard made a mistake, there.

It would be harder, trying to free the prisoners now it was known they had killing skills. The enemy would be on their guard.

The gate.

He stole away, shimmying up the rock face with his back and the soles of his feet. No pebbles dropped to signal his presence. It was not difficult to find his way back to the passage with the door up onto land -- unguarded, unlocked, just a hole into sky. Just a staircase, cut into the rock, ages old. It seemed to lead nowhere, and then he turned the corner and was outside.

And there was land, soft-edged in dawnlight. The perfect time to float through enemy lines, when all things are vague and waiting idly for day to arrive fully. The setting sun behind you someone had told him, as if he needed directions. He climbed the first stone he found, and leapt from top to top. He was not far from the gate, not far at all. Even if he had not been able to see, he would have found it by the smell.

The fire fed hungrily, smoking and hissing as with soaked wood. It was close up in front of the gate, just beyond the first row of stones, tall flames reflecting off the cliff face. He counted the enemy fire-tenders, just five people arrayed around the pyre in the gate's clearing, watching. They wore their masks still, even in the gray morning, and might have worn them all night. They stood, expectant, unknown objects in their hands, and in front of them the fire worked. All the clothing in the pile had gone up -- that was expected. But the corpses had been piled together tightly, ordered and racked like bullets in a chamber. More carefully than they'd been strewn between the pillars: all the heads faced the same way, hair gone, naked and turning black. The stink of flesh and a heavy grease in the air made him grumble in his throat.

Down off the stones he slid and made himself invisible in the maze. The enemy did not perceive him, by sight or sound. Ronon was close enough to reach out and touch one, if he chose; he did not. Observation only, careful assessment.

A moment came, when the five enemies raised their arms, shouting in their strange tongue. Each held a weapon, or two weapons: P-90s, handguns, one arm-long stick that Teyla used often. The weapons glowed, touched for an instant by the flash of the rising sun, and then they went onto the pyre, thrown with a thoughtlessness that proved the enemy did not understand gunpowder.

Ronon stepped aside, behind a standing stone. He listened to the stinking hiss of the plastic catching, and then it happened: the bullets exploded, one by one or in great handfuls, bits of steel and copper flying in all direction. The enemy shrieked and beat at the ground. Each bullet found its own flashpoint, and the powder went up, the shell casing pinging as it bounced down off the fire. The sun came higher in the sky, welcome warmth against Ronon's cheeks. He withdrew to a safer distance.

The enemy ranged about, agitated, and Ronon settled in to wait.

***

For all John was technically in charge, Judy Yu was their pitiless taskmaster.

"Touch that I kill you," she said, cheerful, and slapped Rodney's hand away from a handhold. "Probably loose, and you'll bring it down on the Colonel's head."

"Yes, Doctor Spelunker," Rodney grumped. He put his hand someplace else, higher, a crack in the rock face.

Of all the things John expected to see in his life, aside from the whole intergalactic travel and zombie vampires and all, the very last thing was Rodney McKay attempting to free-climb. He was second in their little caravan, after Judy who got to wield the pickax because she was the one who'd brought it. Anyway, she was little, so she went first; Rodney, being biggest, was second (and got to hold the flashlight). If he didn't get stuck, the rest of them would fit through fine. John was third on account of being the only person big enough to tug Rodney out of a tight spot. "And you've got long, skinny arms," Judy had said. "You can reach stuff."

It wasn't so bad, being valued solely for his resemblance to Plastic Man. Didn't require any cognitive input, and he got to sit still, feet in a freezing puddle, and listen to Rodney and Judy kick each other's asses all over academia. He rested his heavy head against the cool limestone block while they argued over the hole they'd found.

"What, you don't think your gigantically inflated ego would fit through??"

"No, you tiny-handed fool, we've got Melo scooting around on his butt. How the hell are we supposed to get him up ten feet in the air?"

"If you can climb it, he can!" There was an impact noise, and Rodney yipped. It sounded suspiciously like Judy had smacked him upside the head. A woman after John's own heart.

Rodney's response was downright petulant. "I saw the Poseidon Adventure, you know. One-legged climbing is going to be problematic."

"Well what are we gonna do," asked Judy, low. "Leave him behind?"

John felt he should interject at this, but he lifted his head, shivering, just in time to see the one-legged climber in question contorting himself out of the previous squeeze spot. Teyla, directly behind, braced her shoulders against the tight ceiling and shoved his good right foot, and Melo plopped out onto the floor of their little chamber like a puppy being born. The poor Marine had mud in his hair and in his ears and probably a lot of other orifices, and was now sitting in the puddle John had been trying to avoid.

Teyla crawled out of the squeeze, and called, "Come," over her shoulder. Van Arden's voice echoed back, and they were all together again, in a space about the size of Elizabeth's office. John reached out to straighten Melo's clothes, help him to a more comfortable position, and tripped over something. He landed hard on his knees and forearms, and left some skin behind.

There was nothing else to do, but settle in as comfortably as possible and wait for Judy and Rodney to work out their next step. They perched up high on the block, and it seemed like progress when the flashlight dimmed and disappeared -- Judy trying out the hole. As the light went, their little bubble in the ground became vast, endless, dripping and echoing.

John couldn't get used to the dark, a total absence of light that seemed unreal. His eyes played tricks on him, conjuring cracks of green afterimage like a lightbulb from under a closed door. His brain just wouldn't take it, that there should be no visual input at all. Even night-flying, way out in the nowheres between mountainside villages in central Asia, there had always been something. Starlight, moonlight, clouds that still managed to let in the slightest glow.

He could ask Van Arden to turn on the tiny backlight in her watch (his watch), but he figured that would sound desperate.

A warm, fleshy smell came over him and he realized Teyla was by his side. Her scent was distinctive, so different from the acrid sweat of the others. "How are you feeling?" she asked. "Are you warm enough?"

He let her trace his neck, his chilly ears, chafe the backs of his hands. He'd had no idea caves would be so cold. He reached out and checked that her jacket was zipped all the way up.

"Sir," asked Van Arden from somewhere over thataway, "You think we should leave another marker?"

John wasn't up to thinking. "Let Judy decide," he said. He let Teyla guide his hand outward, duck duck goose, to feel the heads of his soldiers. He tapped Van Arden's forehead, and then set himself to wiping the crud out of Melo's kinky hair. "Good job," he recited, dutiful. "We made a lot of progress already."

Really he had no idea how much progress they'd made, but it sounded good to say. He was pretty sure they'd been at it for four hours or so, leaving their prison chamber some time near what would be dawn on the outside.

Teyla had done the honors, torching a page of Judy's notepaper and smudging the ashy remains with her thumb under the last row of census dots. She had put down six thumbprints, careful, and then looked up uncertainly. "Do we count Ronon?"

"I guess so," John had said. After the seventh thumbprint, she had looked at her hands, smeared gray streaks on her palms. She had used the leftover ash to write their names on the wall in blocky childish letters. John couldn't remember who had taught her to read English -- he'd meant to, and never gotten around to it. She had sat there, looking out at them all as they gathered around, five people from Earth and one outlander holding them all together.

"Let us proceed," she'd said, and they had.

And now here they were, waiting their turns to climb a ten-foot sheer face and cram themselves into the next twelve-inch gap in the rocks. Van Arden was going to call lunch-break soon, and he was going to have to admit that he was in no shape to keep anything down. Cool air washed past his face, what Judy called the caves' breathing. It gnawed at him and he shivered again.

"What I wouldn't give for a fire," said Melo, and he sounded near tears.

"Hey Van Arden," said John. "What time is it?" She would have to turn on the watch's backlight to check. It was a pinprick, one hazy star in the immense night, but it was something.

***

The enemy left their posts in front of the gate halfway through the day, quivering with wary rage. They had added a body to the pyre, and only four sentries returned to the invisible stone door of their home. Ronon watched and listened and breathed foul fumes, and waited.

It seemed a worthwhile risk, once the sun was at peak and the fire cooling, embers and sparks without flame. He edged past the heat and called homeward, suddenly afraid he might have forgotten the sequence of symbols.

The gate said its blue hello. He had not forgotten. Came a voice, in a language he knew: "Colonel, please report!" It was the kind of request that was more of an order. It was directly in his ear, like someone standing behind him.

He put a hand to his headset -- he'd forgotten it. It had stopped working a day ago, after the attack. There had been nobody to talk back to him.

The button in his ear moved under his thumb. "Atlantis?" he asked. He tried again, steadier. "This is Ronon Dex. There has been a situation. I need reinforcements."

"Clear to come through." He watched the rippling blue, its unreal texture. It was never the same pattern twice. He did not go.

"Reinforcements," he said again, patient.

The gate gaped serenely at him. "Ronon." This was Elizabeth, who could say his name like exasperation or regard. "Come through to us now. I need to know what is happening, and you may need supplies, or care."

"Send them to me," he said.

"I will not, Ronon. Without seeing you, how can I know you are not speaking under duress? Come through, and we will plan together."

He could not see the hole in this logic, though he stood and examined it for several minutes. "Coming," he said.

They were waiting for him, many Marines and Elizabeth on the stairs with a furrow between her brows. They shut the gate behind him and the Marines approached, alert. "You all right?" one of them asked, his finger close to but not touching the trigger.

Ronon pushed past him and climbed the stairs. Elizabeth watched him come, her mouth like a line of steel, the sinews of her arms tight. He could not know what she thought. "They are prisoners. I could not move the stone. One of them was tortured."

Elizabeth drew in a fast breath. "Shitfire." She mastered herself. "I'll take you to Dr. Beckett, and plan the rescue on the way." She took his hand and pulled, and he followed. His legs were unsteady. They passed through corridors and he lost where he was, thinking of the caves and the sparking white light. Elizabeth tapped her headset. "Major Lorne, please meet me at Beckett's office. Bring your thinking cap."

And there was the infirmary, narrow beds and cabinets and busy people who smelled clean. Ronon could not remember why he had come to this place, when the rescue was not yet done. He snatched his hand back from Elizabeth's grasp and spun, looking for useful supplies.

"Come, Ronon," said Elizabeth. "You must let the doctor help you, so that you can help the team." Her hands were in front of her, palms open. He could hear the persuasion in her pitch and timbre. He ignored it.

"Give me explosives and people who know rock," he said, as straightforwardly as he knew how.

"We will give you food first, and bandages for the scrapes on your hands." Elizabeth came forward slowly and put her hands on his shoulders, light, unthreatening. "And then we plan the rescue together."

She did not glance at the soldier Lorne, who stood in the doorway flexing his hands. She was smarter than that. She slid out of the way for Beckett, the doctor, who patted down from shoulder all the way to forearm before capturing one of Ronon's hands in his own.

"Learned that one from horses," said Beckett. "Come now, you don't startle as easy as a beast, do you? Let me see it."

It was only a shard of stone, stuck in a line of his palm. There were other bruises and scrapes, but that one he knew would draw attention. The doctor worked quickly, never looking up, while Elizabeth asked questions and evaluated his answers. It was, in fact, faster than he had expected. Beckett turned back to him with a sharp object in hand --

Ronon was standing at the ready and halfway across the room.

