Chapter One: Hijacked
"You, hot shot," Gage said, holding a pistol to McKay's head. "Don't give me away, I got nothing to lose. Shut the hatch." He shoved the gun firmly, handed Sheppard a crumpled note. "Go here."
From the Jumper's console, Sheppard activated the hatch and reached back for the note, glancing at McKay. Gage held his arm, poked the gun behind his ear. He read it, entered the coordinates and hailed the control room, telling them he wanted an unscheduled test run. The technician asked him to hold for confirmation.
The delay angered Gage and he ordered Sheppard to keep away from the con while they waited. "Give me your transmitters," he said. "Both of you." Sheppard handed it over.
McKay stalled, hoping someone would sound the alarm. "You won't need them," he said. "We're not getting two meters out without-"
"Now!" Gage said, rapping the barrel on the side of his head.
He was stunned, a shrill ring bursting into his ear. Sheppard told him to cooperate and he removed the device from his wrist and surrendered it.
"Down there, face first." Gage motioned to the floor.
McKay covered his ear. "I'm perfectly able to stand."
Gage's grip tightened on his arm. He nudged the gun. "On the floor."
"Rodney," Sheppard said. "He means business."
"I guess this confirms your guilt?" McKay asked. He received a jab between the shoulder blades and he turned toward Gage, exhaling like an angry bull. "Quit that, I'm going," he said, lying down. The ringing persisted.
"Rodney..." Sheppard raised his voice, ready to warn him again when the gate tech replied-they were good to go. Under Gage's caution, he activated the console and the Jumper dropped into the floor. In seconds, it disappeared through the gate. On the other side, they emerged from an orbiting space gate over a planet dotted with islands.
"I ought to hang you." Gage planted a foot on McKay's neck. "You sure were eager to see me on a rope."
"We hadn't decided anything." Sheppard guided the Jumper into the planet's mesosphere. "Our inquiry wasn't over. If you'd waited-"
"So you could banish me to some shitty planet? Lock me in a little room? I don't think so. Somebody else killed Jaden. I was asleep."
"We're not interested in fiction," said McKay, pressed against the floor. He felt a kick in his hip and stretched back, trying to block a second stab from Gage's boot.
Gage stomped his fingers. "I've always hated you, McKay. You're a conceited S.O.B, know that? People are such cattle. They clam up, let you push them around. I'm your new boss. Order me around, go ahead."
He jerked his hand out from under the boot. "You'll never survive, on any planet. I'll bet you've never even seen combat."
"Quiet," Gage shouted, adding another kick. "What does it take to get you to shut it?"
Sheppard rocked the Jumper. "Stop this, we're almost there. Leave him alone."
"I will if he does," McKay said. He protected his hand, tucked it near his body. "They've caught on to you, it won't take them very long."
"Nah, it'll be awhile." Gage read off a notation written on his wrist, the designation for a second planet. "Back to the space gate, we're taking a detour."
Sheppard said, "I thought you wanted this planet."
"Too easy to trace."
"This Jumper doesn't have enough fuel to be wandering all over the galaxy."
"Nice try, hot shot." Gage ground his foot into McKay and he made a muffled noise. "Enter the coordinates and take us outta' here."
Sheppard wouldn't move. The gun clicked. He brought up the VR display, swung the Jumper around, and returned to the orbiting gate and out another one, flying over a second planet. Two continents faced them, the larger as wide as Australia, north of the equator.
"When can we land?" Gage asked, eyeing the landmass.
"When we get to it," Sheppard said. "Find a suitable spot."
McKay had a cramp in his neck. "Let me up."
"What?" Gage grinned. "I can't hear you."
"Let him up," Sheppard said. "We're all-clear now. No one's going to catch up."
He removed his foot and McKay twisted to his side and eased up. The ringing had faded to a faint whistle. He leaned back, glared at Gage from the bench. He was a man infamous for his temper tantrums and poor impulse control. An investigation had uncovered his addiction to the drug Alpharine 11, known to induce erratic behavior. He'd stolen from Dr. Beckett's medbay, but when it ran out he'd failed to show up for duty, been accused of insubordination, all minor problems next to murder.
"How much supplies we got?" Gage said. "Check it, Rodney."
Getting up, Gage swiped him across the mouth. "Rod-nee," he said, switching to the co-pilots's seat. He trained the sidearm on Sheppard. "And step on it."
"He doesn't need to," Sheppard said. "We don't even have enough for a day. Nothing was restocked after the last mission."
"Another nice try, hot shot."
