WARNINGS: Violence, language, icky gross critters and some swearing.
See DAY ONE for disclaimers, copyright and other notes.
It had been more than a few hours, he knew that much. Sheppard could recall brief moments when he'd awoken, still exhausted by the ordeal but roused to tenuous consciousness by a touch or noise, only to realize that everything was okay, and that he could succumb to the welcome bliss of sleep. Hours or days, it didn't seem to matter. John Sheppard finally opened his eyes. The ceiling hadn't changed from any other time he'd found himself flat on his back in the infirmary, but this time he realized it was sharp. The fuzziness from the ointment was gone, thank god.
The soreness that had possessed his body was nearly gone, but he still felt weak. He wouldn't put any money down that he could get out of bed and walk to the other side of the room. Get out of bed and collapse into a heap was more like it at the rate he felt.
He experimentally moved his limbs – all there, and no more annoying tingling or itching. Better yet, the IVs were gone from both arms, and other more intrusive tubing had been removed as well, thankfully, while he was out of it.
It had to be evening. It was quiet, save for the sporadic, soft sound of fingers dancing against a computer keyboard. Had to be Zelenka. He knew Rodney's style. Fast, furious, and he was amazed the scientist hadn't abraded the letters off the keys with his pounding.
Sooner or later, he had to move. Might as well be now. He rolled over carefully on to his side, astonished when his hand struck a bedrail. He hadn't realized that the beds in Atlantis had bedrails. Oh well, probably a good idea as he didn't want to land face first on the floor and bust a nose or something.
He stared briefly at his right hand and the darkening bruise that spread across the knuckles like a smear of ground-in dirt, wondering where that had come from. White bandages still encompassed his forearm where he'd scratched the hell out of it.
His vision strayed across the way to where Zelenka sat up in bed, laptop in, well, his lap, obliviously typing away.
"Oh my god," sputtered Sheppard.
Zelenka immediately looked at him in worry. "Major Sheppard. Are you all right?"
"Shouldn't I be asking you that?" Sheppard realized that the last time he'd actually seen the Czech scientist had been back on the planet when he'd been huddled in a corner, trying to ground out his eyes. Now… that bright red spot on the Zelenka's neck had mutated into a bubbly-scaly patch of poison ivy that had gone wild. His neck, half his face, and lord knows what else, was covered in the gruesome dermatitis. He didn't even want to think of what the hospital gown might be hiding.
Zelenka waved a hand dismissively. "It looks much worse than it is."
"Doesn't it…" Sheppard wanted to cringe. Maybe he did. "Itch?"
"Not so much as before." Zelenka smiled. "Between Dr. Beckett's medicines, and the herbal remedy that Teyla brought from her people, I barely feel it now, and it is healing."
"If you say so." Sheppard couldn't see how Zelenka could look happy, but if he was, that was okay with Sheppard.
Zelenka set his laptop aside on the bed and studied the major carefully. "You are feeling better, yes?"
"Just wiped out, mostly," admitted Sheppard. He stared at his dark knuckles, then at then nasty green-purple bruise covering part of Zelenka's face. "I remember the P-90…" Waking up, startled, and slamming the weapon into the poor man's face… "But, did I do that to you?"
Zelenka gingerly touched the other contusion, which bore the suspicion pattern of a set of knuckles, now that Sheppard studied it more closely. "Yes, but you were not thinking clearly at the time."
"Sorry," Sheppard apologized, but he wished he could remember why he was apologizing. He couldn't remember all of what had happened after the eye drops. The most memorable part – the worst part – was the searing agony that had enveloped his eyes, and then—
"I guess thanks are in order," said Sheppard gratefully. Zelenka looked puzzled, then Sheppard gestured at his own eyes.
The Czech nodded, seemingly almost embarrassed by that action.
"Just, uh, what happened?" asked Sheppard. That was the problem sometimes with concussions: loss of memory.