"All right, if you don't want anaesthetic, you don't have to take it." Beckett put the needle behind his back before stepping to the side. He told Elizabeth: "He needs a meal and a solid day of sleep, and see if he'll take some gauze on his palms. I expect the first is all he'll take, situation being what it is."

Ronon watched him without turning his head. Lorne had his hands high, touching the door lintels, empty. He had taken lessons from Elizabeth.

"Let's go," he insisted, and Elizabeth nodded her consent.

She led the way to her office, brisk, but Lorne had beaten her there somehow. He had caffeine pills and hot food that Sheppard called mashed potatoes, although it was made from taf roots. "Eat," said the soldier. "Then talk."

Ronon did both at once. The rest of the story was done before the plate was empty, and he licked the spoon while debating how best to blow the prison door.

"Shape charges around the block," argued Lorne.

Ronon shook his head. "Then we fight our way out as the enemy come to defend their sacred territory." The spoon clattered down. "One prisoner cannot walk -- the dark man, the Marine. We would have to carry him."

"Melo," said Lorne, rubbing his face with both hands. "Okay, we could drill. If we had the equipment."

"Which we don't," added Elizabeth. "No hope of a diplomatic solution?"

"Their talk is alien. They have never passed through a Stargate, none of their people, ever in a thousand years. They attacked us without attempting to parley."

"We have no leverage to negotiate, not right now." She sighed. "Lorne, what do you think of the team?"

Lorne scanned the sheet of paper she had scribbled on. "Uh, actually, yeah. Gonayev's got the geology and he did time in the Russian army. Kraeter and Hastings are from hill country, West Virginia and upper Tennessee, both Marines. No on Shishek; he can't stand small spaces. I haven't met Yagelski, but if she spends her free time base-jumping then I doubt a cave would faze her. And me," he added.

"No, Major," said Elizabeth. "I need you here."

"I was stationed in the Rockies for two years. I'm no mountain goat, but, I'm the only officer here who's done any serious hiking."

Ronon watched them, assessed their stances. They both had reason, and might argue all day. "Decide who is coming with me," he said abruptly, and stood. "I will be in the armory."

Elizabeth leapt to her feet, but did not stop him from going. "I," she called to his back. As he left the room, he heard, "Fine, go with him. Just bring them all back and don't get killed."

This was, at least, forward motion. He listened to Lorne's jogging feet as they came to him down the corridor.

***

With his obvious genius and his lumpy, enormously disproportionate body, nobody ever expected Rodney to be graceful anyway. But even if the rest of the team couldn't tell, he knew that his feet weren't doing quite what they were told. He stumbled over piles of pebbles and pretended he was kicking them out of the way. He daubed the sweat off his forehead, and then remembered that too was one of Sheppard's symptoms.

Space flu was not exactly the valiant death he had been expecting, not after all those exciting opportunities to be torn limb from limb, shot, strangled, or sucked dry.

The going had been all right for a little while, crawlways easy to find and in no need of enlargement by pickax. Judy had remarked on the paths until Rodney reminded her that they would come across the corpses eventually. It was probably a fatal mistake to even try following in the footsteps of thousand-year-old prisoners, but Rodney hadn't been able to come up with a palatable alternative. So they climbed through existing holes and looked for the next pile of bones. They got pretty far their first day, a lot farther than he had expected.

He sat back now, sleeping bag over his shoulders, taking small bites of a power bar to keep his stomach from revolting. Of all the annoyances of being trapped to their doom in a gigantic ant farm, being unable to assuage the hypoglycemic wobbles was the worst.

"Change now, and sleep in the dry clothes," Judy said, and snugged her own sleeping bag more tightly around herself. "Conserving body heat is key right now."

Van Arden was already working on building a fire: gauze from the medical kit, and fingersplints that looked just like tongue depressors. Cardboard, from all the kit packaging. It wasn't very warm, but she blew on it and it was light.

"Double-up, you think? Sleeping bags?" asked Melo. He was working probably faster than normal, because when he was done bandaging Teyla's hands he got to take his morphine. He'd already done everyone else, and their white-taped knuckles gleamed at each other, ghost-fingers.

"Yeah," said Van Arden. She shuffled off her jacket, just sitting there in front of them all, and pulled her t-shirt over her head. It was pretty wet, and she would definitely be better off in something warmer, but -- she scooted around Sheppard, who was lying quietly, and rummaged in her rucksack. She came up with something too small to cover her bra. "Socks."

"Yes, that's what they are," Rodney replied, testy.

"Yes, ma'am," echoed Melo. "Good idea." Rodney boggled at him, till he explained. "Like gloves. Save us a couple of scrapes, anyway."

"Socks on our hands??" asked Rodney. "That's the stupidest, actually most brilliant, notion you've come up with yet --"

"I just realized," Judy interrupted. "Things aren't going to dry, not without a bigger fire. The humidity's too high."

Teyla was all damnable reason. "This is all the fire we have. Burning clothes should be a last resort."

Judy grimaced. "Might be some brush, or something, nearer an exit."

"Wherever an exit might be," said Rodney, feeling cruel. "People routinely get lost in cave systems and wander in circles and starve to death. People also, in this galaxy, build entire civilizations underground, with only a nominal surface presence. For all we know, this is an advanced form of Genii torture."

Teyla began, "Surely not --" but Rodney cut her off.

"No, of course not, but we don't have any idea what those hoodie people did want, or whether they'll resent our escaping their nice little mouse-maze."

This came across as badly in the group at large as it had in his own head. Rodney tried not to triumph in their uneasy murmurs.

Sheppard had been silent, curled on his side. When Van Arden had called for dinner he'd just sort of dropped that way, hadn't eaten, and hadn't had any clever remarks to add to their dire conversation. It was getting annoying, his stonewalling. "Teyla, you sick yet?" he asked.

"I am well," she said, and smiled that brilliant smile. "I have recovered from the blow I took." People loved to smile back at her, and everybody did (even Sheppard, eyes closed) except Rodney. She couldn't fail to notice.

"Yes, okay," he confessed. "I had a dizzy spell this afternoon, but it went away. I'm not nearly as bad as Colonel Horizontal over here." He nudged Sheppard, not unkindly he thought, but the response was a pained grunt and Van Arden grabbing his arm.

Thunderstruck, he grabbed hers back. "Oh my God that's it, that's it!" He hadn't meant to shout. Sheppard made another displeased noise. "Why are the two of us sick and nobody else? If it were a pathogen we'd all have it by now." Of course none of them had any medical expertise at all. Of course Carson was prancing around happy as a clam in his infirmary back in the city rather than suffering as he ought to out here. "It's something in the environment, that only affects us. Something keyed to the gene, that's it, that's why I've got a mild case and Sheppard is falling to pieces. It's the gene."

Van Arden sat back, thinking. Teyla opened her mouth to object, but he talked on over her.

"We're allergic to this space, maybe this kind of rock, maybe this whole planet. That's that stupid energy reading I couldn't figure out. Somebody designed a whole underground city, and the space above it, and more importantly the space directly around the Stargate, to repel Ancients!"

Sheppard's voice was ghostly slim, as if in the grip of a dream. "We need tinfoil hats."

"Something like that. And if that failed," Rodney added, and really there was no reason not to go over-the-top given their extremely under-the-bottom situation, "they stuffed them down an oubliette into the deepest dungeon they could find, waited for them to die, and pretended they'd never come."

The proper word for the noise Judy made was dismay, but not everybody was able to understand what was so obviously in front of them all.

"Why would they do that?" asked Van Arden. "I thought the Ancients were the good guys."

"Rebels? Resentment at their counfounded meddling?" Rodney let his imagination loose. "Some kind of attempt to dissociate themselves from Atlantis, as a Wraith-avoidance strategy? They've obviously got their own technology, with the crowbar-zappers, so maybe they thought they were better off on their own. Who the hell knows? It's why the hand-held conked out soon after we arrived. Nothing Ancient would work here."

"Hold on a sec." Melo objected. Really, the first few minutes of his morphine haze he was quite entertaining. "I don't got a gene. How come the ninjas didn't leave me alone? If all they hated was Ancients, they would just lock up the two of you and let us go home."

"Well, clearly," and Rodney put all the withering sarcasm he had into the word, "Clearly, the hoodie people are unbelieveably stupid anyway, considering they left us supplies and ammunition."

Teyla put a hand on his knee. "Many years have passed since an Ancient came here. Many times many." She shrugged toward the whole group. "The no-faces do not speak a language even the Stargate can understand. It may be that they have come to see all outsiders, any outsiders, as invaders to be repelled."

Judy shuddered, and crossed her arms as if for warmth. "The rescue party. They'll be in here too, tomorrow or the next day." Rodney realized then that she was his kindred spirit in worst-case scenarios.

"That's why we left markers," whispered Sheppard, and dropped off to sleep.

***

John woke up feeling like he'd been stomped on -- oh hey, wait, he had been stomped on -- and stretched his kinked back, only to realize nobody was in arm's reach. Voices were debating in a whisper on the other side of the space, their voices mingling into a sibilant echo that just made his head pound harder. "Morgnung?" he mumbled, and the conversation stopped.

Today was the first day they would have to find their own holes, he remembered. Today was going to suck, and their progress was going to slow way down.

"Colonel," said Van Arden, too loud and breathing on him. Suddenly he missed Teyla's toasty feet next to his, and figured out that he probably wasn't going to get to go back to sleep.

"Sir, we were debating our course of action for the day."

"Oh," said John. From the fog, slowly, the appropriate joke emerged. "Hope you didn't decide to kill me and eat me."

"No sir," said Van Arden, as if it had been seriously considered. "But we've got to get going again."

"Going." He felt around, realized the other sleeping bags were no longer laid out. "Right." He unzipped out of his warm coccoon and reached for his boots. If Melo could crawl, he could crawl.

He crawled. And climbed over waist-high piles of rock shards, and once even got to turn around and push Rodney in the ass with both feet when Rodney got his shoulder stuck, and gawked at weird white ripples of stone that Judy said were marble. The marble-room had been bright, the walls reflecting the flashlight into every corner. He hated that room.

He sat still while Judy moved the light, and shadows would flit around into crevices, and his nausea would flicker up, choking. The sharp, steely smell of the standing pools of water was a strange comfort, settling his stomach. John discovered it really was possible to keep your eyes closed for an hour at a time, waiting for Judy to disappear into the next tiny passage and take the blinding light with her. Then it was just voices and breath, hands cupping his elbow or running through his hair as they counted heads, and distant slow dripping and stones in motion, and John could handle that.

He inched into another passage, one that dipped down before turning right and angling upward again, and felt like he could handle that. The rocks were sharp and in the small space they all stank like unbathed bodies and Rodney was kicking pebbles into his face, but he had it under control. If only people would stop trying to draw him into conversation.

