Days after, the nanites finished. At the Jumper, Lumi startled Sheppard, telling him that all that could be done was done, and the remainder would heal by itself. McKay had been fortunate, it said, there had been minimal brain damage.
"Can he walk?" Sheppard asked. He had been at the site for an extended time, using a shirt to carry rubble and dirt out of the Jumper, sweeping with his hands, gathering up the ends and dumping it out. Many breaks were necessary. So far, he hadn't entered the ship completely for fear it would roll, crush or bury him.
"Rodney's mobility may be possible with assistance," Lumi said.
"A sound suggestion." Its Sheppard-shape disassembled for a split second, like a nanite fog hiccup. It seemed to be contemplating a great deal, then said, "Being organic is a formidable endeavor."
"I won't argue that. Stuff catches up with you." Sheppard snapped the dust out of the shirt and relaxed at the end of a jutting boulder, remembering how short he'd been with McKay. "By the way," he said. "I never had a chance to ask. Why'd you pick me to duplicate? That is, other than I'm better looking."
The Lumi-fog image smiled. "You were the one lying still."
"I see. You've been good to us," he said. "I hate to be demanding, but I need help to get all this cleaned out."
Lumi scattered and the nanites zoomed into the interior, began their sweeping efforts, spreading over the mess as though invisible ants were picking at the soil, wearing it down.
"Thanks." Sheppard inspected the Jumper's forward portside. The violet fog circled the damage, repairing so minutely that there was as much action in it as watching plants grow. They also busied themselves on the roof which had been dented in the crash. He filled another load of rubble and dumped it. The work went slowly on nothing but water. And since it took energy to climb out of the ravine, he would be away from the Architect's chamber a little longer.
In the meantime, until he could get down here himself, McKay would have to tolerate his solitude the same way Sheppard tolerated the gloomy atmosphere of the ravine. For his benefit, the nanolight had cast a patchy light on the area, enough to see what to do. Lumi's presence was a godsend, giving him 100 percent more light and minimizing the depressing view. Sheppard reclaimed a ray of hope, wished he'd held his tongue with a friend.
As he went back to work, he decided to expand on the crutch idea to help McKay. He called Lumi from the Jumper. Great builders that they were, Lumi-fog didn't bat a fake eyelid, just sent out a third of its numbers to procure suitable materials.
McKay touched his face, felt cooler. Sheppard had brought him a gift: Crude crutches fashioned from roots gleaned near the surface by the nanites, tied with rags, padded with same on top. He encouraged Rodney to try them but McKay had been sleeping and was groggy, said he'd try later. Unsatisfied with this, Sheppard attempted to jog him out of bed, shaking his leg and ordering him to make an effort.
McKay became irritated. "Leave me alone."
"This is important, McKay. You need to get some exercise, build up your strength."
"You don't know what I went through."
"And it's easy for me? Let me tell you something. I know what you will go through if you don't push yourself."
"Major, we're starving."
"The water's gonna' keep us alive for way too long. End will still be the same. You're only going to get weaker."
"I feel weak already."
Sheppard raised his voice. "That's because you need to move." He gripped McKay's arm and pulled until the mat beneath him began to slide out.
"Let me go," said McKay, clutching the platform's edge. "I told you, I can't."
He released him. "When I get back, I want to see you up and around and headed for the Jumper."
McKay watched him go, then grumbled privately. John was out of line, scolding him to do the impossible. There wasn't a fully healthy bone in his body and merely flipping to his side was a chore. And although Sheppard had reported him dead, Gage lived on in Rodney's mind, holding him in a powerful vise.
After calming down, he sat up, sliding his legs over the edge. He grabbed a crutch, stepped off and claimed the other. The crutches functioned adequately, were somewhat unequal. One foot at a time, he took baby steps in the room, sensing the circulation travel from hips to calves, the skin sensitive and warm, almost to his toes. Surprised, he found he did have a little gumption left in the hardy McKay genes. It was easier to maneuver than he'd predicted. Sheppard had built sturdy crutches.
He hobbled out to check the hallway. The need to see Gage was inescapable. Right or left? Right led toward the Jumper, left to Chamber One-Three-Six. Going back in, he engaged a few turns then sat, eyes welled up. Because it hurt, too, pain concentrated at mid-back and shooting around into his legs. It came on in waves, reminding him how tough it was going to be getting out of these depths in one piece.