Zelenka seemed reticent to explain, but then dove in, doing his best to make the account as clinical as possible, but Sheppard could detect the inflection of horror in the scientist's voice when he spoke of the major's unconsciousness and bleeding away on the floor.
Sheppard knew it was illogical, but he felt a bit guilty for putting Zelenka through all that, even though he knew there was nothing either could have done to prevent it. Zelenka didn't seem to notice the major's inner turmoil and he rebounded, going on about the extraordinary storm that Sheppard had missed, then his inadvertent discovery of the eye drops' curative powers. Sometimes the description was too detailed, but Sheppard had long ago become accustomed to rambling scientists since going to the Antarctic, and Zelenka had a manner of speaking that made Sheppard wonder if he could drag the scientist off to the mainland and they could get the Athosian kids together and tell them horror stories. Zelenka would be great for that. However, did Zelenka know about Nightmare on Elm Street?
Zelenka wrapped up, mentioning McKay's name. Sheppard blinked. He'd missed a good portion of what Zelenka had been saying. Crap, he'd have to read the mission report. "Where is he, anyway? McKay?"
The Czech suddenly looked horrified. "I thought your vision was unimpaired?"
"It is. Why?" He was positive he still had a nasty case of red-eye, but everything was back to 20/20, so at this point he didn't really care if McKay looked at him askew because of a few red dots.
"He is right in front of you!"
Sheppard's eyes widened. The blue item at the bottom of his field of vision wasn't some extension off the bed, but Rodney's leg in a cast. He'd been so focused on Zelenka and the hideous looking poison ivy that he hadn't paid any attention to his surroundings. McKay was stretched out – definitely asleep – in an awkward position on one of the stuffed chairs that someone had dragged in from the corridor, and had propped up his damaged leg on top of the table, where it sort of blended in with the flowers Sheppard hadn't noticed before either. Geez, how long had he been out of it? And when did Atlantis get a card shop? He noticed several Get Well cards stuck in amongst the flowers and the foot.
"He has been hovering around the infirmary like a vulture since we returned," explained Zelenka.
Sheppard focused his stare on the cast, just a foot away from his bed. Hmm, maybe not even that far away, come to think of it. He didn't realize that casts came in other colors besides white.
"He has a bad tendency to worry too much," continued Zelenka.
"He does that a lot," agreed Sheppard.
"Especially when he thinks that his best friend might be dying," added Zelenka softly. Sheppard looked up in surprise at this admission, studying the open expression on the scientist's face. "Rodney does not make friends easily," continued Zelenka. "Yet you have accepted him for all his flaws."
Sheppard flashed a tired grin. "Well, he's like mold. He sorta grows on you."
Zelenka arched an eyebrow amusingly. "I will remember that comment for future blackmail."
"You do that." Rodney was like mold in some respects – impossible to get rid of, annoying, and some folk didn't like him, but… underneath all that whining and aggravation was a decent human being, and oddly enough, a man whom Sheppard realized he didn't mind calling his best friend.
"He's sleeping pretty soundly, isn't he?" remarked Sheppard.
"Very much so." Zelenka studied the Canadian, who shifted slightly in the stuffed chair, hugging a pillow to his chest. He was unaware that he was the topic of conversation. "He slept little while we were gone. Dr. Beckett told me. And he feels in addition to worrying about our mission gone awry, he had to handle all crises on Atlantis as well."
"Man needs to learn how to delegate," muttered Sheppard, raising an eyebrow. "You got a pen?"
"Can you get one? Like a Sharpie?" asked Sheppard. "Uh, quietly? We don't want to wake Rodney."
Zelenka's brow furrowed, and his trouble radar had to be going into hyperdrive, but instead of asking why Sheppard required an indelible marker, he simply summoned a nurse with a wave of a hand.
Sheppard smiled. This is what best friends did.
"Excuse me, but what do you all find so funny?"
