"Sheppard. Come in. Can you hear me? Sheppard."
The soft hiss of static and the persistent, concerned words crept slowly into John's brain.
"Sheppard. Come in."
John realized he was cold and wet before he realized he was awake. Both sensations seemed to be centered on his right side. He concentrated for a moment and decided he was lying in a puddle. Why the hell was he lying in a puddle?
"Sheppard. Dammit John, answer me. Sheppard."
I should at least sit up, he thought, though it took longer for the idea to reach any muscles. With a motion that was more of a flop than any coordinated effort, he pushed off the cold wet surface he was lying on and discovered something else. His right side hurt. A lot.
John gasped and slammed his right elbow into his ribcage to press against a growing ache that was bordering on breath-crushing pain. His shoulder sent out an equally loud protest. A ragged shout of angry misery tore from his throat and echoed wetly in the cold air around him.
"Sheppard. Come in. Can you hear me? Sheppard."
This time the words hissing insistently in his ear triggered an instinctive reaction. Still not fully awake nor in control of the pain, he touched the receiver in his ear.
"Oh thank God! Sheppard, we've been calling for fifteen minutes. Do you realize how worried we've been? Why the hell didn't you answer? Can you tell us where you are? I mean, I know where you are in the geographical sense, but where are you?"
The words washed over John with little understanding, but they were comforting. The tenuous connection to a friendly voice relaxed the tension that was twisting his broken shoulder and he was able to take a few shallow breaths and control the pain. Feeling slightly more awake, he tu ned back into the chatter in his ear and realized they had gone concerned again.
"Sheppard? Are you still there?"
Another, softer and gentler voice chimed in, "John, please answer. We are very concerned. Can you answer?"
"Here. I'm here. Just groggy. Stunner?" John managed.
The tone went relieved again and it was Rodney who answered, though John had been hoping to hear more of Teyla's calming voice. "We think that yes, you were probably stunned or drugged by the Monarkians before they dumped you into the waste disposal system that beamed you to your current location."
John struggled to remember anything of what had happened before he woke up cold and in pain. They were visiting the Monarkians who had avoided their attention for almost four years by using the Ancient technology of the outpost they were occupying to lie low. Like the Tower dwellers, they had abused the power brought to those few who had the Ancient gene that allowed them to control the facility. The ruling class used their advantage to design a pretty little society of creature comforts and some not-so-bad art, but while they hadn't gone as far as starving the "un-Lantean" class, there was no doubt as to who ruled who. The remaining population of normal people were slaves in a palace, but slaves none the less.
At first, the ruling class had been happy when John and Rodney showed up. They saw the advantage of the expertise they could tap into. But the warm fuzzies went sour once John would not permit the locals to abuse their un-Lantean teammates. Things had gotten even frostier when John refused to talk down his nose to the servants.
"They threw you out with the trash." Ronon's voice rumbled with amusement.
"That's what I said," Rodney continued, sounding testy. "It sent you to wherever you are instead of the incinerator. Pretty lucky really. Apparently the facility has failsafes that detect complex living matter to keep kids from flushing their pet turtles or something. We have your transponder signal on our scanner. You're about 10 meters below the East edge of the outpost. It looks like a tunnel. I'm sure we can guide you to an exit as long as the passage isn't blocked. What's it like down there?"
John had been simply breathing and resting so the question caught him by surprise. He looked around and saw…nothing. It took him another moment of blinking hard to process that observation.
"I can't see!"
"I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't any lighting. The tunnel looks like a remnant of the original construction. Do you have a flashlight?"
"Yeah." Panic faded as quickly as it had flared. John patted his vest with the hand that wasn't attached to a broken shoulder and felt the reassuring bump of his small light in its usual pocket. He wrestled it out and finally twisted on the bright beam. It was like throwing a pebble into the Grand Canyon. The darkness around him was so thick it seemed to swallow light up.
