Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters to Stargate Atlantis, nor am I making any type of profit from this story. It is a work of fan fiction, for enjoyment only.
By KerrAvonChapter 8 – A Final Puzzle
A slow, steady beep…beep…beep… was the first thing he really became aware of after the rescue team had him lifted onto the rough comfort of the canvas stretcher. Oh, there were snatches of other memories - sensations, really - the occasional jolting as one or more stretcher-bearers hit rough terrain, a cool stream flowing up his arm from the IV, the roller-coaster 'go back and get my stomach' sensation of Gate travel, the worried murmurs of friends on Atlantis…
The crisp, clean, antiseptic smell was his next perception. 'Med lab…I'm in the Med lab.' Sheppard groaned. 'Not again!'
It took a few minutes, but as he lay there with his eyes closed, savoring the fresh sheets and the cool air wafting over him, scraps of memory began to return. They had been fruitlessly looking for signs of a ZPM; the roof had caved in during an earthquake, knocking him out for a few hours; he and McKay had found an alternate exit when Atlantis had problems reaching them; his headache had worsened to the point where he had thrown up; …and then, not much. He suspected, from the scraps he did recall, that he had passed out again, but the next thing he clearly recalled was Beckett and his abominable light.
His eyes flew open. 'McKay!' The last interaction he recalled were some soothing words about help coming…'Is Rodney safe?'
As if he were psychic, McKay's voice suddenly resonated from nearby. "Carson, that's patently ridiculous. Just give me some pain pills and let me get back to work. I've already lost way too much time as it is."
Carson's reply was lower, but still audible. "Rodney, be reasonable…"
"Carson, the Wraith are less than three weeks away, or had you forgotten? Without a ZPM, our best shot is for me to come up with something brilliant, and I can't do that while lying in the infirmary being 'observed'!"
"Rodney, you've got three fractured ribs and a concussion; you need to take it easy, and I know better than to think you'll do that in your lab." Beckett sounded exasperated.
Rodney heard it, too, and backed off a bit. "Look," he began more reasonably, "Zelenka will be with me the whole time; if I start acting strange, he can call you."
"Well…on one condition. You'll sleep here tonight."
Rodney's tone became smug. "I promise that I will sleep nowhere else for the next twenty-four hours."
Sheppard couldn't help but comment at that point. "Ask him if he plans on sleeping at all, doc."
Beckett and his recalcitrant patient both moved over to Sheppard's bedside. "Ach, you're finally awake. Do ye know where ye are, then?" Beckett's strained brogue spoke of long, worried hours in the infirmary.
"Med lab," Sheppard replied shortly. "How's Rodney?" he asked, glancing over at the astrophysicist. For his part, McKay crossed his arms and scowled.
"I'd say you're alert and oriented. Other than exhausted, three fractured ribs, and a mild post-concussive syndrome, McKay's fine." Beckett was quietly reassuring, and the Major released breath he'd been unaware he'd been holding.
McKay seemed vaguely gratified at his concern. Still, the scientist had looked better; although temporarily sporting a jaunty smile at Sheppard's return to consciousness, it seemed frayed at the edges, and the fine lines and shadows beneath his eyes bespoke of the exhaustion Beckett mentioned. He was clearly splinting one side, most likely protecting his ribs, and his breathing was shallow as well. It was obvious why Beckett wanted to keep him under medical observation.
"I'm serious, doc. Unless you specify a time to be back here, he won't be."
Beckett turned towards McKay, who interjected defensively, "Hey, I promised not to sleep anywhere else."
Carson's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Nay, but the Major's right. Ye never said that you would sleep."
McKay pursed his lips as if he'd just eaten a lemon. "Fine," he spat, "I'll be back at eleven, OK?"
"Make it ten and you have a deal."
The physician held firm. "Ten, or you'll stay here."
McKay rolled his eyes. "Fine, whatever. Ten it is."
Beckett beamed at him as if he were an infant who'd just taken its first steps. "All right, then. I'll just go and get some Percocet for you. I'll be right back." He hurried off, leaving McKay and Sheppard staring at each other.