He put the crutches aside and lay down, let the pain subside and started to think, obsess. It was tempting. It bothered him, nagged, occupied his thoughts more than food, eased the boredom and distracted him from his trials as well. He couldn't let go of the picture and the picture was seared in his head as if he'd actually seen it. Gage in the wall. What did he look like? Was he completely entombed? Could he be seen through the wall? Had he been crushed or suffocated? Did he scream? Did he beg?
You're dead, you're dead; Sheppard said so. Forget it.
It wouldn't be as strenuous to get down to One-Three-Six as it had been coming up, now that he was stronger. He estimated his legs were seventy percent recovered. If he practiced with the crutches, walked in the room regularly, maybe the pain would lesson. In addition, the gunshot holes had closed, tender and less swollen, the front better than the back. He'd had a protein bar, Sheppard another. They believed they would uncover spare food in the Jumper; John knew where to search. Things would be turning in their favor. No harm in it.
Three MRE's and a flashlight. Two of the meals were from McKay's secret, personal stash which everyone knew about. Were there more? Sheppard dug about with bare hands, peeling and red after shoveling nuggets of jagged rock. One marvelous gain: the nanites had stabilized the Jumper and he boarded it without fear it would list dangerously. He'd also discovered their transmitters and a sidearm. What he wouldn't have given to have had a second weapon against Gage. Of course, considering the fate of the other gun, maybe not.
He and the nanites continued to pick out the rubble until it was clean except for a thin layer on the floor. The tiny miners were incredibly facile in detail work and the console was dirt free. The inside of the device no doubt likewise. After that, Lumi-fog and his companions disappeared for another refuel, leaving the outer damage repair incomplete.
Sheppard took the pilot's seat and attempted to activate the VR display. It wasn't responding. After a few tries, he apologized to McKay in absentia, tore open an MRE, and ate.
Rodney practiced, motivated by anxiety, clumping around the room and into the hallway until he couldn't stand it anymore. He'd rest while the discomfort passed, then do it all over again. After a couple of days, never seeing Sheppard, he made a choice, driven to believe he was prepared, that he had to do it.
Choosing left, McKay entered the tunnel, realized he wasn't completely comfortable about the direction. Just "down" didn't cut it. Nevertheless, he kept going, figuring it out as he went along. He had memorized the way to the first chamber they'd been in, and it was a logical variation to get to One-Three-Six, a reversal of turns, always descending. He reached a stairwell and entered. This was trickier than the rampways.
On the wide top step, the tips of the crutches touched down and he steadied himself, lowered his legs, shifting one after the other. The pain had stabilized and he ignored the soreness in his armpits, determined to reach the chamber. Two-thirds of the way down, his legs gave out under him. He stumbled, a crutch slipped and he tripped over it. Tumbling, he hit the landing hugging his middle and cursing.
"McKay!" Sheppard called from upstairs. He rushed down. "Jumper's the other way in case you haven't noticed," he said, beside him. "You could've been killed."
"Oh, shit, that hurt." He rolled side to side. "Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt. Just when I was feeling better."
"You all right?"
"Don't call Lumi," McKay said. "I can handle it."
"I wasn't planning on it." he said, gathering up the crutches. "Funny, Lumi said you had minimal brain damage." He leaned them against the wall. "Or you wouldn't do such a stupid thing with your poor old weakened body."
"Ha ha. Don't be fooled by my fortitude." Rodney felt his head for blood. "The pain's nipping at my heels."
Sheppard offered him a lift. "Come on."
Once up, Rodney adjusted each crutch under his arms. "Good. Wonderful. Ready," he said, and clumsily descended to the next step.
"Hold a sec. It's this way." Sheppard pointed up. "Why don't you trust me?"
"Attention all beaten castaways," McKay said. "Not the issue here." He limped on, focused on avoiding a second fall. "I've got very little problem trusting you even when you're obviously at the end of your rope."
"I'm gonna' have you on a rope if you don't get back here."
McKay kept going.
Sheppard followed. "You pissed? 'Cause I lost my cool?"