"Chocolate," said Melo behind him. "What do you like, sir?" They had paused on their bellies one after another, at Judy's say-so, without knowing why. John breathed through another wave of nausea, and there was something jutting into his hip.

"Like what," he mumbled.

"Flavors of jelly beans that aren't, but should be." Melo asked again, addressing John's feet generally: "Trying to think positive, sir."

"I don't know," he said, and put his head down on his forearm. In front of him, Rodney and Judy were arguing in short, muffled exchanges.

"The Lieutenant says you can't have jellybeans in anything but fruit flavors. I say that's crap, sir. Is all." Melo seemed to have gotten the drift of his superior officer not giving a shit. He shouted, "Hey guys, what's the holdup?"

"Ohhh, shut the fuck up," breathed John, his brains reverberating inside his skull.

Rodney's voice came back, lower and less -- Rodneylike -- than was to be expected. Probably he'd heard that plea. "My collar. It snagged on a stalagmite."

"Stalactite," added Judy.

"Whatever. It'll only be another minute," said Rodney.

Yeah, John thought that would be pretty hard to untangle, in the dark, in a passage eighteen inches high. And really, except for the part where he was under a zillion tons of rock that might come down at any instant, and in a hole the size of a duffel bag, five other people breathing the only air he would get, and maybe it was smaller than a duffel bag, or it was getting smaller, or -- suddenly he was thrashing, banging his shoulders left and right against the solid stone, and there was no way out. He heard himself, felt the waves of unreasoning panic ride up his spine and pop into his head, poison bubbles, and could only kick harder. The rock was an unforgiving embrace, and would never let him go.

And then McKay's feet were moving, moving away, making space. John gulped air and put all his scanty attention into the task of crawling. Hips, knees, elbows, just like all those stupid muddy obstacle courses he'd done for years -- he could handle that. He crabbed his way out into the next cavern like a champ, collapsing in a heap against the wall. Rodney was beside him, skin hot and twitching. John's arm was against his ribs, and those were big scared breaths Rodney was heaving.

"I think I just got claustrophobia," John panted.

Rodney demanded, "Only just now?" And it was the perfect thing to say for John to laugh one hard coughing laugh and pretend it hadn't happened. They leaned together and waited for the others to come through.

A sock touched his shoulder -- Judy's hand. It was moist, sticky with blood. "People freak out sometimes," said the woman. "It'll pass."

She made herself a seat on John's other side. He felt the shape of her, round, feminine, against his shoulder and ribs and hip and thigh, and envied her her insulating body fat. She pushed his elbow aside and burrowed closer, sharing warmth. They all sat and rested and didn't say anything.

Chapter Text

They came through at sunrise the next day, the fire before them cold and dead. The bones no longer smoked, but ash scattered slowly in the breeze. Lorne and his team made horrified noises.

"Quiet," Ronon muttered. They heard his voice in their earpieces, and settled down quickly. They were quick studies. He would need that.

He positioned two of them by the gate, Yagelski atop the stones and Kraeter with a longsight rifle, hidden in the cliff. "Do not leave here," he told them, and watched from the corner of his eye as Lorne nodded. "Stay three days, and then return with word of our deaths."

Lorne did not nod for that part.

The remainder of the team, four people in all, arranged themselves with dark masks over their faces and fanned out in a careful formation towards the entrance. They bore silencers on their weapons, and entered the invisible door into the mountainside in night-goggles that turned the cave walls green.

They slipped through in silence, careful boots on the sloping floor. As before, there were no guards at the door.

"Whoa," muttered Lorne. Ronon paused, eyeing an intersection. Always right, he remembered, and down. "How big is this?"

He put a silencing finger to his mouth in lieu of answering. They darted forward, shining their special pinpoint lights that only the goggles could see. He chose carefully, pausing often, gesturing for stillness as a pair of the enemy (neither of them albino, this time) passed by, barking their strange language at each other. The team flexed and breathed hard, as if the existence of enemies had not been real until that moment. Ronon led them onward, toward the empty passages, where no one would challenge their presence. The walls became cooler and cooler to the touch, rougher and more rippled as they entered the natural tunnels.

It was as before also: an alcove large enough for several men, and the round stone that did not move. Ronon rushed up close to touch it, feel whether it had shifted. Lorne was at his heels.

"Son of a bitch," Lorne breathed. He was not paying attention to their task. He pointed, shaking, to a feature of little tactical value. There were small holes, in the side walls, many in rows high and low and large enough only to fit a fist. They had been hewn, clearly, and under the pinpoint lights were shown to be deep. They were full of bones, clean bones and unbroken, small bones. "My god." Lorne sounded ill. "Those are children, human children." He reached out a hand, touched a rounded skull, and jerked away as if it burned.

"Sacred territory, I told you." Ronon searched, impatient, for a secret panel that would expose the metallic workings of the stone. "Sacrifices, offerings, I don't know."

"I think I'm gonna puke."

Ronon ignored him. "They lit the bright sparklight, before. We may have to do that to initiate the stone's task."

Lorne kept his feet, and his head. "Okay. That thing over there?"

"Any machine may signal our presence to the enemy. We cannot afford to be trapped here."

"Shit," said Lorne. They spread out into the space, searching with their hands. There had to be some secret to it. They all listened to the double-voice as Lorne tested the headsets: "Colonel? Colonel? Can anybody hear us?"

Nobody answered.

***

They slept closer and closer together, huddling all six instead of pairs. The lack of food allowed the cold to wrack them worse than they had all expected. Teyla felt Rodney snuffle in front of her, seeking comfort in their gravel bed. He had skipped dinner for the first time, and would not discuss it. She did not like this development, and liked less that they slept arm in arm with tensions unspoken. It seemed like an argument in a marriage, that should not be allowed to fester. She lay in the blackness and listened to breathing, sleep-shallow. This too was like marriage, where things could remain unspoken but could not long stay hidden: Melo snoring gently, the sniffle of Judy's secret tears before she dropped off to dream. Teyla did not sleep and did not sleep, listening to the cave-winds and to her own heart beating.

A sudden absence of warmth behind her. She had been resting comfortably against John's spine, and now -- she bit her lip, maintained her breathing pattern by counting seconds. Noise came this time, a rustling of fabric and small rocks being moved. He pushed away, toward the cave wall, toward the hole through which they had come. Teyla attempted to pretend to herself that she was not listening. Finally he stopped and inhaled sharply, air through nostrils like a whistle.

And then John sicked up quietly, twice, a third time. She scraped more rocks than she needed to, crawling to find him, so he would hear. He continued his sickup, helpless, unable even to acknowledge her presence. There was nothing to be done but press palms to his back, to his side, and feel the convulsive effort of his long muscles. It passed, after a little while, and he spat three or four times and spoke:

"Well, that was gross."

Teyla touched his face, mopped the sweat from his neck. "You have not eaten anything for three days. Water?"

"That and dry heaves. Can't keep anything down."

“You have done this every night?” Teyla shifted, reached out one palm to John's beard-rough face. He grimaced into her touch, and she ruffled his hair, feeling the short fuzz over his recent stitches. She realized with abrupt distaste that his fall sixteen days ago had not been coincidental clumsiness.

“Two out of three.” He tangled his fingers in her collar. "I'm going to be useless to you, soon."

He sounded so certain, matter-of-fact. The absence of his customary irony was more terrifying than his words. She said, "We won't leave you behind, John."

"It was a mistake," His hand moved down her shoulder and he grasped at her like an adult lecturing some wayward youth. "I should have made you leave Melo and me back in the big cavern. You could have gone faster just the four of you, and found your way out of here, and then you'd come rescue us."

She heard and understood his seriousness. She had understood it in the past: the needful thing that is certain death. He was not a hopeful creature. She hated his seriousness.

Teyla plucked his hand off her shoulder, and brought it to the back of her own neck. Her fingers curved at his nape, and she pressed their foreheads together. "You are wrong. It was not a mistake. We will not leave you."

His body hitched, but he did not pull away. His voice was breathy and desperate, cracking as he said, "Sometimes it's a bad decision, choosing based on how you feel."

"No," she argued, firm. "It never is."

"You'll see." His moist, hot skin left hers. His breath was sour, acidic on her as he turned himself, and began the laborious crawl back to their resting place.

There was nothing to be done but follow. They fumbled their way back into the sleeping bag they shared, muttering and inching so as not to wake the others. Rodney sighed and rolled over, curling unconsciously so that she had room under his arm, and Van Arden rolled to fit to him. John lay with his back to her, fists against his own chest. Teyla pressed her warm body against his, hip to hip and breast to back. There had to be some way to improve his mood.

"I am fortunate," she whispered to him, "that you have agreed to sleep with clothes on."

"Melo and his big mouth," breathed John.

"Actually, it was Rodney's big mouth."

John snorted. She reached around and took his hand, lacing their fingers together, and he did not pull away. Rodney, following warmth, moved again, and they all settled for rest, together in body if not in matters of spirit.

***

It was the Russian man, Gonayev, who found the long steel spike stored near the ceiling of the alcove, and guessed its significance. "Look," he said, showing Ronon. "Lever, for lifting." Quickly they found the space under the stone where it fit, a space worn in the floor into that exact shape.

But only four people -- among the largest people in all of Atlantis -- still heaved to the end of their abilities without motion. They took turns, resting and drinking water, and proposed new arrangements of men, hands, rope-rigs. Ronon fought the sensation that he would have to allow himself to be captured to get inside.

"We will not give up," he declared, after some time of unproductive work.

"Of course not," said Lorne, annoyed. "We don't leave our people behind."

It was only a little while after that that Gonayev hit on the combination of leverage and ropes that caused a tremble in the stone. It was the spur they needed to double-effort, tired muscles ready again, and Ronon felt his neck cording and the flush in his face as he lent his weight to the effort. Soon they found their rhythm, tugging the round stone from a wobble to a full rocking motion. And then in an instant it had rolled away, dull grinding noise and the resounding crack as it touched up against where the ceiling lowered. It could not be moved too far, not without destroying the entire alcove; but it was enough: they saw the hole.

Man-wide, sloping, they could see no light at the base of it. Lorne tried his headset again, without success.

"Shit," he said, sitting up. He was still breathing hard from their labors, sweat rolling down his face. "This is rough work."

"I will go," said Ronon, and took up the end of their longest coil of rope. "They were dropped, so I will drop."

"Oh sure," gasped Lorne. "Get the authentic experience."

But the fall was not so difficult, nor so far; with hands to guide him Ronon inched rather than slid down the hole, and leapt the twelve feet to the floor. "Sheppard," he said, and in the dark his voice came back to him gabbling. No other voice spoke up. Ronon turned on his beacon light, swung it in arcs around the cave.

"I think there is no one here," he called, up into the hole. It made no sense. Rope in hand, he explored the space, stumbling over stones. Every crevice might be a hiding space, or another doorway. There were a thousand crevices.

His beacon was producing a glint off the cavern floor when a whoosh and a thump announced the arrival of Lorne. "What do you mean, they're not here?" he asked, and Ronon threw up a hand.