Sheppard was amused. McKay was not. "Couldn't you have stayed unconscious for five more minutes? I would have slipped that past him, I'm sure of it."
It was the Major's turn to be serious. "Rodney, this is your life we're talking about."
"Precisely. And I don't want to waste what little time I have left sleeping."
Sheppard tried to reason with the scientist. "You'll be a lot more efficient after a good night's rest."
"That's an old wives' tale." McKay began pacing back and forth. 'Pain killers, coffee, and maybe some mild stimulants and I'll be right as rain."
"Come on, Rodney, I feel like I could sleep a week! I ache in places I never knew I had. You have got to feel at least as bad."
McKay nodded in that impatient way that was almost his trademark. "Yes, yes, but I have things to do. Things that only I can do. That trumps how I feel any day of the week."
"Here you go, Rodney." Beckett returned bearing medication. "This'll hold you until tonight. But I expect to see you promptly at 10 p.m."
"Yes, yes." The scientist dry-swallowed two of the proffered tablets, then turned to head towards the door. Before exiting, however, his hand wandered into his pocket and he withdrew a crumpled piece of paper. Turning back to where the Major was already falling asleep, he smoothed it out and thrust it at the recumbent soldier. "Hey, I retrieved this for you. You accidentally left it behind in the cave. Must've fallen out of your pocket."
John picked up the scrap and stared at it in disbelief. "You brought me another puzzle?" he asked in amazement.
"No, the same puzzle," Rodney corrected. "The last one I gave you. Dr. Chao would be heartbroken if you didn't try to solve hers, but lost it instead."
John stared at the man incredulously. "McKay, I'm concussed here!"
"Nevertheless…" Rodney jerked his chin towards the puzzle. "Give it a try when you're feeling better." With that he turned and plodded out the door.
John fell asleep within minutes of McKay leaving, unexamined riddle clutched in his hand. Beckett came in regularly, woke him up, asked him the same questions (Who are you? Where are you? What year is it? etc) to check his neuro status, then let him sleep again. McKay, Ford, and Teyla would drop by intermittently, but he mostly found out from Beckett later, as they hadn't wanted to disturb him. By the time he awoke the next morning, he actually felt pretty good; he still had a heck of a headache, but it seemed…manageable, somehow.
"How are we doing this morning," asked Beckett as he came to check again on his VIP patient. John suspected that he'd had more rest than the physician over the last 24 hours; Beckett was rumpled, hair mussed, and clothes that had clearly been slept in. Add a five-o'clock shadow that a sixteen-year-old would call a beard, and the doctor made a sorry sight.
"My name is John Sheppard, I'm in the infirmary on Atlantis, and the Wraith are less than three weeks away."
"Well, we're certainly chipper this A.M.! Remembering the mental status checks, are we?"
Sheppard tilted his head. "I remember them just fine. Whether we do is another story – you kept asking the same questions over and over and over…"
Beckett chuckled. "That's so old it's got moss growing on it's north side."
"Why do doctors refer to 'we' instead of the correct pronoun, either 'I' or 'you'?"
Beckett considered the question for a moment, then shrugged. "I honestly haven't a clue. Just sounds right, I suppose."
Sheppard snorted, "To you maybe…" His stomach took that moment to announce its displeasure at its state of emptiness. Sheppard looked at the doctor, "Hey, I'm starving. Any chance I'll be allowed real food for breakfast?"
"Music to my ears, lad. I'll send someone to the mess hall to fetch you something." As he turned to go, a thought occurred to him, and he gestured to the bedside table. "Oh, and McKay wanted me to remind you about some puzzle – it's sitting there."
As Beckett wandered off, John incredulously picked up the paper. Unfolding it, he read the contents for the first time:
"Erase one of the following letters, and yet keep all the letters in the English alphabet:
T E G D B
C R W F S
V X Q P L
M O I U K
J H Y A Z N"
'Huh? Each letter appears only once…how do you erase one and yet keep it? Unless…' he thought furiously for a moment. 'Unless, by erasing a letter, you make the whole pattern take on the appearance of that letter.' Scanning the grid, he grinned. "'Q' it is!" He held a pen poised over the problem, ready to put action to word, when an alternate plan occurred to him.