"It's a tunnel, alright," John said aloud to reassure his friends and soothe the creepy feeling that was tickling the hairs on his neck. "About three meters by three meters. Looks old. Concrete. Lots of moisture."
He swept the beam over the ceiling that was slimy with mold and then the floor that was equally damp with several puddles of accumulated water. His right leg was still marinating in one. Closer inspection revealed a lumpy panel of bronze geometry near the top curve of the tunnel that was probably the source of his arrival.
"I don't see any fixtures. Other than the transporter I don't see any tech at all. Just a lot of dark tunnel and slime."
John pushed with his heels to scoot the few feet it took to prop his back against the tunnel wall. Leaning took some of the pressure off his sore shoulder and he took a tentative deep breath. A sharp ache stopped the experiment and confirmed what he'd feared – definitely a broken rib. Despite the failsafes, he'd obviously rematerialized several feet above the ground and – unconscious at the time – had hit the ground hard on his right side. A lump of tender flesh above his right ear supported the theory.
Rodney was talking again, but John's self-inventory was telling him he needed to get the hell out before all those aches and pains ganged up on him.
"How far to the exit?" he blurted into the mike, interrupting Rodney's speech about the tunnel's construction.
"A little under three Kliks to the North or five to the South. The tunnels meander."
"Meander? Great. Well, shorter sounds better. Which way is North?"
John decided to work on standing up. He'd managed to get his knees under himself before he realized that Rodney hadn't answered.
"Rodney, which way?"
"It's not that simple."
John felt his face flush in irritation. "Why not?"
Teyla answered, obviously attempting to rescue Rodney from the snap in John's voice. "Rodney's sensors indicate that there are other…creatures in the tunnels."
"And, the panel Rodney is at indicates that the tunnels are irradiated regularly."
"Irradiated?" That information didn't seem to fit with the previous statement in John's mind. So much for saving pet turtles.
"And that the next burst is expected…soon."
A shiver ran down John's spine. "How soon?"
Rodney answered. "An hour. Probably."
John considered. An hour to walk 2-3 miles was a piece of cake, normally. But his side was talking to him and he had to consider obstacles that might slow him down. "Shorter still sounds better."
"We thought you would say that. But John, the North tunnel has a greater concentration of life signs. Some of them quite large. Can you run the longer route instead?" Teyla's voice continued to betray concern.
John closed his eyes, feeling the trap shut. The safer route was longer, the shorter route more dangerous. Maybe option three was called for. "Any chance of just shutting off the irradiation cycle?"
"Rodney thought of that. The system's on automatic and the control panels haven't been initialized."
Rodney butted in with, "All I can access from here is the maintenance logs. I don't know where the main controls are and we aren't very welcome here at the moment to go asking. "
"Are you in danger?" John heard his own voice go tight.
"We are safe. When you were attacked, the Monarkians attempted to forcibly remove us from the outpost. Ronon convinced them to let us remain long enough to search for you." Teyla's voice sounded grim, but there was a hint of self-satisfaction.
"I stunned them and we ran," Ronon summarized and John could only chuckle, imagining the scene.
"OK, so maybe the long way after all. But that means I'd better get started. Which way is South?"
"Walk ten paces in any direction and I'll tell you to either keep going or turn around."
John just nodded to himself and took a slow breath in preparation. He tapped off the mike, braced his good hand against the wall and lunged to his feet. He almost didn't stay there. His shoulder shrieked. There was a grinding in his side as the motion shifted broken bone against bone. Despite the damp chill, he could feel cold sweat on his brow. Another long groan of protest escaped his lips.
He planted his back against the wall to remain standing while he mastered the pain, again. He was going to need to immobilize that shoulder, or every step would be excruciating. He began to tug on his belt with the thought.
"Sometime today would be nice, Sheppard," groused Rodney over the radio.
John gathered his courage, pushed off the wall and took ten steps to his right. The tenth was no less painful, but he at least felt steadier. He put the flashlight in his mouth and finished tugging his belt out of the loops while he waited for Rodney's next instructions.
