John eyed the giant beetle while he loosened the sling to free his arm should he need both hands mobile. He had to grit his teeth when the weight and motion tugged on the torn muscle and bone that had the last hour to get nice and swollen.
As if the monster sensed his weakness, it scuttled several feet closer and thrust out no fewer than eight scaly arms, two of which had pincers the size of tree shears. With its shell balanced on its hideous back, it looked like some nightmare version of a hermit crab. John backpedaled wondering how the hell he was going to get past it.
When it lunged forward again, John fired, almost out of frustration. The bullet went high and bounced off the thick shell and sparked against the tunnel wall at least twice. John ducked and winced, taking a mental note to aim more carefully. He continued to retreat and the creature continued to lunge. John's feet kicked aside empty shells as he scuffed backwards.
He didn't have time for a standoff. Fearing the results if he missed, John took careful aim (this time) and fired three rounds into what he hoped was the softer flesh of the creature's legs and thorax. Two of the rounds sparked harmlessly against equally armored legs and chest-plate, but the third seemed to strike more sensitive tissue right where the shell joined the thing's body. It jerked at the impact, then reared up in a soundless roar, claws extended and clicking coldly in the damp air.
It lunged again, faster than before and John backpedaled. His foot twisted on an upturned shell and in the fraction of a second it took to regain his balance, the enormous dome-beetle smashed into him, knocking him backward to land hard against the slimy floor. The flashlight flew a few feet away, still casting a blue-white glow against the wall.
John screamed out a cry of anguish as broken shoulder and ribs were jolted, then yelled a hoarse cry of terror as he flung up his good left arm to ward off the pincer that stabbed down from above towards his exposed chest. He managed to knock the appendage aside and it scraped a long furrow of slime off the concrete beside his left ear. The other pincer stabbed and screaming in pain and defiance, John knocked it aside as well with his right arm, the broken shoulder screaming its own protest.
Before it could stab again, John tucked his knees and kicked hard with both feet against the underbelly of the beetle, hoping to fling it away. He only managed to lift its heavy front half off the ground. Its legs flailed wildly, seeking purchase it could not find, and the pincers jabbed at John's face and chest. He batted each strike away, realizing the creature's strength was vertical, up and down only, and he had the advantage by being able to push the claws to either side. At least he would have had the advantage without a broken shoulder that was rapidly losing the ability to move at all.
For a long moment, John panted, legs quivering and shoulder screaming in a deathly stalemate. He finally realized that the hand he kept pushing the left claw away still, miraculously, held his sidearm. Bracing himself, John gave a tremendous heave with his feet, and almost kicked the beetle vertical. Its eight-plus arms waved frantically before it began to topple back down, almost slowly, on top of John. As it fell, John unloaded the Beretta into the thing's belly, aiming as much as he could for the places where it connected to the shell.
Sparks and pings of ricochet filled the tunnel with roaring sound. A white-hot line of fire scored his left thigh and then the thing crashed down upon him, smashing him into the concrete and pinning him tightly to the cold, wet floor. For a long moment, John lay panting, his eyes screwed shut against the screaming pain in his side and leg and shoulder.
But the beetle didn't jab at him. Nor did it move at all. With relief came resignation. He was firmly pinned, the bulk of the beast covering him completely. He couldn't look at his watch, but he knew he was out of time. It didn't matter. Even if he could claw his way free, he'd never make the exit in time. Shock and pain and something else that had been on the edges of awareness – a kind of intoxicated dullness – pulled John deeper into lethargy. The last thing he saw before he passed out was a strange blue glow that lit the small stripe of floor he could see and then nothing.
"Ronon, hurry," Teyla urged as she followed him down the steps into ever colder darkness. She drew her flashlight when the glow from the warm civilized outpost above faded completely. Ronon also had his light out, but in her haste, she still slipped slid on the stairs that were growing damp and slimy.
"Would the radiation harm him immediately?" She asked as she prodded Ronon even faster. She had learned about radiation poisoning from their encounters with the Genii and was grasping at the hope that Jennifer and Carson could perform their magic and help John even after having been exposed.