He stopped and turned. "I'm furious," he said. "But not at you. Gage had no right to do what he did to me." He continued down. "It's not about trust."
"It is to me." Sheppard blocked him and Rodney teetered on the step above. "I told you he's dead. I told you that chamber's demolished, I told you there's no way he could've come back to life nanobots or no."
McKay looked up, then into Sheppard's face "I want to see. I need to."
"Yeah, sure. Look at you. Still draggin' your bones around like sandbags. We have to get out of here. Good news. I found us MRE's, I was thinking you'd want one."
"Food," Sheppard said. "I'll let you have first choice."
"Which one? The Chicken Tetrazzini?"
"Uh, heaven," he said, famished. He resisted, stepping on. "After I see. I've waited this long."
"Mashed potatoes, gravy," Sheppard recited.
McKay's mouth was watering.
"Get back here." Sheppard hurried down, hand to Rodney's chest. "The Jumper's swept up. The outside damage is almost repaired. But I can't bring up the VR. Something's wrong."
"Must be the interface, or a power problem, something simple, computer off-line, 'course I'll have to run it all through there's no telling..." He pushed forward. "No, I can't. When I see Gage. It won't take long."
Sheppard let out a groan. "Don't you want to get off this planet?"
"Directly. After lunch," he said, negotiating another shallow step. This time, exhausted, he collapsed, crutches hung loosely by his sides.
"What's the matter?" asked John, sitting next to him. "Are you sick?"
He was out of breath. "You wanted me to get some exercise, didn't you?"
Sheppard ran his hands over the sides of his head. "What am I going to do with you?"
"One last favor," said McKay. "Please."
At the far end of the tunnel outside Chamber One-Three-Six, McKay parked his crutches. The passage was littered with manmade debris and Sheppard led him through, toiling over rocks, using larger ones for support. The doorway was partially obscured but they could see into the room over the rubble.
"We can't go in there," Sheppard said. He shone his flashlight, searching the mess for Gage's final resting-place. "Too dangerous."
"I'm going in." McKay planted himself on a sturdy stone and picked up his leg, hauling it manually over the boulder. The trek there had sapped what little stamina he had left. "Will you give me hand?"
Sheppard was incredulous. "Be careful," he said, lifting McKay's other leg. "Me first."
The room was no longer well lit; a portion of the nanolight had disappeared. Sheppard pushed rubble aside to get by, got McKay over larger chunks. One beam had survived and two walls were cracked, basically upright, with the residual of the roof and a second beam tenuously holding. A third of the way in, Sheppard insisted they go no farther for safety's sake. He peeked through a space formed amongst splintered cross-supports and a mass of accumulated debris. "There," he said, aiming the flashlight.
McKay said, "I don't see anything."
Sheppard bumped the flashlight twice with his fist and it brightened. He aimed it again. A pasty hand protruded from the wall. "See?"
"I don't see anything."
"I thought you said you got your sight all back," Sheppard said, eager to get out.
"I did. I'm telling you, I don't see..." McKay placed his chin into the space. "Oh hell. That's him?"
"Hell it is," said Sheppard. "All that's left. Let's hit it."
McKay grabbed the flashlight, shone it for himself, mesmerized. He'd never forget this place. The light beam began to fade.
A rash of rocks showered them and John shook them from his hair. "We're out. Now." He reclaimed the flashlight, secured McKay's arm and they stumbled out.
Using a rope, Sheppard lowered Rodney into the ravine.
"Watch it," McKay shouted, getting near the bottom. "I'm not a cat toy." His legs wouldn't work as directed, occasionally having a mind of their own, unwieldy upon touching ground. Sitting, he took off the rope and waited for Sheppard to descend. The terrain was too craggy for crutches and he'd have to rely on John to shuffle him over and into the Jumper, to the console.
He felt energized. The turkey had been a thousand times more delicious than a Thanksgiving bird. But he'd eaten it fast and it'd given him a stomachache afterwards. It was worth it, because the ache hadn't lasted any longer than the turkey. Sheppard had apologized for not getting it to him sooner, saying that a weird thing happened when he was attempting to climb out of the ravine: he'd passed out, too drained to go up until the meal he'd just eaten kicked in and he'd rested. He also confessed he had had first choice of MRE's. McKay forgave him.