McKay wiped his lip, felt it tenderly, and insisted it was true. Gage allowed him to open two storage units. They were empty.
"Damn it," Gage said. "Just my luck. But this planet's got what I need, from the specs."
McKay asked Sheppard to reread the planet's designation. He recognized the numbers. "You're an idiot, Gage," he said. "Can't you read? You not only hijacked the wrong Jumper but did you take a good look at the fine print? This planet has an exceptional little quirk. Its UV levels are highly elevated. And guess what? Skin cancer's deadly. You'd have a significantly limited time before the effects of-"
Before he could finish, Gage sprung up, clipped him on the head with the gun's grip. The impact shocked him but he collected his nerve, leaped at the chance. He grabbed Gage's wrist with both hands, the gun millimeters from his eyes. As the Jumper soared into a batch of clouds, Sheppard rushed in to help. A sharp bump knocked the forward portside and it jerked to the right. Gage was thrown against McKay and they tumbled to the bench, grappling for the weapon. Over their heads, ribbons of electrical energy bolted through the bulkhead, crackling through to the rear. Sheppard hurried back to the pilot's seat, brought up the VR readout. They were losing altitude, caught in an angled dive. McKay let go. Gage claimed the weapon.
"I'm losing it," Sheppard said. "Hang on."
Sheppard fought to level the Jumper. In an instant, he selected a patch of grass and sped toward it. The terrain scrolled by in a blur, and they cut through low brush before hitting with a thud. The Jumper rolled to its side, slid into a spin and slammed against a hillside. Sparks snapped from the console and a small fire darted out from the corner. McKay found himself sprawled on the bulkhead wall beneath the shelf, dazed. He forced himself up and sorted through the mess, seized the extinguisher and snuffed out the fire. He checked on Sheppard, knew it would be dangerous to move him. Gage lay in a heap across from him.
Outside, he glimpsed a curtain of sparkling golden lights in the sky, moving toward them. He tried the hatch, using the console control. It made a squeaking noise, cracked open a centimeter, stuck. The Jumper shook. He thought it was settling into the soil around them but it listed, tilted upwards. Dirt began to cover the windshield and the sound of clomping sod and stone echoed throughout the cabin.
McKay tried the control again. In one stomach-tossing swoop, the Jumper plummeted into the ground and he lost balance, hung on, dropping to secure Sheppard in a neck hold. The sky disappeared and Gage's body tumbled to the other side. They would be buried alive. He felt the vehicle slide in several huge increments, stopping for seconds in between. Each time he thought it would be the last. Another swoop and it bumped abruptly. The emergency lights activated. He waited for the next plunge, nothing. Through the crack in the hatch, a fleeting light whisked by, back and forth.
"Sorry," he said, releasing Sheppard. He went to manual control, opened the hatch enough to allow them to exit.
McKay peeked out the back. A luminescent fog hung over them, lighting the area. He stepped out of the Jumper and into a cavern, saw that they were perched at the edge of an underground ravine. They'd need to get out quickly. Going back in, he dragged Sheppard, shuffling backwards through the hatch. He sat him on the bumpy ground. "You okay?" he said. The fog hovered overhead.
The major stared at his hand, red across the palm. "I, I don't know."
"Gage," McKay said, mindful of the fog. He went to the hatch but before he could enter the shaking resumed and shards of rock and gravel rained down. Under his feet, the ground began to give way and he ran back, watched the Jumper nosedive, dirt and rock pouring into the hatch. It skidded into the ravine, taking Gage with it.
Returning to Sheppard, he got him up, bearing his weight, and saw that the fog had moved, pausing at a passageway. They hurried toward the fog's light and into the passage, dodging falling stones, stumbling. After several meters, McKay propped the major along the wall and covered him until the tremors subsided. He had just begun to relax when an aftershock followed, as unsettling as its predecessors.
Rocks pounded McKay's shoulders. "We can't stay here," he said, stifling a cough. "We'll be crushed." He checked Sheppard's pulse and realized that the fog still lingered over them. They proceeded down the passage, navigating over uneven ground. Looking up, he saw that they'd entered a chamber and lowered Sheppard to the smooth floor. He sat beside him and leaned against the wall. Where his body touched, the wall shimmered, collecting at the point of contact like electrical arcs in plasma lamps.
He drew his hand over it. It tickled. "Curious reaction," he said, unable to postpone his enthusiasm. "See this?" The major was disoriented, his lids cracked open. "Sheppard?" Blood had collected in his hair. "Can you hear me?" He took out his handkerchief, applied pressure until it slowed. The crash had been harsh. McKay's ribs were sore; he had a broad scrape torn through his sleeve, a gash on the forehead. And the red frosting on the cake: a cut on his cheekbone from Gage.