"The blast is designed to kill critters that might enter and breed in the tunnel but it's not radiation in the literal sense. It's more like microwaves, targeted to destroy cell tissue. Anything alive down there would be, um, exploded at the cellular level."
Ronon slammed his palms into the door at the bottom of the steps in frustration. It swung open with a satisfying bang.
"Which way?" Ronon growled.
"Turn left. Oh, and watch out for really big bugs. John said he had to pass one just before we lost…contact."
"You said life would be destroyed," Teyla choked out the words through a throat that had clenched tight at Rodney's pronouncement of doom. She swept her light across the tunnel that was littered with strange debris that looked like hundreds of bowls of all sizes. She jumped and pressed into Ronon's reassuring bulk when one of the bowls began shoving its way through the others with a scratching scuffle. "There are many bug shells and some are still alive."
"Even the Ancients couldn't plan 10,000 years in advance for evolution. Perhaps some of the indigenous arthropods adapted to the microwaves." Rodney snapped the retort sounding angry, but Teyla knew after so many years that the anger was the valve for grief and worry.
She pressed on, kicking aside shells and surrounded by the ominous, ever-present skritching of claws. It seemed like the tunnel grew even blacker as they walked further from the exit, like the darkness was devouring their light rather than surrounding it.
"How far?" she demanded of Rodney when the dark seemed to begin squeezing her very heart. How had John traveled so far in this nightmare?
"You're close. Do you see anything?"
"There!" Ronon pointed and shielded his flashlight at the same time. Far ahead, a faint dim glow splashed against the shiny slick wall of the tunnel, just past a meandering turn.
"John!" she called, hearing the ragged plea in her voice. There was no answer, but she was already running towards the light, Ronon's surprisingly light steps just behind her. She was just about to complete the curve when Ronon jerked her to a halt by the arm.
"Wait!" he rasped and she swallowed anger to look at the place his weapon was drawn and pointing at. A huge, shiny bowl creature lay centered in the tunnel, it's gleaming onyx shell reflecting the fading light of the flashlight that lay discarded against the tunnel wall.
For a long moment, they stood frozen, but the creature made no movement. Ronon twitched and Teyla watched his lips curl into a snarl of impatience. She jumped when he next howled a cry of challenge and charged the creature, leaping forward several large steps with his arms wide. It didn't even twitch.
"Is it dead?" Teyla demanded.
"Looks like it."
They approached cautiously, their weapons steady on the hulking bulk of the creature. When Teyla reached the light, she bent down to pick it up, feeling her throat tighten again. "It's John's."
"Sheppard!" Ronon bellowed. Only echoes answered.
"Perhaps he ran the other way when he encountered the beast."
"The radiation killed it?"
Teyla shook her head, fearing to admit the notion. If the radiation had killed such a powerful thing, how could John have survived.
"Well? What did you find," Rodney shouted into the radio and Teyla heard the fear in his voice. "You're standing right where I lost John. Lost contact with John." The correction and anguish in Rodney's voice caused Teyla's eyes to burn. She was grateful when Ronon answered.
"We found Sheppard's flashlight and a really big dead bug. No sign of Sheppard though."
Teyla blinked and looked away to regain her composure. Something on the wall caught her attention and she shined her light at the spot grateful for any distraction. "There are marks on the wall." She stepped closer. "Bullet impacts! John fought the creature and several bullets hit the walls."
Ronon edged past the shell and shone his light at the opposite face of the dome. "There are bullet scores here, too. John definitely shot at the thing. It's thick, though. Didn't even hardly scratch it."
"We should search further down the tunnel."
Teyla turned her back on the bug to shine her light further down the endless empty space, momentarily overwhelmed by visions of John, alone, fighting the monster behind her. Ronon just nodded and stepped past, leading the way. She stood a heartbeat longer, then threw her shoulders back to steel herself.