They had limited power in the Jumper and McKay ran a diagnostic on the system while watching Sheppard and the violet spray through the windshield. With a PDA, John prepared the logistics for flying out. In order to break the surface, they would have to hover and engage their weapons. McKay anticipated a pliable rock crust...a fact unconfirmed until they could get their sensors back online. Also, in the process of breaking out, they didn't want to bring the bad 'bots upon the nanites.
The Jumper jiggled. McKay and Sheppard exchanged glances through the window. The underground would probably continue to be unstable, despite the efforts of the Lumi and its cohorts to shore it up. Sheppard had filled him in on the Architect and the nanites, their pre-programmed purpose to build. That, coupled with their need to mine for fuel had created a geological predicament. Sheppard said he'd taken charge, told them to cease, to discover alternative fuel layers to mine. McKay reasoned that was why so few nanites were around lately. In any case, questions about the Architect would be left unanswered.
Sheppard boarded the Jumper, to the co-pilot's seat. "Any luck?"
"I'd like to say yes. We'll have to wait until the exterior is complete," McKay said. "Blast our way out?"
"Yeah, unless Lumi can come up with an alternate plan." Sheppard pressed a few keys on the interface. "I can hardly wait to see the sun again, any sun, even this one."
"You won't be so happy if we don't reach orbit."
Sheppard tapped a few keys. "Not much longer, they're almost done."
A violet spray entered and formed into its human visage.
McKay compared Lumi to Sheppard, looking back and forth between the two. "It's spooky," he told Sheppard. "If you weren't in desperate need of a shower, I could never tell you two apart."
"Thanks." Sheppard conversed with his twin for the tenth time: "Got good news?"
"Sheppard," Lumi said. "Stay."
"I can't. I'm no use to you. I'm not an engineer."
"The Architect has expired."
"He has?" McKay said. "You...you stopped the repairs?"
"Yes. Sheppard would take his place."
"Listen," Sheppard said. "I'm flattered, but this isn't my home, I have a duty to complete, like you. This place isn't good for human beings, below or above ground. What about McKay?"
"He may stay also."
"How gracious of you," McKay added. "Splendid."
"Can't," Sheppard said. "I have to get him home."
"We can create a diversion, so that he may leave."
Sheppard agreed. "Now you're talking. A diversion is a good idea."
"Then you will remain here?"
"No, I have to do the driving. McKay's not up to it. This I will do, like I promised, I'll try and get an engineer to you. We can't live here, we'd die without supplies. Even the Architect had supplies."
McKay tried getting up, his legs were uncooperative. He plopped back into the seat. "What kind of diversion?"
"A simple scheme," said Lumi. "To exit the dayhole and draw the nanobots from your escape."
"We have cloaking capabilities, a diversion isn't necessary," McKay said.
"Nevertheless, to prevent invasion as you depart, I will do so."
McKay heard a beep and swiveled to the console. "Oops, things are happening here." The boards were lighting up. With help, he switched to the co-pilot's seat while Sheppard claimed the pilot's con. The VR materialized. They were back in business. They fired up the Jumper for a pretest, let it hover a few minutes, deployed and retracted the drive pods, checked the drone missiles and cloaking systems for readiness. While they were off the ground, another quake jolted the cavern, rocks thumping the exterior.
"No time like the present," Sheppard said. He addressed Lumi: "We're good to go. Start your diversion." The fog streamed out and Sheppard secured the hatch. "Ready?"
McKay locked the seat restraints. "If I say no you'll be insulted so I'll leave it at bon voyage...to us."
The Jumper shuttered and rose higher. A boulder dashed past the windshield. Sheppard ascended as far as possible and hovered, cloaked, then powered up the drones.
"What's our interval?" McKay said.
"Lumi and company, two minutes, give or take a few. Us, almost none." Sheppard's final estimate was for the interval between the drone's penetration of the surface and the Jumper's roaring through the hole it left behind.
"For me. We'll try and seal it up after we're clear," Sheppard said, approaching the surface. "We're close as I dare. Prepare for permanent...later temporary...departure."