He stalked the glint, approached it sidling, as if it would flee capture. It fluttered gently, a tiny flag, and Ronon crouched down to touch it: plastic foil. It was the kind of plastic foil that packaged field meals. It was pinned beneath a hand-sized stone, at the top of a small pile of stones, near the cavern wall and right at the entrance of a passageway.

"Oh shit," Lorne enunciated carefully. He was pointing his beacon at brown splashes, close to the hole they had come through. "That's blood."

"I told you, they tortured that man Melo. He was in great pain."

Lorne asked, "Where the fuck are they?" He sounded more desperate than determined, and Ronon needed the latter. He did not know how to help this soldier; Sheppard would joke with him but Ronon did not know any jokes.

He paced the stone prison. "They were here. We can see that." With practice and their own adjustment, they suddenly saw signs everywhere: stones arranged just so; a spent match; dead glowsticks. "They left a marker by that passage." He stopped, stunned, and stared at the wall. Lorne hustled to join him and they stared together.

Drawings covered the flat surface, and letters he could not read, and some letters he could. He sounded them out to himself: T-E-Y Tey, L-A, La. Teyla. Large, round handwriting like his own -- fumbling with a new alphabet.

"Man," said Lorne. He was becoming unstable. He rubbed his face with his hand and leaned against the wall slab. "Their names. All of their names."

***

Teyla doled out their third midday meal, and looked at him funny when Rodney took only hard crackers. (Irritatingly enough, MREs did not come with flat ginger ale or plain Cheerios, which really would have been his choices.) But truly, he was doing her a favor: anybody who could count could tell there was enough for one more day of five people at three-quarter ration (Sheppard starving more quickly than everyone else), and then it became less than that. She might whip up some cool Athosian wonder, like catch blind fish with her bare hands or cook up some cave crickets or something, but, they hadn't actually seen any blind fish or heard any crickets. This cold, this dark, there might not be any creatures alive but the six of them.

The hole where they had stopped was small -- Rodney could touch the ceiling while standing -- and narrow, but with a crack in the far wall that might be just wide enough for climbing, or might not. Judy would have to wield the pickax, come morning, and they all chewed on this knowledge along with their cold beans. Van Arden had relented, and agreed to burn the rest of Judy's notepaper, so at least they could pretend to be cheerful.

"Okay," he said conversationally, stretching his palms to the intellectual conflagration. "We've increased our altitude by at least thirty feet, yes? Now is the time to start thinking about making a vertical hole to get us out of here and back into daylight."

"Make like dig?" asked Judy, ready to butt in.

"Make like blow. We have the two grenades, from Sheppard's pants." Everybody must have stopped chewing, because there wasn't a single sound after Rodney said that. Technically, he was still chewing, and Sheppard hadn't eaten anything anyway, so he wasn't chewing in the first place, but that was hardly the point. And even if Sheppard had been chewing, he was the one guy who would actually agree with Rodney, if only he could be bothered to care. Also, Sheppard had no problem talking with his mouth full. Really, there was no reason at all for that shocked silence.

Judy sneered, "You have spent far too much time buddy-buddy with the military if blowing things up is your answer to everything!"

"No," said Sheppard, dull and supine and ready for sleep. "He was always like that."

But Rodney talked on over him, counting on his fingers: "Do we have any guarantee that there is a way out? A way out we'll (A) be able to find, (B) be able to reach or (C) be able to get through? The one things we do not have is rope, and we are looking for a hole in the roof we don't even know is there. Since when is a controlled explosion an overreaction to our situation?"

But Judy couldn't help arguing back. "We don't know how much rock we have above us. We don't know if the seams we've seen run all the way up like faults, or just ten feet with solid blocks on top. We don't know if there's streaming sunlight in the next passage over."

"It's night outside too," said Van Arden, shifting. Melo sent out an elbow, as if this were all a big joke, and Rodney grunted his irritation.

"We can go hunting into the next passage over till we're a hundred years old! Colonel Sheppard is going to die before then, and that's before I get into the part about us all starving to death --"

Sheppard failed massively to object to the whole idea that he might be dying, and that was Very Bad. Teyla made a noise, and came to sit by his side.

"And anyway," continued Rodney, as if he had not just pronounced a sentence on his best friend, and on himself. "We have no independent food source down here in this torture chamber, so when we run out of MREs in three days the deathclock will have started!"

Melo laughed, an unpleasant sound. "Deathclock?"

"I'm glad you find this so goddamned funny!"

"Deathclock is pretty good." muttered Sheppard. "I liked that one."

If he didn't do it now, he would never get the proper chance. And really, it was such a great stress-releaser. Rodney cut loose. "It's all well and good to laugh about our deaths, you quivering heaps of Jello. Did any of you discover the pile of skulls, see the scoring of knife-marks directly on bone, right around the eyes?" Judy covered her mouth. "They went cannibal, our predecessors in this situation. They turned on each other, or drew lots like civilized murderers, and ate each other's flesh." Rodney stood, so that his wild arm-gestures could be more expansive. He paced unsteadily. "They cut one another's throats and drank down their lifeblood like some Catholic mass turned disgustingly real. Six dead, only four left, and all of that sacrifice for nothing! Nothing. They got lost in the fucking dark and drank from the wrong pool of water and came down with heavy-metal poisoning -- have I mentioned that mercury can induce psychotic behavior? -- or they fell in and drowned, or jumped in and drowned, or found a pocket of bad air, radon or carbon monoxide, and suffocated together in their prison. Or they might be alive still, wandering around down in the dark till their eyeballs pickled and THEY TURNED INTO TROLLS!"

He felt spittle at the corner of his mouth. Somehow he was managing to scare himself even as he struck terror in the group. Finally he'd gotten Sheppard's attention though: he raised himself on one elbow and waded into the situation.

"McKay. McKay. RODNEY. Shut up and sit down."

Rodney shut his mouth and sat down. Sheppard was breathing hard, with the vertigo, or the anger, or the effort of self-control -- this was the guy who could blow away enemies by the dozen; this was the guy he'd been trying to rouse.

"You're making my head hurt, and the painkillers are long gone." Sheppard shut his eyes and lowered himself to the ground again. Emergency-guy was disappearing again, too soon, too soon. "Let's all keep the grenades in mind, is all. Find the right spot. Not like you can use them twice."

"Oh, of course," said Judy, sour. "I'll magically know to avoid all the spots where the roof caves right in and kills us all."

"I cannot believe you people," huffed Rodney. He turned away, hunching his shoulders. His laptop had exactly eleven minutes of battery left, and there were only so many blast radius scenarios he could model at a time.

***

Their next passage was different from the last, and any difference from the stony monotony was grounds for celebration. Judy called it, gleeful, and then the note of her voice changed and became wary. "It's a seam," she said. "Big cut in the floor, river formation. I can't see how big." Teyla wriggled into the space herself, and listened to the echo, far and back. Big.

When they were all through, Van Arden made her watch beep and they broke for a meal. Judy was right; the tiny flashlight -- third of four, and worthy of worry -- was not enough to show how far down the crevasse at their feet might go. Teyla unpacked the dwindling food supplies from her rucksack. More, or less, to worry over.

Behind her, a violent argument began over lighting their new discovery. Rodney said, nastily, "Well what else are we going to do with it, take panoramic photos?"

"Yes, exactly," replied Judy. "It's a camera. That's what it does."

"It's a camera with a flash, you ninny. We can use that --"

"Oh, sure, Mister Wizard. We can blind ourselves with the light differential --"

"I think I know a little bit about the EM spectrum thankyouverymuch --" Rodney's voice had gone high and fast, that stage of weary glee that usually took him days of insomnia to reach.

"It's my fricken camera, you big blockhead," Judy grumped, and yanked the tool away from him. "And I say we take pictures and look at them on the viewscreen."

"That was what I was gonna say!" cried Rodney, to rounds of shushing. He reached out meaty hands toward Judy, as she warded the camera to her side. Heads together, they paced off the small number of steps to the precipice.

Melo saw Teyla smile, and shook his head. "Like they forget we're trapped here. Scientists are crazy."

"They are vigorous," she remonstrated. "And clinging to optimism. Surely you have argued with equal enthusiasm about --" she searched for the right jargon -- "the proper ordnance for a desired explosion."

He was looking at her shyly, evaluative, and she remembered he was new. He probably thought of her as an alien. "You think an explosion would get us out of here?" he asked.

"Perhaps. The scientists are the ones who will know how, and when."

Melo crushed the fearful frown on his face, wiped it away with a weak smile. "So, uh, you like explosions?"

"I liked the fireworks Rodney made once." She laughed to remember them. "They are common on your planet, I know."

"You don't get over 'em, though," he said softly. She sat silent and let him warm to the topic. "I see 'em whenever I can. Summer night, humid, maybe thunderclouds coming on --" The scene was in his voice, fascination and awe and nostalgic delight. If it took him away from their predicament, even for only a few moments, well. "Everybody out on the roof, back home, and the reggaetón blasting out of car radios on the street. Little kids with sparklers and caps, and a cold beer in your hand, and all that family chatter just shuts down when the first rocket goes up. Sometimes the white ones are so bright, they make your eyes water to look at 'em."

They touched hands, both of them captured in his memory. She rubbed his forearm. "Thank you --"

Rodney's bark of alarm ended her words. John was standing at the edge, boots toeing over toward empty space, knees shaky. His back was to her and she could not know why he stood at all, what made him approach the crevasse so incautiously. Rodney had one finger through a beltloop, and was reaching wildly for a better grip, yanking against John's forward momentum.

Teyla could not think. She threw herself across that short distance and grabbed a handful of John's t-shirt, and then a shoulder, and dragged him back. Underfoot, Melo lying on his belly, his arm wrapped around John's knees.

Together they toppled him backwards, more easily than they all expected. They landed in a heap, Teyla on top, Rodney's loud "Oof" evidence he was on the bottom. John flailed his arms, fighting himself free, but they did not let him go. Melo sat on his ankles and Teyla spread herself sideways over John's torso, pinning his hips. He hit her in the side, hard, two or three times before Rodney could capture his fists.

"What the hell is wrong with you!" Rodney demanded. Teyla could feel John arching his back, still struggling. He did not answer. "Sheppard. Sheppard! Snap out of it!"

Rodney really did slap him across the face, the way Teyla had seen in American films. It was an astonishing noise, in their echoing chamber.

Just as astonishingly, John relaxed suddenly, giving up the useless fight. After a few moments, Teyla felt confident enough to raise herself, and saw that everyone was around her: Judy, camera still in hand, crouching at Melo's side. Van Arden clenched her fists, standing above them.

"I'm okay," said John at last, low and uneven. "I'm okay."

"The hell you are!" Rodney rejoindered, still holding both John's wrists in one hand. He grasped John's jaw, brought his own face close so they were nose-to-nose. "You tried to jump off a goddamned cliff, like one of those stupid what-you-callems, the stupid rodents that jump off cliffs for no reason!"