A low, murmuring hum stopped her. "Ronon! Listen!" she hissed. Ronon stopped and turned, perplexity bordering on annoyance written in his face. Then he, too, heard the strange sound. It wasn't regular, like a fan or motor, the monotone rose and fell in weak fits and starts. It would pause for long moments, then hum again. It was difficult to pinpoint location in the echoing tunnel, but Teyla spun to face the bug, certain at least it came from that general direction.
"Is it alive after all?" she whispered.
Ronon's expression went feral. "We should kill it if it is."
He strolled to the hump of a shell and aimed his energy gun at it, his expression vindictive.
Teyla crouched at his ankles, listening hard.
"It's coming from underneath! Ronon! Lift it off! Move it aside!"
Ronon chuffed, but did as asked. It took both of them to grab the edge of the monstrous shell and flip it down the tunnel towards the exit. A tangle of limp legs flopped as it crashed onto its back and rocked.
Underneath, sprawled on his back with his legs twisted to the side and his left arm – still clutching his weapon – John lay muttering and thrashing his head weakly from side to side.
"John!" Teyla cried and dropped to her knees beside him, fear and hope and relief and worry all crowding her heart. "Rodney, we found him. He's alive but unconscious."
"Found him… alive?" Rodney spoke slowly, as if hesitant to believe.
"He was underneath a very large bug creature. He seems to have killed it but was pinned underneath."
"The bug! He was under a bug? Is it heavily armored bug? Of course it is! Sheppard, you're a genius! The bug protected him from the microwaves like it's protected the bug its whole life. I'm on my way. Mieka is gathering help and will meet me there. I knew that man had some trick up his sleeve. No wonder he was so nonchalant."
Rodney continued to mutter and rejoice, but Teyla focused her attention on John. Worry was quickly winning the competition for her emotions. John thrashed and muttered again, but there was no deliberation. She patted his cheek and his eyes flew open briefly, then closed again with renewed muttering.
"He's bleeding," Ronon announced, and set to work to bind the gouge along John's left thigh he had discovered. John's pants were damp from blood and slime and the damp moisture of the tunnels. He shivered as Ronon gently lifted the leg to slip a binding around it.
Teyla was observing John carefully. He wore his belt around one shoulder and recognized an attempt at a sling. She prodded the arm that it would support, starting at the wrist. When she reached the shoulder, John jerked in his sleep and cried out softly. Tears welled when Teyla pulled down the collar of his shirt and saw the dark bruise and inflamed skin along his shoulder and collar bone.
"He has either a broken arm or broken collar bone," she announced. "Ah…and badly bruised side." John twitched and whimpered again when she probed the blackened skin underneath his shirt and vest she had uncovered. "Very likely broken ribs. His breath is raspy." She looked up, shocked.
"Ronon, these are old wounds. He received these wounds before he began his journey."
Ronon's chuff was part sympathy, part pride. "I take it back, John," he murmured to his friend. "You should have told us. I would have fought ten monster bugs for you."
John just sucked in a rattling breath, then began muttering again. "Mission top secret, destination unknown, we don't give a damn if we ever get home. Get home. Home."
"What is he saying?" Ronon asked, bemused.
"I do not know. He is delirious and in shock. He needs to get to Atlantis."
She spent the next several minutes binding John's shoulder with the sling he had already crafted and attempting to immobilize the damaged ribs, all of which seemed to cause him great pain. When she couldn't stand to cause him more discomfort, she contented herself with wrapping him in a thermal sheet pulled from her own vest, hoping to ease the shudders that were beginning to wrack his body.
She began to tug a second sheet out when John's teeth rattled and then he coughed, leaving flecks of blood on his lips. Teyla threw Ronon a fearful look.
"I'll go find Rodney and bring him here," he answered and then he was gone.
"Hold on, John. We are taking you home. You are safe." She reached for his hand as he continued to shudder. "Hold on."
Rodney raced for the opposite side of the outpost, no longer caring if Monarkians saw him. He had his gun. Let them try to stop him.
He was no longer quite so confident, however, when two security thugs strolled out of a crossway only a few corridors from the stairwell to the tunnel and recognized him.