He'd risen to explore the room when the ceiling outside the opening gave way. Boulders dislodged until it was plugged with soil and debris, but the chamber appeared safe. Dust flew in, dispersing high into the vaulted ceiling. They'd have to dig their way out, or ferret out another way. And there was the air problem, the water and food problems. One problem at a time.
This was Gage's fault, too bad he wasn't here to enjoy it. Up until he'd taken them hostage, the day had been going normally. They'd been working in the Jumper, enhancing adjustments to the range of the drones, timing their effectiveness on the simulation. Gage, a prime suspect in the first murder on Atlantis, had barged in threatening to kill them both. A chemist, Dr. George Jaden, had been found at the bottom of a stairwell. He and Gage had been seen arguing the night before, McKay the primary witness.
The truth had yet to come out, and the board of inquiry, headed by Weir, manned by Sheppard, Beckett, and Teyla, had not concluded its investigation. Gage must have known they were getting close to something, prompting him to hijack the Jumper. The ATA gene had never taken with him and he'd needed Sheppard as a pilot, McKay the tool of persuasion.
He walked around the room, seeking a way out. It was interesting, albeit hollow and sterile, except for the luminescent fog, which seemed to be spying on him. He nicknamed it Lumi-fog. and observed how it pulsated, cast in a violet tint, its shape alternating from second to second, humming at a low-level, like radio static on a cold night.
"This isn't the Jumper," Sheppard said. He put a hand to his temple, sneezed from the dust. "I'm dizzy."
"Lay still." McKay went to him. "I'm not sure where we are, somewhere under the surface." The three walls above them met at a vertex, support beams at each of the three corners where the ceiling sloped. "There was an earthquake, we dove through."
"This is no cave."
"No. It's shaped like a tetrahedron, actually." McKay used flattened hands to simulate triangles, counting one, two, three, four. "Equilateral. How're you doing?"
"It's torn up. You won't be able to walk," McKay said. "What hit us?"
"No telling. I didn't see, I was preoccupied. Lightning, power surge?"
"Some kind of charge. Gage was in my face but it passed right through me. A prickly sensation. Must've shorted out the system."
Sheppard motioned toward the walls. "We have light?"
"Yes. I don't know what's powering it. Varies throughout the structure," McKay said. "And there's my friend, the Lumi-fog." He waved upwards.
"For short," he said, examining the major's skull.
"Yeah, got it. Rhymes with loony," Sheppard said. "Gage?"
"He didn't make it. When the Jumper sank, the hatch was open. I got you out in time, Gage was buried. I couldn't get to him. Supplies went too."
"That's terrible, even for him."
McKay smoothed his lip. "I'll cry later."
"Was I out very long?"
"Over half an hour. I've been looking for an exit."
Sheppard pushed himself up against the wall, stretched around to see it shining. "What's this? It tickles."
"I know. It responds to touch. I would say it's either a bioluminescent organism, or decorator lighting for whoever constructed this place."
"What the devil made Gage choose this planet?"
"It was logged in as habitable. Must've been in a rush," McKay said. "Half our information is in Ancient."
Sheppard stared past McKay. "They're sneaking into the perimeter," he said. "Your friends want to chat."
McKay turned. The Lumi-fog had descended and halted about two meters above their heads. "All's well, what's this?" He stood and spread out his arms. "We won't harm you." The fog coasted in, a meter out, and he stepped back.
"What do we do?" asked Sheppard.
"I'll entertain suggestions."
The fog swept in, circling McKay's head, their humming distinct, prickly. His legs went to jelly and he ended up sitting on the floor. Sheppard recoiled, tried to shoo it off like a spray of gnats. It didn't work. Instead, it divided into four streams and disappeared, flying into McKay's mouth, ears and nose. His eyes rolled up, a halo of light forming where his head hit the wall. He moaned, tilting sideways.
Sheppard caught him, taking a pulse at his neck. "McKay?" His pupils had lost their focus, miniscule dots of violet flicking in and out. "Get out of there," he said, shouting as if he could scare the fog out. He told him to hang on, that everything would be all right. Then, as expertly as the fog had entered, it streamed out and reformed in the air, flitting off to its corner, hovering.
Sheppard waited five minutes, ten. "Come on, wake up," he said, setting him down, careful of the hard floor. It was weird to close his eyelids, disturbing to get no response, his heart beating lazily. Exhausted, he warily monitored the fog until he fell asleep, flat on the barren tiles.