McKay's irritated voice carried into the control room before he actually came into view. Elizabeth turned toward the sound. She sipped at her morning cup of tea, studying her Chief Science Officer as he stalked into the communications area, glaring nastily at everyone. Oddly enough, despite the non-verbal threat directed their way, various personnel seemed unable to not snicker at him.
Even Peter Grodin, who cast a surreptitious glance at Rodney as he passed by, was unable to keep a mirthful smile off his face.
"What?" McKay snapped hostilely at the Englishman.
"Nothing," replied Grodin, but the smile refused to leave his face.
Rodney grumbled heatedly under his breath and stopped beside Elizabeth. "What is it with everybody? Did I not get a memo?" he sniped.
"Not to my knowledge." Elizabeth smiled, but at least Rodney didn't take that as an offense. But, he was awake, carrying a coffee mug, not using his crutches, which meant he was back to normal. She knew it had been a lot to ask, but Carson had let Rodney practically live in the infirmary since the major and Dr. Zelenka had returned, banished only for medical treatments and when he was called away to actually work.
A stifled snicker and some low whispers filtered through the air behind them. Rodney whirled abruptly on his cast. "WHAT?" he yelled. Thank god the coffee mug was empty or else it would have splashed everywhere when he swung his arms out.
Elizabeth shook her head, putting one hand to her brow as she tried to figure out what was happening, and then looked down. Oh good grief.
"Rodney. Sit," she ordered firmly. He turned, glaring at her like a predator studies its prey, but quickly acquiesced to her demand under her stern gaze, and sat down in a nearby seat.
Elizabeth keyed her earpiece. "Carson? Yes. How are Dr. Zelenka and the major doing this morning?" She listened intently and smiled at the positive report. "Will they be up to visitors? Yes, I know you have set visiting hours but there will be one exception." She listened to him go on about policies and patient welfare. "You'll be able to handle this situation just fine, Carson. Thank you. Weir out."
"What?" said Rodney.
"I'm truly surprised it lasted this long," said Elizabeth with a shrug.
"Am I trapped in some warped Twilight Zone?" shot back McKay heatedly. "What is going on?"
"Just look at your cast, Rodney." Elizabeth was hard pressed not to laugh herself, although really, she had to maintain some dignity.
Rodney stretched his casted leg out in front of himself, staring at it as though expecting killer ants to crawl out of holes in it. "It looks fine. It's fine, isn't it?" McKay began to look nervous. "What were you talking to Carson about? My leg's okay, right?"
"The other side," Elizabeth pointed out. "The back."
Rodney had to stand up, then stretch his leg backward and stare down awkwardly. A moment later, his head snapped back, and in all the time she'd know him, Elizabeth realized she'd never seen the man flush beet red before.
A murderous glint consumed the scientist's eyes. "Sheppard is a dead man," he swore.
"Aye, that it 'tis," responded Beckett with a yawn. "Nice to see that your color perception has remained unimpaired."
"But it's green," repeated Sheppard.
Beckett arched an eyebrow. "But perhaps there's a wee bit of latent brain damage the tests didn't find."
Sheppard stabbed a spoon tentatively at the small block of gelatinous green material that jiggled slightly at the tepid assault. "This stuff tastes like cardboard, or worse, raw tofu."
Beckett couldn't really argue with the major on that point. He'd tried it himself when the Athosians had first introduced him to the foodstuff a month ago. The greenish tofu-like substance was blander than his late aunt's awful cream gravy, but … "It's exceptionally nutritious and all your body can handle at the moment. You're going to be on antibiotics for at least another week as a precaution and this food has no contradictions to the Ciproflaxin. Ye really don't want to be vomiting up your meals again, do you?"
Sheppard looked like a small child who'd been suitably chastised, but Beckett knew the man didn't want to repeat what he'd gone through on that distant world. "No." Sheppard hacked off a piece of the food and stuffed it in his mouth. "But I don't have to like it," he mumbled.