"You there," one of them grunted.
"Stop and stand for questioning. Lord Ashran left orders for you to be detained, then escorted off the outpost."
"Yeah, well, I'm leaving, that's for sure. I just have to meet my friends first." Rodney tried to bluster his way past, then raised his arms when the men moved towards him instead. "I mean, I'll be happy to leave. Please, just let me go meet my friends first."
One of the thugs chortled and reached for Rodney's shoulders. Rodney gritted his teeth and felt his face flush with anger. He jerked away from the guard's touch and thrust his hand towards his holster. The second guard dove for his own weapon and Rodney wrestled his gun out, hoping he could get the thing raised before the guard either stunned him or hit him with the gun. In the end they thrust their weapons out at the same time in an uneasy stalemate.
"I just want to find my friends and leave this horrid place," Rodney ground out. He sounded pretty fierce if he did say so himself.
"And you will let him!" exclaimed a loud voice at Rodney's right elbow. To his shock, Mieka and several other Monarkian servants surrounded them, wielding metal pipes and other non-technical – but sufficiently threatening –weapons. Rodney grinned as the guards went nervous. At more gestures of aggression, the security men lowered their weapons and raised their hands, though their expressions were belligerent.
"Ashran will hear of your disobedience," one snarled.
"But not until our friends are safely offworld," retorted Mieka, grim but determined. "Dr. McKay, please continue. My friends will ensure that these men do not delay your departure."
Rodney threw a grateful nod to the old servant and continued towards the tunnel. Mieka's group split, half followed Rodney, the other surrounded the guards.
When he reached the stairs, his heart was racing from more than exertion. John had beat the odds and found a way to escape the tunnel sterilization procedure. But Teyla had sounded very concerned. Rodney kept hearing John's raspy voice and distracted rambling.
Ronon met him at the bottom of the stairs and urged Rodney into the tunnel. It took all his willpower to walk into the pitch black, bug infested, mold and disease ridden dungeon. When he reached Sheppard, he still wasn't sure he wanted to be where he was. His friend was wrapped in thin silver sheets. John was pale and seemed to be unconscious, though he muttered and thrashed.
Rodney knelt, then shared a look of deep concern with Teyla. She quickly took charge of the volunteers and soon John was wrapped onto a stretcher that Mieka's men had brought. Rodney stood and watched, feeling useless. When four servants lifted John to carry him out of the tunnel, the sick man squirmed and fought the restraints, muttering continually.
Rodney stepped close to adjust the litter, then leaned closer, curious about what his delusional friend found so interesting to say in his somnambulant state.
"If I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home, put my wings up on my chest, and bury me in the leaning rest…" The words were breathy, disconnected, but Rodney smiled, though it was rueful.
"Has he lost hope?" Teyla whispered as the Monarkian servants gently carried him away. She had clearly heard the same words as Rodney. Rodney chuckled.
"No. The opposite. It's a cadence. A marching chant that is tradition of Earth military training. To keep you going and to help you stay focused. He's fighting. He's still fighting."
Teyla nodded, relieved. "Then let us join the battle and take him home as his tradition speaks of."
"Agreed." He waved on the group and waited until they'd made their way past the terrifying dead bug. "We'll let you rest Sheppard. But you get to skip the box," Rodney whispered to himself, watching his friend go. He looked around at the gloomy, slimy tunnel. "This time."
John was bored. Bored, bored, bored. He thumped his thumbs on his laptop. He'd watched every movie that Rodney had pirated for him and he didn't feel like working. His ribs and shoulder were still sore, and Jennifer had reminded about the dangers of a punctured lung so many times, that he didn't feel like getting up and exercising, either. When Rodney appeared at the infirmary door, John found himself actually looking forward to a lecture on Ancient waste disposal systems – which is what he'd gotten an earful of the last two times the man had visited.
"Hey! Look who's looking bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Our favorite flushed turtle."
Rodney chortled at his own joke and John just sighed. The whole "getting dumped in the trash disposal" was going to last a while, he realized.