"Lemmings," Judy supplied, under her breath.

"No I didn't."

"And if you hadn't been wearing a belt I wouldn't have caught you at all and you would be a tenderized steak however many hundred feet deeper, and you would get stuck down there with eighty broken bones in agony and slowly die of thirst, and I would climb down that idiotic ravine just to kill you again for being so fucking stupid!"

"Rodney," John was trying so hard to sound reasonable, and failing so badly, "I just wanted to see what was down there."

"And that's why you stood up and pitched forward like a toppling plank? Who's the bad liar now?"

John flexed carefully, reclaiming his wrists. "I didn't mean anything. I -- that wasn't what --"

He stopped trying to explain himself. Melo turned his face away, embarrassed for his officer. Judy took up Melo's hand, as if they were children lost together. It was Van Arden who stood alone, sharp and afraid, watching John carefully.

"Sir," she began.

Teyla sat up and ran her hands up John's side till she found the shoulder she had wrenched, rescuing him. He let her rotate his joint carefully: it did not seem to be dislocated.

"Yeah, I guess it's time," he said quietly, and Teyla knew his defeat.

Van Arden squared her shoulders, turned full to face them all. "Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard," said Van Arden, enunciating clearly. "You are unfit to command due to your being sick as hell and it might be messing with your head." Teyla felt it like another slap through John's body, an expected one endured. She did not let him go. "We're going to relieve you now. Do you understand?"

John agreed.

"I will," Teyla began --

"Wait! Wait!" Rodney sputtered, climbing around Teyla to extricate himself from John completely. "I can't be in charge! Don't you know what happens when I'm in charge? People resent me! They get their feelings hurt! How can a bunch of resentful, whining people follow me into --"

"You're not in charge," John interrupted, savage. He leaned up on both elbows as if his point were stronger at a greater height. Rodney gaped at him, at them all, his mouth hanging open. The quiet lengthened and grew deafening.

Taking a deep breath, she tried again. "I will do my best to lead. We will survive together." John lowered himself to the cave floor again, and closed his eyes. Teyla did not let him go and reached out to touch Rodney. But Rodney would not be touched. He got up and stomped away from the group, back toward the pile of rucksacks. She watched him go, his gait uneven. Every step he took, he seemed to be trying to turn left.

***

Even without McKay to consult, Ronon could tell the passageway was too small to fit him. Yagelski, the woman, might go, but there was no knowing how far she would have to go. They had rope, but only so much.

"We waste too many hours," he complained to Lorne, as they crossed enemy territory again to be able to work the radio. "They dig further away from us every minute."

"Why would they do that?" Lorne asked. A sheen of sweat still brightened his forehead, and he kept one hand on Ronon's forearm as they ran. "Why wouldn't they wait for us?"

"They did not count on rescue," Ronon guessed, and they were at the sky-door. Lorne staggered against him. "You are not well."

"Headache, that's all. I'll live." He tapped his headset. "Yagelski, report to the cave-entrance please. Hope you're up for some climbing."

"Cool," came the reply.

"Take the stone-route," Ronon reminded her. "They came for us when we walked on land, but did not find me atop the stones."

Lorne stood in the afternoon sun, pale. "Caves have to let out someplace, right? Hastings would know." He shook himself suddenly, stepped aside and tumbled to his knees. Even as Ronon reached for him Lorne was violently ill against the mountainside.

This was -- unexpected. "You are not well," repeated Ronon, and this time he meant it. Lorne heaved and gasped, mortified. "And Colonel Sheppard was not well. He looked," he could not think of the right word, "unpleasant. There may be poison."

It was at this moment that Yagelski arrived, jogging cheerfully along the standing stones. She stopped suddenly on seeing them on their knees side by side, Lorne gray and panting. "It's that gross?" she asked.

"It's nothing --" Lorne began, but Ronon cut him off.

"There is the possibility of poison -- by breath or by touch. I am not affected, but he is going back through the gate." He broke taboo and took Lorne's face in his hand. "Yes, you are. I will carry you there myself."

Yagelski blinked at him. "Okay. You want me where?"

Ronon drew her a map of the corridors in the dirt, marking circles where he had seen the enemy pass. "Go down. Announce yourself with a whistle so that Gonayev and Hastings know it is you. They will lower you into a cavern."

He waited for her to object, and she did not.

"They have gone deeper into the mountain. See if you can find their path. Stay no more than a few hours, and hold onto the rope so that you can find your way back."

"No point in needing to rescue more people," she said, tipping her head in an ironic way. Ronon wondered if she had met Sheppard. He suspected they would like each other.

Lorne said, "You can't blow the entrance. It might bring the whole thing down on their heads."

Ronon pushed at Lorne, kneading him till he sat so that he would be easy to lift. "We can't blow the entrance." He touched the woman on her forehead. "You are what we have instead of explosives."

"Got it," she said, and with a twist of her body she had made the turn down into the enemy stronghold.

Lorne endured being carried without complaint, and went through the gate in defeated silence. Ronon spoke no word to him, and no word on the path back down into darkness. He waited for five hours next to the round stone, the length of rope sliding through his fingers and through the safety pulleys the team had rigged. But Yagelski came back emptyhanded.

***

Rodney nudged him with a toe, then crouched and jostled his shoulder. Sheppard was out cold. "Come on, come on," he chanted, till he felt an ordinary breath misting his fingers. "Okay, so, he's breathing."

But he wasn't waking up either. Rodney sat down next to that curled-up form, and tried every annoying invasive tactic he could think of (and being a younger sibling, he could think of many): a finger in the ear canal; nostril-pinching; pulling arm hair in handfuls; plucking at eyelashes until the eyelid peeled away from blank, empty eyeball. Nothing worked.

Teyla screwed up her face. "He has been sleeping more and more," she said, jostling him. "Wake, John." Sheppard continued to disobey. Van Arden came over and watched their efforts, and sat between them. She reached out with one hand, like a ritual, and grasped Sheppard's dogtags.

"Whoa whoa whoa he is not dead yet!"

"No, of course not." She tucked the dogtags into Sheppard's t-shirt. She gave Rodney her hard face, that Marine face like Colonel Sumner all over again. Rodney stiffened.

"Okay, we have the one hole this morning, and then, Judy has to dig, so it's immaterial. And every time we do have a hole to climb through, I, I, I can carry him."

Van Arden argued, "You can't carry him! You're sick too, and getting sicker. I'll do it."

"I'm also the biggest person here, and the only person actually heavier than Sheppard himself." Van Arden looked uncomfortably around the group. Rodney didn't need to stand up to make his point.

Melo snapped to attention in his sitting position. "I can carry him, ma'am. Ma'ams." Teyla did not seem to notice her inclusion; she was still poking at Sheppard.

"Oh, of course," McKay rang out, enjoying the grip of his righteous practicality. "Marines routinely lift more than their own body weight for hours at a time, on a pegleg, when they themselves can't even stand. What was I thinking?"

Melo had the temerity to be affronted by this diplay of logic. "Ma'am, just, so you know, you've got resources."

"Thanks, Matty." Van Arden sighed. "Teyla, let me carry him."

Teyla turned around, doing that weird deep-breathing that she did when she really didn't want to panic. "His throat is swollen. Melo, will you come feel?"

Melo came, and felt. "Lymph nodes," he said. "Just like the flu. It's what your body does when you're sick. It's normal." Rodney had to feel for himself: hard lumps under the jaw. He manfully restrained himself from invoking the spectre of bubonic plague; really, it was an heroic battle against the instinct to spread information. Melo continued: "You rest, get lots of fluids, let your body fight off the virus."

"He could not stomach water," Teyla said, as if confessing a secret.

"Okay," replied Melo. "That's bad."

Teyla shook herself, and stood. "We must make progress, and so we will carry him. Rodney, you may take first turn, but Van Arden will be next."

They had to pass him hand to hand, through the squeeze. Rodney admonished himself firmly that he was not handling a corpse, that the hands folded up on the breastbone were merely convenient coincidence. (They tangled his thumbs in his dogtag chain, Rodney's own innovation that he thought rather elegant, if he did say so himself.) The slack muscles of Sheppard's shoulders and ribs and thighs and calves, each handhold, was more macabre than the last. The body was warm, and it breathed slow and steady -- but without a consciousness inside it was just a body, terrifying, empty. Sheppard wasn't actually there, not at the moment.

The narrow passageway Judy had broken into was taller than most. After that initial wiggle, it opened up to seven or eight feet tall, with cold water splashing down the right side and away to the left. "We're still going up, right?" Rodney was thinking of all the magnificent tortures he would set on the geology department when he got home.

Judy said, "The passage arcs right. Toward where the water's coming from. It's snowmelt, from the mountain. So, yeah."

"Okay," muttered Rodney. He and Teyla wrestled Sheppard to a sitting position, leaned against the dry side of the wall. It was a struggle, handling a shape that did not cooperate -- gravity kept taking over and the body would slither off nerveless just as Rodney was ready to lift. "Come on, come on," Rodney chanted, and grasped Sheppard's thighs. "Up we go."

Leaning against a body is one thing, and taking that body's whole weight -- it was a surprise. He got to his knees with Sheppard piggy-back, and that last lift up to his feet was torture. Finally they were up, wobbly, Sheppard's chin hooked over Rodney's left shoulder and both wrists tucked into the front pockets of Rodney's jacket. Rodney heaved up on those unresponsive thighs again, and was ready to move.

Directly into the little waterfall. "Ugh! Ow!" He danced out of the cold rain and onward down the path Judy was illuminating for him. He could hear the rest of them behind, waiting, to see whether this feat of human transport would work. "You know," Rodney said, as casually as he could, "I think it might be a good idea to tie him on, at least temporarily. It's not the weight of him, but the grip."

"Next time, try a fireman's carry," said Melo, crawling someplace behind.

Teyla's hands were on his chest, steadying him. He waved her off at last, and she shouldered her rucksack and his own.

He gasped, "Sheppard you owe me dessert until the end of time." Sheppard breathed on his neck -- it seemed deeper than he'd been breathing a moment ago. Rodney took careful steps, and indeed the path seemed to be sloping slowly upward. In a manner wildly unsalutory to the state of his quadriceps -- he lumbered onward.

"Mmm," came Sheppard's voice, practically in Rodney's ear.

"Oh my God do you know what I am going through to save your miserable life?" Rodney heaved him up again, brushing the wall on his left. He hadn't banged into the rocks too many times, he thought. It was Sheppard's knee he was skinning, not his own. "Van Arden clocks you as having slept for the past 11 hours. Side effect of your brains liquefying, it seems."

Sheppard smacked his lips, made sleep-noises. It was impossible to tell whether he was conscious enough to understand. His skin was feverish, hot on Rodney's back. It was like carrying a groggy toddler -- the heaviest toddler in the galaxy.