"It's the best for you right now," continued Beckett, secretly relishing the fact that Sheppard was actually obeying him for once. "You'll progress to real food soon enough. After we flushed you out, we want to make sure we get your digestive system back on track."
"Flushed?" asked Sheppard tentatively. He frowned, then wrinkled his face in disgust as he figured out just what that meant in regards to his medical regimen. "Crap."
"Well, you hit that one on right on the head," grinned Beckett.
"Ugh," muttered Zelenka from his bed.
Sheppard shook his head as he hacked off another piece of the green substance, which promptly crumbled across the plate. "Can we please change the topic? I'm eating."
The angry voice roared across the room. McKay stalked in like a man possessed and ready to commit mortal mayhem. It took Beckett a mere second to figure out the cause. Zelenka looked a bit mortified at this sudden intrusion while Sheppard looked as guileless as a newborn babe. No doubt about it: Sheppard had done it, whatever it was.
McKay stopped right in between the two beds, and was nearly quivering in fury. "How could you?" he growled at Sheppard. "Do you realize all the laughs and snide remarks I've had to endure this morning because of you?" He jabbed a finger directly at Sheppard. Beckett could swear that the major was readying to catapult a spoonful of that Athosian tofu right at Rodney if the situation got ugly.
"Huh?" remarked Sheppard innocently.
"Rodney. What are you going on about?" demanded Beckett.
"THIS!" McKay pointed in disgust at the back of his cast.
"Lord of mercy," muttered Beckett under his breath. There, in glorious bold black ink, was a crude stick drawing with an equally inane happy face atop it, from which flowed one of those bubble quotes seen in countless comic strips. However, only Major John Sheppard could have been so bold – or stupid – to have filled in that bubble with the words 'Kick Me'.
"Of all the immature, puerile acts," ranted McKay. "Infantile!"
"Did I not say it was unwise?" muttered Zelenka quietly.
"It was the drugs," offered Sheppard lamely.
"The antibiotics don't addle your thought processes, major," reminded Beckett.
"Brain damage?" he offered.
"Ach, we've scanned you from head to toe and every which way we can, more times than I care to count," Beckett said, crossing his arms, wondering how Sheppard would worm his way out of this mess. "Try again."
"And it doesn't wash off!" whined McKay loudly.
"It's tradition," said Sheppard, shoving aside the dish on his tray. Beckett smiled inwardly. He didn't want that nasty food splattered all over his infirmary.
"What? It's tradition to humiliate and mock your co-workers?" McKay was still livid. Beckett wondered what the man's blood pressure was up to at the moment.
"No," Sheppard said very calmly. "When a friend gets a cast, it's tradition for his friends to sign it."
"I—" McKay suddenly sputtered, his anger deflating like a punctured balloon.
Beckett resisted the urge to comment, but sometimes, Rodney McKay could be so blind.
"You see," continued Sheppard in a level tone, "I wanted to sign the cast when you first got it, but noooo, you wanted it to stay as pristine as, well, whatever." The man shrugged helplessly. "So… when I saw that cast right in front of my face last night…"
"He could not resist," finished Zelenka with a small smile.
"But 'kick me'?" McKay sounded both annoyed and hurt.
Sheppard looked guilty. "I thought about transposing the integers in Fermat's Theorem 'cause I knew that would drive you nuts, but my hand was a little unsteady."
Beckett had no idea what that theorem was, but McKay obviously did. He laughed. "Not that many on this base would have gotten that joke."
"Yeah," agreed Sheppard. "'Kick me' is pretty much universal. Uh, nobody tried, I hope."
McKay looked horrified. "Not that I know of."
The situation was definitely defused, Beckett noticed, and in a bizarre way, it was a strange type of therapy for the three men. Deciding he was no longer needed – as he knew Sheppard, despite his complaints, would finish off the food as he'd done the previous evening – Beckett headed back to his office, but he focused his hearing on what was transpiring behind him.
"So, what is that you're eating?" echoed McKay's curious voice. "Looks like rancid feta cheese, or pigeon poop."