"Turtles don't have bushy tails," John stated firmly in the only retort that had a chance of distracting his pedantic friend.
Rodney just waved away the inconsistency which told John he was in a very good mood. "What's got you so happy?"
"Mieka just contacted Atlantis."
"He OK? That Ashran guy was pretty ticked at me and the other servants who tried to help me while they were, um, you know."
"Punching you silly and shoving you into the trash can. I know. Mieka's quite the political activist, though. He seems to have organized a labor movement and they have gotten Ashran to agree to negotiations. They want us to mediate. Apparently Ashran was 'impressed' at our ability to work so congenially with un-lanteans and asked for us specifically."
"He's a piece of work."
"Well, Woolsey is sending a delegation."
"Tell them good luck. And that I won't be seeing them anytime soon."
Rodney grinned and made as if to go, but John reached out a hand, hesitated, then decided to let it go. Rodney noticed.
"Seriously. What? You want me to bring you something?"
"No. Um, yes actually, some magazines from my room, but that's not my question. I was just wondering..." he trailed off, scrubbed the back of his head until Rodney threw an annoyed "get on with it shrug".
"I was wondering what happened after they threw me, you know."
"Into the tunnel?"
"Yeah. Right! I remember a tunnel. It was really dark and wet and...it glowed?" John's memory was very fuzzy. He remembered flashes of being cold and in pain and of strange scratching noises. The pieces were driving him crazy – becoming more frightening because he couldn't fit them together.
Rodney hitched his hip on the edge of John's bed. "You don't remember?"
"Wow. Well, Jennifer did say that you were pretty high on mold."
"That tunnel was two inches deep in slime mold. The spores, especially in that concentration, when inhaled act something like an intoxicant. We could tell your responses were off. It was hell to keep you moving in the right direction. Or to keep moving at all."
"I walked around down there?"
"Almost three miles. You were injured, pretty badly it turns out, but you managed to not only nearly make it out yourself, you fought off the biggest dung beetle I've ever seen. Almost four feet tall and five in diameter."
"I fought... a giant bug?"
"Yeah. You should probably make up a good story about that. Rumors are getting around. The things underside was shredded with bullets, so you must have gotten it to expose itself and then unloaded. Then you crawled underneath to protect yourself from the microwave sterilization burst. That was really very clever."
"Oh, of course. I remember that part," John lied. He rarely saw admiration on Rodney's face and he wasn't going to waste it when he saw it. He had vague memories, after being reminded, of pincers jabbing at his face and of a heavy body falling on him. He apparently owed that dead bug his life.
Rodney smirked, but let it go. "Right. Just have your story ready for when you get out of here."
"I will. I mean, I'll remember by then."
"See that you do. Later, Sheppard."
Again, Rodney turned to go. John was suddenly flooded with vague, but strong, memories of walking in the dark as Rodney urged him on. "Hey," John called, holding Rodney back one last time. "I remember a little more. And, you know, thanks."
"For...talking to me. Keeping me going."
"Oh." Rodney smirked. "No problem. I just wish I'd known about the mold spores. I could have gotten a lot more dirt out of you than some bawdy chants."
"Never mind. I'm just glad you're better. See you around, soon."
He left hastily, as if afraid John would call him back again. John leaned back into his pillows and tried to get comfortable. Broken ribs were the worst. He wouldn't sleep properly until they'd healed. As he dozed he tried to remember more about walking in the dark and fighting giant bugs.
All he could get were flashes and feelings, mostly of dark and fear. As he drifted off, however, an old marching cadence floated into his head for some strange reason.
The Air Force Colors
The color is red
To show the world
The blood we shed
The Air Force Colors
The color is white
To show the world
That we can fight
The Air Force Colors
The color is blue
To show the world
That we are true
The Air Force Colors
Red, White, and Blue
To show the world
That we'd die for you
The Air Force Colors
Are at their best
When they work with the others
He sank into sleep with one last thought: Where in the hell had that last verse come from?
Thanks to the Holiday Exchange for kicking another story out of me! Thank you all who continue to read SGA!