"Good. You guessed right. Keep going. We will make our way to the exit from up here to meet you."
"Sounds good," John replied, turning the radio back on. "See you there."
There was a pause. "John, are you alright?" Teyla asked with a hesitancy that set off warning bells. He was hurting but he didn't think he sounded that bad. Had his team been standing next to him, he would have been grateful for their help and concern. Instead, he was alone in a dark tunnel. Even if they came and found him, he'd still have to make the trip out. In the split second of consideration after the question, he made a decision.
"I'm fine. Just a little woozy from the stun." Which was technically true. The stun had sent him flopping to a concrete floor, which was why he was moving slowly.
There was no answer, but there were no arguments either. John finished making a sling out of his belt, then tightened it down so that it would keep his right elbow and shoulder as still as possible.
"Keep your eyes open," Rodney said at last. "I'll watch the scanner when I can. Check in every five."
"You know you're on the clock, don't you?"
"I remember, thanks." He had an hour to find the exit or he'd get fried by the Ancient version of a bug zapper. That was the kind of thing that was hard to forget.
"Then why aren't you moving?"
John cursed under his breath and started walking.
"That's better. And John?"
John grinned despite the cold air, creepy tunnel and threat of imminent irradiation. "Thanks."
Rodney closed the channel and looked at Ronon and Teyla. Their expressions mirrored his own feelings.
"He doesn't sound all that good," he summarized.
"Responses are off," Ronon agreed.
"Perhaps it is as he says: he is still sluggish from the effects of the stun or drugs that the Monarkians used to incapacitate him." Teyla's tone contradicted the optimism of her words.
Rodney jerked his head in a quick negative. "His voice is breathy. Like that time the castaway Wraith played kung fu with his ribcage. He had two cracked ribs that time and could hardly walk off the jumper after the ride home."
"Should we force him to tell us?" Teyla wondered, but Ronon was already shaking his head.
"Doesn't matter. Can't help him. If he doesn't want us to badger him about it, then let it go."
Teyla bit her lip, but finally nodded. "Then let us go now to the exit. If John cannot complete the journey, then we will have more time to enter and get him."
"But I can monitor the sensors better from here," Rodney protested. He not only disliked the idea of leaving John to the dark without the benefit of his help, Rodney really disliked the idea of entering it himself.
"McKay," Ronon's rumble was full of warning.
"OK, ok. I'll link my hand scanner to this console, but it won't show as much detail."
They were in a small, unused research lab at the edge of the outpost. The cramped, bronze and teal space was reminiscent of Atlantis and had offered a place of privacy to conduct their search for John. The Monarkians weren't exactly hunting them, but they'd decided it was best to remain out of sight, out of mind. Rodney linked the devices, then tuned his hand scanner to search for life signs outside their own door.
"Clear," he whispered to annoyed looks from Ronon. As he followed his braver, strike that – better armed teammates, Rodney flicked one last glance back at the console that connected him in some small way to his friend – a connection he was severing.
"I hope you're not lying too much for us, Sheppard, he muttered to himself. Because I have a bad feeling this is going to get worse before it gets better."
John walked South, he assumed. The dark of the tunnel pressed in all around him. The small splash of light that his flashlight threw was so pitiful, and the slimy floor under his feet so shrouded in shadow that he had no sense that he was moving at all. He kept the light fixed ahead, scraping the tunnel from side to side. Rodney had said "fewer" creatures, not "no" creatures.
The sling helped his shoulder as he walked. Still, every step jolted his damaged side, despite the precautions. The exertion was also threatening to make the broken rib more of a problem. He'd have to work to move quickly without driving up his breath rate. He pressed his elbow hard against his side. The weird always-moving light was making him feel dizzy. The cold air smelled like moldy nickel.
Every now and then, the plink of water dripping from ceiling to floor echoed loudly in the endless dark. When a soft scrabbling joined the intermittent drips, he froze and waved the light wildly around him. The beam didn't catch even a hint of movement.