"McKay!" cried Sheppard.
Elizabeth stared at the myriad of email messages on her laptop, reading them over one more time. She realized that the proposal, although potentially dangerous, had its merits, but then so had the original mission, and they'd come so close to losing both the major and Dr. Zelenka that she was sure it was going to give her some nightmares down the road.
The briefing room filled quickly – Beckett, Dr. Branford, Sergeant Markham, Corporal Rensen, Rodney and Dr. Waller. Everyone looked tense but excited, and Elizabeth couldn't help but feel a bit of trepidation at what was being broached.
"I think going back to…that planet," began Beckett.
"PX8 3H6," Rodney said quickly.
"…Is insane considering Major Sheppard nearly died from that blasted parasite, but…" Beckett looked as though he were having teeth extracted without the benefit of a painkiller. "I think further investigation of the parasite is merited."
"And it's extremely likely that a ZedPM is powering the Ancient compound," added Rodney in his rapid, excited tone. "That's why the mission was formed in the first place, to investigate that power source."
"Which neither Major Sheppard nor Dr. Zelenka were able to extract from the facility, remember," pointed out Elizabeth.
"Because the team was coming back to get the proper equipment and personnel to do just that," said Rodney confidently. "Which we can now do."
"Do you still have concerns about the parasite?" Elizabeth asked Beckett directly "You said the major was clear of any… infestation." She hated that word but that's precisely what had happened to Sheppard.
"It is an alien organism, and from what little information we did gather from the Ancients' database, it was bioengineered to some degree." Beckett leaned forward on the table. "Dr. Branford has volunteered to go planet-side and conduct some experiments on the creatures. The parasite appears to be endemic in the wildlife so procuring a sample, for better or worse, should be easy. I'd honestly rather be safe than sorry when it comes to clearing the major."
"But he is all right?" Rodney focused a concerned stare on the physician.
"Yes, he's recovering well," said Beckett. "He'll be on antibiotics for another week or so, but I suspect we'll release him from the infirmary in a few days, but I'm keeping him grounded to the base for another week." He shot a meaningful glance at Elizabeth. "And don't let him tell you otherwise. Dr. Zelenka, although he looks rather horrid, can actually leave the infirmary now if he'd like."
"How long can it take to type a mission report?" Rodney muttered under his breath.
Elizabeth just arched an eyebrow and ignored the prickly comment, as did everybody else.
"We should investigate the parasite further." That suggestion came from Dr. Waller, resident biologist whom she'd barely had the chance to see during their time on Atlantis. The man's grey eyes focused unerringly at her, firm in his conviction. He worked closely with Dr. Branford, who nodded vigorously at the suggestion. Both doctors had sent copious emails to her detailing why the next mission was necessary. She couldn't fault their reasoning: any weapon they could use against the Wraith was something they needed to investigate.
"And we need to do this within the next seven days or else we scratch the mission for, who knows, half a year?"
Elizabeth turned at Rodney's voice. "Why?"
"Flooding." Rodney swung around the laptop he'd brought along to the briefing. He pulled up some impressive graphics. "Peter did a rundown of the weather pattern on the planet. If the rains continue at the current predicted rate, the compound will go underwater, and probably the gate itself, within ten days. It is a rainforest, after all."
Each of the scientists took their turn presenting their case for the return trip. It reminded Elizabeth of a grant interview; everybody vying for that one precious donation that would make a dream come true. Despite the fact that the planet's ecosystem was incredibly dangerous due to the parasite as well as the predatory animal life, everybody was game to go. Somehow, that didn't surprise her. She'd picked all the expedition members herself, and a trip through the Stargate to an unknown world might now seem miniscule compared to the initial jump they'd all made from one galaxy to another.
Elizabeth turned to Beckett, who still looked troubled at the potential mission. She'd already made up her mind, but wanted to make sure everybody knew the risks. "Carson. When can you start preparations?"