"So, here we are, in yet another cave, and I'm carrying you on my back by the way, in case you hadn't noticed. You know, for a slim guy you weigh about a thousand pounds more than you should. I can say that, because you're on my back, did I mention that part? And I'm very thirsty and my hypoglycemia means I might keel over any second, but I decided to take your lead and starve rather than vomit. Besides, everyone else skipped breakfast this morning to stretch out our stores. I've never seen a bureaucrat with a budget as zealous as Teyla measures out our rations."

"Mmm," said Sheppard again. He snuffled and shifted his head, waking up. "Did I hit her?"

'What?" Rodney paused. No point lying now. "Yes, you did, and tried to hit me too."

"Damn." Sheppard drew breath, arms tensing. "Sorry bout that."

"It's hard to carry a grudge against somebody who's crazier than a rabid weasel." Rodney stumbled, and manged not to bash Sheppard's knee into the wall. "Actually it's very easy, but I'm taking the high road."

"You're carrying me."

"Why yes, yes I am," said Rodney. "Don't even think about trying to be heroic and getting down now. You are not going to steal my thunder."

"Oh. Okay." His chin settled again and Sheppard seemed amenable to drifting back to sleep.

"Don't you dare nod off," Rodney muttered, and rested his temple against Sheppard's thick hair. "The tax for this amazing feat of manual labor is that you have to entertain me."

"Ngh," came the vague reply.

"Come on, talk. A talking person is a person not in a coma. So stop your grunting and get busy with the witty conversation! Get those brain cells moving! Well not literally moving, because that would be a concussion and extremely bad, but you take my meaning."

Sheppard said again, "Ngh."

It was only another couple of yards anyway, and there was Judy with her hindquarters sticking out of a hole. "You'll get to crawl soon. I know you're so excited about that."

But this time, Sheppard didn't say anything at all. It was several minutes of precarious labor to get him off Rodney's back and to the floor without dropping him (Lieutenant Colonels being irritatingly more breakable than the sack of beans Sheppard was imitating), and by the time Rodney could look in his face, Sheppard was unconscious again.

Chapter Text

They convened by late starlight, on the side of the mountain. The sharpshooter, Kraeter, advised he had seen nobody but Altantis personnel, all day.

"They're used to dimmer light," said Ronon. "They are night-hunters."

"No problem," said the Marine. His accent was thick, almost hard to understand. "I got the night scope here. Still no go on shootin' em?"

"They don't know we're here," reminded the Russian, Gonayev. "Let us keep it that way."

"Aint seen nobody yet anyway." They had eaten a meal cold, and sat together cold in blankets. Ronon saw well in the graying night, even without goggles, but the others moved carefully like blind creatures.

"Here is the problem," Ronon began. "The prisoners are not in their prison. We need to look for them without alerting the enemy. Ideas?"

Yagelski was bruised and tired, though she did not admit it. "Sounding equipment. The anthro department has some, right? Shoot sound waves into the earth and listen for an echo. Boom, you find your cave."

"You're not a caver, are you?" asked Hastings. "It's not like one long sausage in a straight line. It's like bubbles in a, um, in swiss cheese or something. All on top each other, and connecting, or not."

"Also," said Gonayev, "heavy and slow. Not secret."

"How long can they live underground?" asked Ronon.

It was Kraeter who answered. "It kills you like this: you freeze in a day or two. If you don't freeze, you die of thirst in four days. If you got water, you starve. That takes weeks."

"There were pools," Ronon volunteered. "But it was chilly." The Marines both wrapped their arms around themselves unconsciously.

"They got pretty far," contradicted Yagelski. "Far enough it was more than a day, if they dug their own holes. And they marked their path with food wrappers. They're on a starve schedule."

Hastings said, "That's good, I guess."

"Not if they've got the sickness," Kraeter said darkly.

Ronon and Yagelski shifted, looking uneasily at each other. "I have been here longest, and underground longest. I am not ill," he said. "Sheppard endured a great deal despite his illness. He is --" Ronon did not know what he had been planning to say. Everyone shifted, finishing that sentence in their own heads, little mutters and grunts. Ronon did not know what words they were thinking.

"There is danger of unbreathable air," said Gonayev. He made a bubble with his hands. "Pockets of gas, trapped until people burst into them." His hands opened, spread apart. "This is why 'canary in coal mine' -- nobody cares if canary dies."

"There's a lot of dangers," argued Hastings. "Rockfalls and drownings and getting turned around in the dark and I don't know what all. We can't help them down there. Alls we can do is help from up here."

"I have two plans," Ronon told them. "First is to search the mountain from the outside, below the stones. Find entrances."

The big Marine nodded. "See, this is what I am talking about."

"The second is to abduct an enemy alive, carry him by force through the Stargate, and interrogate him until he gives up maps of the cave system."

This plan was not so popular. Yagelski shifted away from him as if afraid, and the others sat in silence.

"Ain't strictly correct," said Kraeter, hanging an elbow off his rifle.

"The Major wouldn't allow it," added Hastings.

Kraeter followed this up. "I don't know about your people, but that's illegal, black ops type of stuff for us."

"I don't have any people," said Ronon. He looked over their heads, out beyond their little niche in the mountain. In the pre-dawn gray, he saw the outlines of peaks far away: a whole range. There was enough mountain to search forever.

***

The last flashlight was dying while they debated what to do for light. It was unlikely that the emergency floodlight would last an entire day, and without wood, Teyla did not know how they would manage.

"Okay, sideways thinking," said Rodney, snapping his fingers. He sat among the rucksacks, mopping his brow. Beside him, John slept on. "What do we have that will burn?"

"Pickax handle, but we need that," Judy volunteered immediately. "Clothes. Rucksack fabric. Five emergency flares, one candle."

"Romance novel," added Van Arden. "Did you even get to read it?"

Judy laughed and shook her head.

Both women looked to Teyla, and she struggled to find a plan. "First the glowsticks," she said. "There are six or eight left of those. Then the flares, then the candle, then other open flame. We will continue to keep the beacon for emergencies."

"Flashlight! Whoa! Need the flashlight over here!" Rodney blurted. Van Arden spun, dropped to her knees, and pawed out the big beacon. "Not breathing!"

Its beam was blinding, a terrific blue-white Teyla could see even with her eyes closed. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she shaded her forehead with her hand to see what was the matter.

"He's not breathing," Rodney explained, cradling John's head on his lap. "I had my hand on his chest, just, you know, and it fell when he breathed out and didn't come up again. It's been almost 40 seconds already." He gave information only, no bluster, and that meant he was terrified.

Teyla lowered her ear to John's ribs. His heart beat, slow and lazy, its rhythm still fine. He did not breathe.

Melo brushed her aside, brusque. "I'm on it, ma'am," he muttered, and Teyla remembered he had medical training. She had seen reviving methods before, watched Marines thump on unresponsive chests or even use electricity to startle the heart into moving again. It was both exalting and terrifying, the power they professed over the end of human life.

Thumb on John's chin, he tipped John's head back and laid it on the rock, gentle. Melo was on his knees, and Teyla knew his broken leg must be screaming at him. He licked his lips and lowered his head, brows furrowed, and breathed for his Colonel.

They all watched John's chest rise, reached out to touch him as if for healing magic. It fell again, slowly, while Melo put his ear to feel the warm air emerging. He breathed again, a low noise of motion like wind through a doorway, and John's chest rose again.

This time it tightened, the muscles along his ribs and stomach hardening, and he gave a dry, shallow cough into Melo's ear. His shoulders twitched, twitched again, and he breathed in on his own while Melo listened. Teyla let out her own gasp and heard it accompanied all around the group. Melo was grinning, his ear still over John's face, and he came up with his hand open for the High Five. They all slapped it, one after another, Melo muttering "Yeah! Yeah!" to himself. The last to slap was Rodney.

"Yeah," said Rodney, and put his open hand over his eyes.

"Help me out, man," said Melo, and pulled Rodney's hand till it was cupping John's shoulder. Together they rolled him, head and shoulders and the hips lagging behind, till he was on his side. "Pillow." Judy instantly stripped off her jacket and handed it to Melo. He stuffed it under John's head. "In case he pukes again. Keep him like that all the time when we're not moving."

Van Arden sat down, flashlight pointing at the ceiling. "Well, shit," she said.

Teyla asked, "Is this expected? That he might stop breathing and then begin again on his own?"

"Hell if I know ma'am," said Melo. He dragged himself to the rucksack and rummaged for the medical kit. "Could be a seizure. Kids with asthma do that sometimes too, in the night, and that's kind of the same, but -- " He opened the kit in his lap, frowning. "Kind of maybe different, in a new galaxy."

"We need shifts," interjected Rodney, energetic again. "To watch him every minute--"

"Hey," interrupted Melo. "Or the defibrillator." He untangled long white wires from a small box, flipped it over and checked its battery. "Okay, this is good for six hours continuous, that's all. And, uh, ma'am I guess I should ask your permission to give him some adrenaline. There's a couple Epipens in here." Teyla felt Rodney react to the word: every kit carried them, at his insistence.

"How will allergy medicine help John breathe?" she asked.

"It's for a lot of situations, ma'am," said Melo. "Eyes dilate, heart beats faster, makes you breathe harder. Like the body's getting ready for a fight, ma'am."

"Oh my god," Judy said, and turned away. "I saw Pulp Fiction. I can't watch you stick a needle in his chest."

"His leg," Melo argued. "And I was thinking, we should use the saline, too. It's for washing out your eyes, but -- he needs fluids, and that's fluids."

Teyla touched the plastic jar he indicated. It sloshed as it rolled. "'Sterile saline solution' -- this will keep him from thirst?"

"Well," he waved his hands, "yeah. A start, anyway. I can, uh, I'll figure out a drip."

Rodney watched them all, his hand on John's ribs. That ribcage expanded and contracted under Rodney's wide fingers. He settled on Teyla, stared at her hard. Teyla gave him back his stare, and shamed him into looking away.

"We will do what we have to do," she said. "Fix him as best you can." Melo nodded at her, and laid out his tools on the rocky floor. Van Arden held the flashlight for him. Nobody argued with the decision to use precious battery time.

Judy broke out the stash of glowsticks, nine in all, and took up her beloved pickax. She looked absurd, short sleeves high on her arms and matted, bloody socks still over her hands. Rodney and Teyla sat with nothing for their hands to do on opposite sides of the medical intervention. Melo unbuckled John's trousers, finding a site for the drug to enter his body. Rodney shuddered away from the sight of the Epipen piercing flesh, then pulled himself together and turned to the rucksacks.

Teyla came around and touched his shoulder, shy. She was not adept at his outsized moods, found him tiring when he was not amusing. It was hard, sometimes, to like him, especially without the counterpoint of John's wry subtlety. "I will help you watch him," she said.

"There isn't any tubing in the kit," Rodney not-answered. "We'll need something long and hollow, and a plastic bag we can get from the MRE-kits. I don't think I brought any ballpoint pens." He ignored her comforting hand and pulled his laptop out of its case, setting it carefully on the ground. Its battery had been dead for at least a day; she could not remember. Rodney pulled out his knife and slit open the case. "They use hollow plastic to stiffen the seams. I wear these things out all the time; I've seen it."