"Take it easy, John," he muttered to himself. "Probably just your imagination. Or something in the dirt outside of the tunnel." He resumed walking, but couldn't shake a feeling the prickled the hairs on the back of his neck. The constant adjustment from pitch dark to bright reflections of flashlight off puddles was making him see spots– phantom blue-green orbs glowed in the blackness ahead.
"Wait a minute."
He blinked hard, covered the light for a second, blinked again. The tunnel ahead was covered in spots. As his eyes adjusted, the orbs seemed to grow brighter. Cautiously, he crept forward towards the nearest spot until it was right over his head. He craned his neck to stare. A delicate circle of lacy light glowed coldly like a snowflake made out of blue flame.
After examining it, he shined his light on it and saw that it was something like mold, or maybe lichen. It spread over the slime what covered the surface of the tunnel, a pale lily pad on a greasy pond.
"Why are you just standing there?"
John jumped at Rodney's sudden outburst in his ear, his heart racing from more than the startle. He needed to keep moving. He was "on the clock". He kept getting distracted, and that was starting to bother him.
"There's glow-in-the-dark moss down here," he replied to distract Rodney from his transgression. He also started walking again, faster than before.
"Oh. That's interesting. Bioluminescence isn't common, but not unheard of in species we've encountered in this galaxy. Not that we've explored even a fraction of a percent of it, but if there's a lot of moisture, I can see fungi or bacteria evolving in that direction."
"There's moisture all right," John replied with a splash through a particularly deep puddle. "Could these be the life signs you were worried about?"
"No, the outpost sensors were detecting more complex life signs than moss."
"Have you seen anything…alive..yet?"
"No. Just glowing glowing moss and an active imagi… Holy Crap!"
John yelped as two of the floating points of light detatched themselves from the blackness and came hurtling right at him. He flung himself backwards, scrabbling for his sidearm, only then remembering that his arm was tied down to his side and that it hurt like hell to do what he was doing. Still back pedaling, he shoved the light awkwardly into his right hand and drew his combat knife with his left.
The scratching sound was back, growing louder as the points got closer.
John twisted his wrist in the sling, brandished his knife and pointed both at the oncoming terror. For an instant, the beam fell on a cockroach the length of his fingers, then the next second it and the glowing lights were gone. John kept the beam on the place where it disappeared, took a step closer.
Only when he was right underneath, did he finally see a hint of shiny brown shell buried under the layers of mold and slime. When he lowered his light, sure enough, two points of cold blue waved ever-so-slightly at the same spot.
"John, dammit, would you please answer?"
John became aware of Rodney again and chuckled in sudden relief. "I'm fine. Just scared the crap out of myself. There are glow-in-the-dark bugs, too. At least the antennae glow. This guy that startled me is about the size of a rhinoceros cockroach."
"Well are you standing around watching it? Because while it seems to have adapted to regular bursts of the high energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum, I seriously doubt you have."
John walked for a while longer expecting more nagging from Rodney, but his friend seemed to be satisfied that he was moving. The spots began to cover more of the surface of the tunnel as he continued. There were also fewer puddles. His feet began to crunch, like he was walking over sand, and he realized that it wasn't less humid, there was just more dirt and grit to soak up the water into mud.
After another twenty or more steps, the flashlight beam fell on a pile of dirt and debris rising gently off the floor of the tunnel. John stopped, closed his eyes.
"Yeah, John. What?"
"I've got a problem here. The tunnel has collapsed. The cave-in fills the whole passage." John wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his grimy hand. "I can't go any further this way."
He didn't even bother to climb the pile in the slim hope that there was a way through, he just turned around and started walking back the way he'd come. He looked at his watch. Had it only been ten minutes? It felt like he'd been walking in thick soup forever. Ten minutes to simply get back to where he'd started. He had almost the same distance to walk as when he'd made the decision to go South, but now had only 50 minutes tops to do it.
And the other way had even bigger creatures to worry about.