"I can start today," he replied, looking around the table. "Everyone should be ready within three days, which gives us leeway." Several heads nodded enthusiastically.
"All right, gentlemen." Elizabeth shut her own laptop and leaned forward with assurance. "Then the mission is a go." She cocked her head at Rodney. The smile on his face faltered.
"I'll tell Sheppard," he said grimly.
The meeting broke up and everyone scattered, but Elizabeth motioned very slightly for Beckett to hang back, which he did.
"Is there something ye need?" he asked.
She patted her hand on the table's surface, a subtle hint that they needed to talk. Beckett sat down opposite her. "How are the major and Dr. Zelenka doing?"
"Physically, they're doing fine," he said. "But ye already know that. We were lucky to have gotten the major back when we did. Another few hours and the hyperkalemia could have escalated to the point of irreparable cardiac or respiratory failure." Elizabeth just nodded, her lips pursed tight. She knew how close they'd come to losing Sheppard and it had scared her.
"But I gather you're talking the psychological repercussions." Beckett arched an eyebrow meaningfully. "Dr. Zelenka is doing fine. He's made of harder stuff than I'd first given him credit, and I think the fact that his role basically turned to caretaker on that planet helped immensely. He could have left the infirmary a day or so ago. His poison ivy is not contagious, despite the myth that some folk keep spreading." He sighed and she could only imagine Rodney's initial response to Zelenka's horrid appearance. "In a way, I think Dr. Zelenka still feels responsible for the major's welfare. When the major's discharged, I've no doubt he'll leave as well."
"And John?" Elizabeth couldn't help but worry. Since they'd come to Atlantis, Sheppard seemed to have borne the brunt of alien abuse… bugs, Wraith, and now parasites.
Beckett shrugged slightly, and she wasn't sure how to interpret that gesture. "The whole ordeal physically exhausted him, so he's had to recover from that, and the antibiotics he's on do make him nauseous, but fortunately, not terribly so." Beckett paused a moment as he seemed to contemplate a thought. "Psychologically, so far, he's handling it pretty well. As you no doubt noticed, his sense of humor remains unchanged."
Elizabeth smiled as she thought back to the crude drawing. "Yes, I can only suspect he did only that piece of artwork on Rodney's cast because he knew he was safe in your custody."
"Aye," agreed Beckett with a slight chortle. "Rodney's felt the business end of a needle rather recently and he knows the infirmary's my territory and won't risk any retaliation." The doctor leaned forward against the table, folding his hands together. "Back in the War - WW II, that is - after men were in battle, they were given time to decompress, sent back on ships that took months to get 'em home. The newer wars back on Earth, even our fights here, we patch 'em up and send them back out."
Elizabeth nodded sadly. The fight against the Wraith was taking its toll. She saw the weekly reports from Dr. Heightmeyer and had, in a few instances, had to take people off duty so they could recover from all the stress.
"We don't have that luxury of time anymore," Beckett said with regret. "As Dr. Zelenka told us, he had something to do while on the planet, while once the parasites took hold of the major, there was little he could do except fight the pain and that damned itch and…" Beckett grimaced. "I canna imagine what it was like to spend those hours waiting for your own death, knowing what horrors were in store. That kind of situation could easily make a man introspective or depressed."
"Kate?" broached Elizabeth. She knew their resident psychologist was busy with others, but if necessary, would put Sheppard to the front if needed.
"I've asked Kate to stand back for the while," admitted Beckett. "Since the major's been awake, I've noticed that he and Dr. Zelenka are talking, and I think that's better therapy than anything Kate can offer at the moment. Zelenka was on the front lines with the major, so to speak, so he can emphasize with what the major went through."
"Should there be any cause for concern about delayed stress?" she asked.
"I can't honestly give an answer yet," replied Beckett with a wistful smile. "We're keeping an eye on the two of 'em, and I'll let you know if anything changes. If nothing else, having Rodney make a pest of himself down there is good."