"It may work," she said, and pulled away to think again of practical matters.

"Don't --" Rodney reached behind him without looking, grabbed her wrist. "Don't go. I want you to, you know. Stay."

Teyla crouched behind him, and settled both her hands on his shoulders. She felt the moisture through his t-shirt, saw it glisten on his neck. It was shockingly easy to forget that he fought the same Ancient-hatred illness, and was watching a progression he would soon take himself.

"Rodney," she said, and realized she did not know what she meant to say. "I told him I would not leave him behind."

Rodney sawed at the case's black fabric. "Did he believe you?"

Teyla shut her mouth, teeth clicking hard. "No. How did you guess?"

Rodney did not answer. He needled with the point, pushing his knife under the edge where the plastic hid between lines of stitches. Teyla crouched behind him, watching, and wrapped her arms around his broad back.

***

Thanks to some medical tape, an empty Epipen, a plastic bag, scissors, eleven inches of laptop case lining and a barrette belonging to Judy Yu, fluids entered Sheppard's body for the first time in probably days. Rodney could not remember what the warning signs of death by dehydration were, but Sheppard did not look any better once Melo was done squishing contact lens solution into a vein. ("It's not really for contact lenses," Melo grumped.) That was it for the saline, though, and unless they wanted to try again with cavewater, that put Sheppard's lifespan at three more days.

Melo packed up the jury-rigged IV anyway, in the medical kit as if it were professional equipment. Judy did not even ask for her barrette back.

"You know what I just realized?" Melo was helping to cut the laptop case into something useful. Rodney took up another strip of fabric, and measured it. "That thing when we woke him up that time."

"What time?" Each strip had to be long enough to get around his body; no point trying to tie together several. Melo was pretty good with a knife. "Oh, oh, that time, of course, you're right."

"Couldn't wake up, had a headache --"

"We'd only spent an hour here, before he fell. Why didn't I see it?"

Melo dropped a hand on Rodney's arm. "Nobody did, man." It was extremely unpleasant, being comforted by a man who had to scoot around on his butt because his left leg was in pieces and lashed to a pair of shovels.

"It's my job to see things like that." Rodney shrugged. Together they moved over to where Sheppard lay still (the defibrillator resting on his stomach) and began to lash him into his sleeping bag. "I'll do my penance dragging him around on my shoulders. I don't know why you volunteered."

"You don't?!" Melo asked, incredulous.

Rodney bent to tie another strip of fabric. "Okay," he allowed. Melo shook his head. Together they lifted Sheppard's hips and threaded fabric underneath him. Melo was slow, methodical, with round stubby fingers always in contact with the body. Rodney blurted, "I just --"

But he was saved from confessional by a shriek in the distance. Teyla dropped the rucksack she had been packing and stuck her head into the passage. "Judy!" she called. "Van Arden, are you hurt?"

Rodney and Melo sat together, hands on the body between them, and listened to two female voices crying and shouting and coming nearer. The disastrous potential grew in Rodney's mind: poisonous toads, salamanders that really did breathe fire, bears, a troop of hoodie people. At this point, Wraith would be comically underwhelming. Maybe they'd had a cave-in and were bashing themselves to death against the barrier; maybe one or both of them had crushed pelvises.

But they tumbled out of the hole, tear-tracks in the dirt on their faces, and grabbed up Teyla in their arms. "Sky! Sky!" Van Arden bellowed, while Judy wept and wept, tucking her face into Teyla's neck. "Daylight! Oh, we found it!"

Wow. Wow. Melo grinned crazily and shook Rodney's shoulders. "Awesome, man! Awesome." He let go and leaned down, put his mouth to Sheppard's ear. "Almost there, sir. Hang on just a little while."

Rodney pressed fingers into his eyelids, exhausted. If they got Sheppard up into the place that had the hole, they still had to get him out of the hole, without rope of any kind and really they better have meant gigantic gaping doorway when they said it and not some crack in the ceiling, and then of course they would be outside, exposed all over again for the crazed hoodies to hunt down and lock back in the cavern they'd spent all their fucking energy escaping from in the first place.

Teyla had untangled their little girl-power circle, and came to congratulate everyone else. "A concrete goal. Let us move into the upper chamber, assess our distance from safety, and then we will splurge with rations."

"Oh good," said Rodney, nerveless. Melo finished up with the ties, and turned on the defibrillator. It beeped gently, a nice slow steady rhythm in the background. Suddenly it seemed desperately important not to leave behind the discarded bits of the laptop case: a plastic buckle; little slices of black fabric. Rodney swept everything up carefully and dropped it into his rucksack.

Judy approached him, still shaking with emotion. She hugged him quickly. "I'm gonna need your help," she said.

"What, you admit that I may actually have a worthwhile opinion on something??" Hostility was a comfortable haven.

"Yeah," said Judy, ignoring his tone. "You know grenades a lot better than I do."

Rodney smiled bitterly: no free lunch. "It's a tiny pinprick hole in the ceiling fifteen feet above our heads?"

Judy laughed. "No. It's a tall, skinny gap right at ground level. I think it's too skinny for your ridiculously manly shoulders to fit through."

"Oh. Okay then." He shouldered his rucksack and followed her to the hole. Teyla squeezed his shoulder as he passed.

"I will carry Sheppard this time." She flexed her arm, and tipped her head ironically. "Or drag him, if need be."

Rodney boggled at her. "Right. Going to blow stuff up now."

"Make it big," said Teyla. "Make it matter."

***

He saw it as a puff of dust, as happens with a near-miss bullet in the dirt. It was only when Hastings, next to him, shouted that Ronon realized he was seeing something far away, and the dust was rocks flying. Seconds passed before the report came to him, rumbling through the air: an explosion.

Ronon knew only one group of people who would make explosions on this planet. He bounded off across the standing stones with the Marines' disbelief still raw in his ears. They followed him or they didn't, but he went. The zigzag pattern of his path allowed him to see that Yagelski was right at his heels.

Later, he asked Kraeter, with his longsight rifle, and found out that the blast was four miles from where they had been resting, "as the crow flies" -- he guessed a crow was a kind of bullet. It was longer on the ground. He and Yagelski dropped off the stones as they came to an end, and skittered down a field of scree that paved the way between their own peak and the next. Ronon mapped it in his mind, just in case: the plateau of the standing stones; the sharp peaks away to his left; to his right the slumping shoulders of mountain and foothills disappearing away for miles of dull brown.

Climbing a scree-field was not nearly as easy as traveling downwards. Yagelski had a better time of it, skipping upward and along the loose incline, and he followed her example. Gonayev and Hastings struggled behind him, and nearly two hours passed before they all had made it into solid rock again. All that remained was strenuous hiking, uphill, steep but easily done with hands and feet.

They were all too short of breath for speech. Upward they went, the bare rock hot under their hands in the morning sun, and Ronon outpaced them all. He knew he was close when loose rocks showed signs of blast marks. And then an unexpected thing happened: a gray animal emerged from the stone above his head, saw him, and fled.

Ronon climbed higher, shouting to the others to follow. He heaved himself halfway over the promontory, feet dangling, and lay that way for a moment to understand what was happening in front of him.

Here was a lip of stone, with the gray animal sitting upright and shivering. Behind it a cave-mouth, gaping darkness, and sooty stones still smoking near the edges. The gray animal crawled close up, and looked in Ronon's face. She touched his hair, tugged on a lock and said, dazed, "Oh, I know you."

Ronon did not know this creature. He hoisted himself up so he could stand, and it stood with him, and that was when he realized it was a woman, hair matted gray and skin painted the same color and her Atlantis clothing torn and stained with mud. She put her head back to see him all the way up, and then her mouth cracked into a smile. "We wondered what happened to you. I'm Judy."

Then she was grasping him about the waist, trying to push the breath out of him. He pulled at her shoulders till she let go.

"Where are they?" asked Ronon. He shook her gently and asked again, "Where are they?"

The woman took his hand, and led him into the cave. Behind him, he saw Yagelski come up over the edge, and then another hand: the men. In front of him, stark darkness, enveloping him for the long moments before his vision adjusted. Two people clustered around a hole in the back wall, pulling on a third. Judy let out a shout and they all turned at once, eyes glinting off the daylight, terrified.

"Ronon!" cried Teyla, and it was she, and Rodney on the floor among bundles, and the tortured Marine and the little blond Lieutenant. They rushed at him, arms everywhere, touching his face and hair and tugging on his necklaces, grabby. Their strange intensity enveloped him and he fought to control himself, breathing hard. And then they were people again, silhouettes like things he recognized, clasping each other and him and each other again.

McKay was filthy, his hair standing up. He wore aviator glasses, one of the lenses all cracks. "Come on," he said, in that curt way of his, as if no figure of authority could overrule him. McKay was pulling him forward into the cave, toward the bundles and where the tortured one, Melo, sat half-in half-out of a hole, hugging himself because he could reach nobody else. Ronon flicked his head left and right, searching.

"Where is Sheppard?"

Teyla jogged with them, drawn and wide-eyed. They all followed, shuffling, and gathered around a heap of dirty clothes. Judy burrowed into a sleeping bag as if sorting laundry and came up with a face between her palms. A face, pale and dirty, eyes sunken. It was Sheppard, and he was in a very bad way.

"He is sick," said the pale woman, Van Arden. She crouched by Melo at the hole, leaning against him. "Sick to dying. Take him through the Stargate now, before anyone else. Take him, and leave us behind."

All of them, beseechment on their faces. Ronon had never seen McKay speechless. Teyla was unzipping the sleeping bag, cutting the ties that bound the body into it. Sheppard smelled, like illness and sweat and mud. His arms flopped, useless, and they had removed his boots. He breathed shallowly, white wires glued to his body reporting his life-rhythm. McKay knelt and ripped the wires free. "Get him away from this planet," he said. "Go now."

Ronon took him. He lifted the body in his arms, a hand behind the shoulders and another under knees. Gray hands touched him, touched the body, remained high and reaching after he turned to carry the body into daylight. He could not bear to look back into their shaky hopefulness, but nodded to Yagelski and the Marines to enter the cave. Sheppard did not say a word about being carried, did not kick himself free.

"All are alive," Ronon reported. "Melo moves but does not walk. Work quickly."

They did not ask him what he was going to do. Ronon knelt with the body in his arms, and with a heave had him folded over one shoulder. He was miles, four miles as it turned out, away from the Stargate, burdened heavy and with only his own skills and the last Marine, the sharpshooter Kraeter, to protect him. The enemy might have heard, and might come in force again with their convulsion weapons. Sheppard might die before he made it home.

Ronon spared a look back at the cave-mouth, where the Marines were fending off compulsive muddy embrace. Teyla turned her face to him, and raised a hand. "Go," she said. "We will follow."

He did not look back again, but clambered downward, toward the scree between the peaks. Sheppard's hands dangled down Ronon's back, tapping at the backs of his thighs now and then. Terrified, Ronon climbed faster.