McKay clutched the armrests and steeled his nerves. "Our cloaking may be vulnerable to the nanobot sensors. We should've run a test with Lumi."
Sheppard dispatched a drone from the starboard pod. "Too late."
Via the view port, McKay tracked it, readied his stomach. Although many meters away, the shock vibrated throughout the Jumper as it pulverized the rock layer. Sheppard stalled, waiting to see a shard of sky before he retracted the pods for a smoother fit and speeding toward it. McKay held his tongue reluctantly, let him concentrate.
Spearing the gap, Sheppard recoiled as strong sunlight spilled into his eyes. He hit the gas, then redeployed the pods for finer maneuverability. Once out far enough, he fired off another drone to seal the opening. The Jumper ascended into the stratosphere, crossing the mesosphere until they were in orbit.
McKay said, "Think they made it, kept the enemy out?"
"I don't know. They killed Gage to protect us. Maybe they learned to protect themselves." Sheppard headed toward the space gate. "Didn't get a chance to say good-bye."
McKay put on his ID transmitter. "Think they care?"
"Aren't you the one that gave it a name?" Sheppard asked. "Not the best name at that."
"Seemed appropriate to the situation."
"Sure," said Sheppard, accessing the gate code. "In its own way, I'd say Lumi cares." He trained the Jumper toward the gate ring and they slipped through without incident, one leap from Atlantis.
Back where they'd started, in the Jumper bay, the hatch was lowered and Sheppard handed McKay his crutches. Outside, Doctors Weir, Beckett, and a host of greeters stood waiting, astounded at their sudden arrival. You could positively predict their mouths would drop collectively at the sight of their dirt-streaked, scratched-up faces.
Their story was dealt out in bits and pieces. Both men were beat, desperate for a feast but Beckett immediately corralled them into the medbay after they'd had a shower. While Sheppard rested, McKay was put under the scanner. The doctor commented on the gunshot wound's scarring, saying it reminded him of microscopic latticework under magnification. Unusual, he said. The boys were not up to enlightening him on the details.
Beckett continued the scan, most concerned about the spinal cord damage. He discovered an interesting surprise that had him yelling for a biohazard unit. "You two are quarantined," he warned. "You've got a foreign substance in you, Rodney."
"Oh, bother," McKay mumbled, and he stretched from the table to examine the monitor beside him. The screen showed a section of his lumbar discs. They shone with tiny bright violet lights.
In the next bed, Sheppard sat up. "What is it?" Medbay staff moved quickly, shooing people away at the entries.
McKay laughed and lay back. "Stowaways."
Sheppard confirmed, leaning towards the screen. "Don't worry, doc. They're the good guys. As far as I know, they're not contagious. And pretty polite, too."
"Although," McKay said. "Their initial invasion into my brain was considerably alarming."
"True. It was a sight."
Beckett stared at the monitor. "So you say your paralysis isn't the result of an accident?"
"Right," Sheppard said. "The mean 'bots did that to him. Sort of their version of a surgical strike."
"Frightening," Beckett said. "And the gunshot wound?"
Sheppard and McKay answered together: "That was Gage."
"Bad guys, good guys." Beckett magnified the discs. "Why didn't these nanites stay home with the rest of their friends?"
"Good question," McKay said. "I didn't know they were there. I suppose they're still working on my spinal cord. My legs are improving, I know. Pain's tolerable."
The hazmat crew had arrived and Beckett signaled them to wait in the corridor. "What're we going to do with them? Considering, where do nanites go when their work is done?"
"From what I've seen, it's never done," Sheppard said, reclining. "I made them a promise. They need a project manager, someone to guide 'em."
McKay pulled up a leg, numb in the foot. "As soon as the doc paroles us, we'll talk to Weir, take these back." He shut his eyes. Sheppard curled up, threw a cover over his chest.
Beckett crossed his arms and studied each of them. "Well, if you two are all right with these creatures." He waved off the hazmat crew. "I'm not getting any dangerous readings. I suppose there's no harm."
"There's no threat," McKay said. "Now would you go annoy someone else so we can get some sleep? Have a snack ready when we wake up, will ya'?"
Beckett didn't seem to hear him. He was entranced by the violet lights. "Hope they don't decide they like it here better," he said. "They'll put me straight out of a job."