"In what way?"
"Well, he can be pretty blunt," said Beckett to her knowing nod, "and he can force some issues to the surface that they might otherwise dwell on. He was affected by this mess just as badly as the major and Radek, so I dare say I believe when those three get talking, it should help 'em all."
"I hope so." Elizabeth smiled, wondering how Sheppard would take the news of the impending mission.
It wasn't often that he'd read about himself in the third person, but since the mission report he was reading on the laptop was Zelenka's, and not his own, it made sense, but still, it was bizarre.
Now the military always wanted all the details: fill out form this, stroke-dash-dot that, triplicate to a zillion different offices and people, but scientists, apparently, could be just as bad if not worse.
As the parasites had exerted more pain, time had begun to distort for him while he'd been trapped on that planet. He'd barely looked at his watch, not wanting to know that only five minutes of misery had passed when he thought he'd been clawing up the back of his neck for two hours. He hadn't given much thought to the actual details of what Zelenka had been doing to try to save them - futz about with Ancient databases and equipment was what had come to mind – and that's what he had actually typed into his own yet-unfinished mission report. Zelenka had obsessively detailed every step he'd taken while on the planet, but just as in military reports, he'd left out the emotional context. When your chopper is spiraling out of control and you just know you're going to end up charred cinders in a blown-out hole in the ground below - but you somehow survived - you didn't write in your report that you were so F-in' scared you'd nearly crapped in your pants right then and there. No, you left that detail for getting together with your buddies and a few six packs and blowing off steam with people who knew what you had gone through.
He'd started writing his own mission report, but it had begun looking like a missive churned out by someone on a five-day bender with massive black holes of memory just shot to hell. Concussions, passing out from whatever. Just whole chunks gone. Or maybe he'd just been unconscious and hadn't realized it.
"Maybe I should just wait for the movie," he muttered sotto voce. The science stuff about the database was beginning to give him a headache, especially since he was on page three and heck, he hadn't gotten to the point in the report that he'd run off to fry a few million brain cells by throwing himself into the gate's force field. He randomly chose a page number and jumped ahead in time.
Sheppard laughed quietly, mostly in disbelief, as he read Zelenka's account of the scientist stringing him up in the tree. He couldn't believe Zelenka and written in some calculations about weight and stress loads - and remarkably, the Czech was only off by a few pounds on Sheppard's actual weight. But it was the description of "and the major called out to me" that made him laugh... he didn't know why. That particular sequence of time he did remember, and he'd probably never forget: waking up to find himself totally alone, the near dead silence of the forest around him, the terrifying darkness that held him in its grip, but worse, the sensation of that thing jumping down from the branch above to land square on his chest. He'd frozen in utter panic, horrified that it might be some kind of predatory cat, until it started walking across him. He'd actually been able to count the legs as they tentatively strode across him as though he were a sidewalk. Eight legs. Eight long, nasty lightweight legs with sharp little feet. A spider. A massively huge spider, as big as a dinner plate, was methodically making its way toward his head. His arms were out to either side, still too weak to pull up instantly, and all he could do was hang there, motionless, listening to his heart thud frantically in his ears as the arachnid paused on his face. Several seconds later, it simply leapt off, using his head as a launching pad, landing elsewhere.
He'd hung there for a few seconds, daring not even to breathe, listening as the vine creaked ominously under his weight… wondering inanely if the creature had really left or if it was waiting for the perfect opportunity to crawl into his mouth. He'd just freaked at that hideous thought and started yelling in panic for Zelenka.
And Zelenka had calmly arrived with the 'ride' he had procured. Damn, the man deserved a medal or a commendation or something for how he'd pulled them both through. Or at least, Sheppard realized, he should read all of Zelenka's mission report, from beginning to end, even the boring parts. He owed the man that much. He hit the CRTL-HOME key to start over.