***

Teyla did not understand why two fresh Marines shadowed her until she stumbled and was caught by them. They maneuvered her, gentle hands at her elbow and hip, and asked whether she would prefer to be carried. Teyla thanked them and declined, and entered the infirmary under her own power. They hunched around her, hands outstretched, but she did not fall again.

She had done enough falling for one day, hiking down one mountain and up the next. It had taken them most of the daylight to make it back to the Stargate, hard vigorous exercise and and blinding sun and no reason to remove the socks from their hands. The Marine carrying Melo had slipped and nearly dropped him, and Van Arden's ankle might yet turn out to be broken.

The infirmary was full of bustle and rush, white-dressed personnel sprinting and pushing beds. "Oh, you're here," said a nurse, and led her to a newly-arranged bed. "Sit."

Teyla did this on her own too, easing her sore thighs. The Marines stepped back, smiling tentatively, and then turned pink when she began to strip off her clothing. But the jacket had torn elbows and her shirt was crusted with days of sweat -- she would not wear them an instant longer. The nurse helped her into a hospital dress without a word, even when Teyla threw her clothes onto the floor in hatred of them.

The rest trickled into the infirmary at the speeds they could manage: Van Arden, limping and leaning on the tall woman Yagelski; Judy dazed and holding the hand of the Marine who had carried Melo. Melo himself came on a stretcher, a position significantly more comfortable than over a shoulder, which he had been till they achieved the gateroom. Rodney came last, staggering, with his hand shading his eyes despite his wearing sunglasses. He collapsed onto a bed and lay prone, moaning.

Teyla's nurse wanted to sponge her clean, and look into her eyes with a flashlight. Teyla submitted to this for a little while, sitting still while the world moved around her: so much noise, so many people. It was frightening, after days of smallness and quiet. Elizabeth appeared in the doorway, full of fear, and sighed relief when she met Teyla's eyes.

"Everyone made it back?" Elizabeth asked. She did not shy away from touching Teyla's gritty hair.

"Yes. About Sheppard. He and Rodney --"

"Hush. We guessed it. Lorne came down with the same thing after a day there. Dr. Beckett has worked up a protocol for treating the symptoms, but the cure is simply getting them away from the repulsion field."

"Oh," said Teyla, and looked around for Lorne. Instead she saw Melo, clamping his lips together as two medics maneuvered his leg, and a flash of Van Arden's white skin as she dropped her filthy clothing.

Elizabeth smiled. "Lorne's in his own bed, and he's already stopped throwing up. He'll be fine."

"And where is John?"

That smile faded. "I'll check on him."

"I'll go with you," Teyla said, and instantly slid off the bed in her bare feet. She held Elizabeth's hand as they walked the open space toward a room, closed off from the rest of the space.

It was a brightly-lit room, with a door halfway open, and in it on a bed John lay dying.

He was no different from before, in the cave. His skin was pasty-white, shocking pale against his dark hair. They had not shaved him, but they had washed off most of the grime and stripped him naked under the flimsy sheets. All over his chest and shoulders, black bruising: large blunt blobs and tiny finger-marks from his being handled. Teyla recognized that one blob on his chest as her own boot -- she had fallen on him and he'd lied and said it hadn't hurt. His eyes were small slits and the skin around the bone yellowish, ugly, lines marked with faint traces of gray dirt. Dogtags lay in a pile of chain, just below one ear.

Ronon stood in a corner, watching. He was silent and expressionless, as at a vigil. His thighs were trembling, emotion or exhaustion or shock who could say.

Teyla did not realize she had made a noise until Beckett turned to see them standing there. He gave them a weary look, but it was not a look of defeat.

"Oh," gasped Teyla. "He will not die?"

The machines by the bed monitored him and proved he continued to breathe. Beckett tapped the readouts, watching their bouncing orange lines, and seemed satisfied.

"He's on enough drugs to open his own chemist's shop, and I expect he'll feel terrible when he wakes." Beckett smiled at her, his unthreatening smile. Teyla had not realized she frightened him. "Subsonics, I expect. Vibrations in the air that only affected the gene-carriers. The results are very like an allergic reaction. It was wise, to give him adrenaline."

"His breathing was --"

Beckett came and took her hand in both of his. "You did right, Teyla."

"We gave him saline solution, to stave off thirst. In his arm --"

"Clever girl," said Beckett, and kissed her cheek. "I saw the mark." She did not realize she was crying till she saw that his lips were wet. Elizabeth's arm across her back, firm, holding her up. Teyla gathered herself.

"It was Melo's idea. He is an able medic."

"Major Lorne's example took the guessing out of it. Has it affected Rodney too?"

"Yes." She swung around, and Elizabeth swung with her effortlessly. "He will live," she called.

Judy and Van Arden fell into each other's arms, laughing and sobbing. They pulled back to check each other and laughed at each other's tears. Melo lay flat, his leg still being moved, and wept in silence.

"Oh thank fuck," Rodney gasped, reaching out blindly. He caught Melo on the shoulder and held on, and slowly Melo's hand came upto touch that grip. Around them all, the Marines broke their stiff profiles and smiled, talked, shook hands with each other.

Beckett paused to tuck the sheets more tightly around John's feet, and came out into the main room. Ronon stood his vigil, and did not move. He was gray like them all, down one shoulder, his hair, one cheek: mud from carrying John. Except for a glimpse of him on the upslope, leaping, agile, while she had been still laboring downward, she had not seen Ronon at all after the cave. Teyla did not know what to say to him. She left him alone.

"I expect you all to be truthful about your injuries," Beckett began.

Van Arden said immediately, "Judy has broken bones in her hand." Judy's mouth flew open. "She didn't tell about them because, I don't know --" Heads snapped around from every direction.

"Matty was way worse than me!" Judy lowered her head in shame. "It isn't that bad."

Melo gave a doubtful snort, and then a groan as Beckett took hold of his leg.

"And anyway," Judy said, stalwart, "who else was gonna do the digging? Rodney?"

"Hm? What?" asked McKay. He raised himself on his elbows and rolled over to lift off his t-shirt. Up his arms, all was dirt and dull gray coloration, and on his neck too, so that the pale skin of his chest was hilarious. Teyla was relieved to see she was not the only one who laughed, and then she counted the bruises there and stopped laughing.

Elizabeth still had her hand. Teyla asked, "Has Ronon been observing like that since he arrived?"

"Beckett said it was all right to leave him be." Those careful, evaluative eyes. "I don't know how his culture expresses fear."

"Perhaps we are seeing it," said Teyla. She wiped her eyes. "I will speak with him now."

***

He swam into wakefulness like a kid riding the tide inward, unlike his usual morning routine of jerking fully alert at dawn. He eddied out of -- it wasn't a dream really, but some kind of easy blank expectation -- and into hearing and sensation: thin sheets, an air-conditioner's hum, smell of clean. He felt his breathing change, go deeper and stretch his chest more, and knew he really was waking up. His ribs ached.

He ached all over, raw Bactine sting on his knees and a dull throb up his neck that radiated around his skull like hip-hop on a subwoofer. He breathed deep again, and started down the inventory: shoulders, arms, fingers, stomach -- all parts accounted for, most of them complaining. His clothes had been cut off. A few flexes told him that things had had time to settle and stiffen, sore: he'd been out for a while.

That was how John came to understand he must have crashed a puddlejumper, and that he was probably in the infirmary, and that he probably had an audience and he should open his eyes to tell them to go away and quit staring. He moved his tongue in his mouth -- tacky, dry -- and something cool touched his lips. Ice. He licked it in, grateful, let it numb the roof of his mouth and drip down his throat.

Definitely someone staring.

Some kind of crust had formed on his eyelashes, so opening them was a chore. He blinked a few times, realized that it wasn't his eyes not working but the lights on dim. Elizabeth stood over him, watching, that diplomat smile on her face like a steel-hard Mona Lisa. She held up another ice chip so he could see it.

"Mmh," he said, and let his throat work a few times. "Thanks." The cold hard sliver helped sharpen him up, let him think about the pattern of his hurt. "Wha happen?"

"You almost died," she said, serene to let him know he hadn't, and the risk was past. "Carson explained it to me, but --" she gestured, long bony limbs. "You were in a coma."

Oh. He thought, hard, and couldn't come up with what day it was. "Long?"

"They brought you in this -- yesterday. So no, not long." Elizabeth brushed his hair off his forehead, turning her wrist to feel his temperature with the back of her hand. "They wouldn't leave."

John couldn't think who they were, but then, he was realizing, he couldn't think up a lot of things at the moment. He moved his fingers, and gave a little yip of pain. That cracked Elizabeth's facade, and she pressed on his forearm. Under her grip, he could feel the tubing of an IV, and when he felt that he understood the pinch on the back of his hand, where the needle had gone in.

"You're covered with bruises. Just rest, for now."

"Who?" he asked.

Elizabeth stepped away from him rather than answer. She took up a position at his feet, something sentimental in her smirk, and glanced to his right. It really shouldn't have been that much effort to turn his head, but he had to work at it, slow fallow muscles complaining. His cheek touched the pillow and he focussed his eyes.

A bed had been crammed into the corner, chairs backed up against it in a row. It was quaint-looking, like open wards in third-world hospitals, where kin came to feed and wash the ill. A man lay in the bed, his foot raised up in traction and an Asian woman in a forearm cast draped over his middle. In the chairs, a blonde woman resting against the wall, hand in hand with a familiar man. That man rested temple-to-temple with a dark-skinned woman who sighed gently. Between them on the floor, hands grasping at their ankles, a giant beast snoring, dressed in skins and hair. Oh, Ronon. Of course. Teyla and Rodney and Melo and Van Arden and Judy the geologist. Every one of them fast asleep.

"They're all okay, more or less," Elizabeth said. "Carson had some nice things to say about your field medic skills, by the way."

But John was still noticing the details: their clean white hospital clothes over heavy bruises and Rodney's shaven face and Judy's right hand in a cast all the way up to the fingertips. Van Arden's hands were hamburger -- all of their hands were. He watched Teyla breathe, that slow rhythm familiar and comforting. Ronon snorted in his sleep and shuddered, grasping tighter at the legs in his grip. Rodney moved his hand out of Van Arden's grasp and settled it against Ronon's cheek, and the disturbance passed. Rodney blinked his eyes open.

There was light over by the wall, shaded so it bounced away rather than right into the patient's eyes. It was nice, subtle light, restful. John could see that Rodney's eyes were tiny rims of blue around vast black circles, adjusted so well to darkness he missed nothing. He looked like a cat or a possum, startled by the sound of humans. John tried to waggle his eyebrows ironically, but he wasn't sure they obeyed him. Rodney just blinked: alert, himself, unmoving.

John really hoped he remembered it soon, because it seemed like it had to be a really exciting story. Later, he was sure, Rodney would tell it to him, ten or twenty times.

"Let the record show," and the drowse was in Rodney's voice, lulling, "that you really do sleep naked."

Sheppard was way too sore to laugh. "Yeah," he whispered, and let himself drift back under.