Now, he'd enjoyed the puzzles as much as the scientists seemed to love making them, but as Rodney had pointed out, they had very little time left to work on the more urgent Wraith problem facing them. As Chief Military Officer, the draws on his time in particular were going to be massive; he didn't want to worry about 'offending' anyone when he had priorities other than solving their challenge. After the Wraith…if they survived…he'd gladly solve all the riddles they wanted. In the meantime, something Rodney said the other day nagged at him; something about not contributing intellectually to solving the problems on the base. He squirmed uncomfortably as he admitted to himself, 'He wasn't too far off with the 'If it involves potential heroic self-sacrifice, you're all over it' comment, either. Maybe it's time I did use my brain…'
He sighed and set down the puzzle without writing out the solution. He'd tell McKay that he couldn't solve it. Chao was a really sweet girl and, unless he missed his guess, had a crush on Rodney a mile wide. It wouldn't hurt her standing in McKay's eyes to be the one who 'stumped the chump'. Later, if he was still around, he could blame it on his concussion and the games could start anew. In the meantime, he'd have gracefully gotten off the hook and could devote his energy to more pressing problems.
Grinning, he carefully placed his hands behind his head. 'Besides…I wonder what 'reward' he has for her…' A few moments of self-indulgent fantasy ensued, to be interrupted when both McKay and breakfast arrived simultaneously.
"Hey, Rodney." Sheppard commented between mouthfuls of egg. "Sleep well?"
Rodney scowled at him and snatched a muffin off his tray. "How could I, with Beckett coming by every two hours and asking the same inane questions over and over again?"
"That's mine, by the way," commented Sheppard in an effort to deter further theft of food from his tray. "Yeah, the questions got a little old after a while, didn't they?"
Rodney grabbed a piece of toast next. "I gave up on sleep altogether about 5 this morning and headed to my lab. I'd like to know why Carson insisted that I 'sleep' here if he had no plans on letting me do so?"
Sheppard was glad that whoever had acquired his breakfast had been generous, because anything that could be picked up without a fork was rapidly disappearing into the maw that was McKay. "I see you're feeling better, though."
Rodney nodded around a mouthful of toast. "Yes, well, I'm working on formulas to try and get that chair up and running. So far nothing, but I've got a few ideas to bounce off Zelenka."
Sheppard tried to sound casual as he suggested, "Well, if you'd like to run anything by me…I'd be glad to help."
Rodney's eyebrows climbed into his receding hairline. Swallowing his current bolus of breakfast, he squelched his instinctive denial and instead nodded. "I may just take you up on that." Catching sight of Chao's puzzle, he rapidly changed the subject. "So, how long did it take you to solve that one?"
The pilot shrugged. "I didn't."
McKay's eyebrows disappeared completely as he snatched the paper. Reading it through, then studying the picture for a moment, he looked up incredulously. "You're kidding, right?"
Sheppard crossed his fingers and prayed to the God of Acting. "Nope. Couldn't figure it out. Guess Chao's your winner."
McKay blinked at him in surprise. "Huh. Who'd have thought…I figured, the way you tend to work outside the box, you'd have no problem thinking outside it." More to himself than to Sheppard, he muttered, "Now I have to come up with a prize of some sort…"
Sheppard winked at him and smiled. "I'm sure you'll think of something…appropriate."
Rodney paused as he was reaching for the last muffin, glanced at Sheppard in confusion, then carefully shrugged so as to not irritate his ribs. "I'm sure I will," he replied, which only served to make Sheppard grin wider. 'I may never understand that man,' he decided, and continued breakfast. The puzzle that was 'John Sheppard' would have to wait for another day.
AN: How was that for an ending? Hope you liked it better than 'Explosion' – I tried to deal with the injury treatment a little more in this one. Better?