McKay hobbled into the infirmary, pausing briefly to stick a pen down one side of the cast to alleviate a tiny itch. He knew he shouldn't do that in front of either Sheppard or Zelenka as even the mere mention of the word 'itch' turned both men into absolute grouches, unless of course, they brought it up themselves.
Peggy whoever, he could never remember her last name, but she was pretty blonde nurse with the long hair who just totally ignored him ever since they'd arrived on Atlantis, actually stopped and chatted with him briefly, smiling as she commented on his cast.
McKay shrugged, a little embarrassed, and muttered something about lack of time before she went back to her duties. He had been averse to getting the cast signed, but didn't want to admit it to anyone. While Sheppard truly enjoyed signing broken limbs, Teyla would have signed it because it was a custom, Ford probably because he felt he should but… anybody else? He'd envisioned maybe half a dozen signatures, and then, a barren wasteland of empty space that showed just how much he meant to others. Maybe it was the memory of when he'd been young that had compelled him to rebuff Sheppard's original offer. Dennis Landers had turned the white cast on his arm a colorful array of black, blue and red signatures from various classmates, but had snubbed Rodney's attempt to sign. "Why would I want a geek to sign my cast?" He'd been eight at the time, but the caustic remark had still stung.
But now… a silly smirk took hold on his face as he spied Sheppard and Zelenka in their beds, both men engrossed in their respective laptops.
McKay grabbed the stuffed white chair he'd dragged in from the hall a few days ago and pushed it in between the beds again. He sat down, then plopped his casted leg atop the table between the two beds, careful not to touch the potted flowers. He'd heard there would be death or serious bodily injury if they were damaged in anyway.
Sheppard slowly tore his view away from the laptop and regarded McKay with an arched eyebrow.
"Get mugged, Rodney?"
The major was now in surgical scrubs and had ditched the unflattering hospital gown. That meant he was ambulatory, at least to a degree. One of the nurses had told him Sheppard was determined to totally bypass the bedpan routine and get to the bathroom, which he managed to do with assistance, but it had worn him out.
"Why would you say that, major?" McKay grinned happily, like he'd just won the lottery.
Sheppard studied the cast very carefully. "Well, your leg is covered with graffiti."
"Maybe if you learned another language besides, say, Pacman," McKay replied, and then he pointed at some scribbling on the cast. "You'd recognize that as Spanish, that's Japanese."
"Oh, yeah." Sheppard made a face and stared at McKay. "So, what do they say?"
"Uh, well, I … er."
"They could have all written--"
"Oh, please," McKay interrupted the major's sentence with the flourish of a wave. "Elizabeth has read them all and they're fine."
Sheppard got an evil grin on his face. "Oh, hey, I like this one." He pointed to the underside of the ankle.
"What?" asked McKay.
Zelenka hopped out of bed to come over and look himself.
"Radek, aren't you ever going to get rid of that stupid gown?" asked Rodney. Damned things were unflattering, and ultimately, humiliating if the backside got exposed. Very humiliating. Yes, humiliating was definitely the proper description.
"It is comfortable," replied Zelenka. "Scrubs would chafe."
"This." Zelenka just pulled the gown aside for a brief moment.
"Oh god, cover up!" McKay nearly screeched. He couldn't believe it. Nearly half of Zelenka's torso was covered with the wretched poison ivy.
"Whoa. Wait, back it up," said Sheppard.
"Are you nuts?" countered McKay.
"What do your shorts say?" asked Sheppard curiously.
McKay had barely noticed the white shorts with bold red lettering on it, not after the shock of seeing the poison ivy body from hell. Two words – horký materiál- repeated all over the cloth in big block letters.
Zelenka replied – horky material or something like that – but that was Czech, which was what the text was obviously written in. "And that does us a fat lot of good," groused Rodney.
"They were gift." Zelenka developed a faraway smile on his face that actually made Rodney feel jealous. "From friend."
McKay quickly looked over at Sheppard, who had an odd look of puzzlement on his features. They exchanged a silent glance. He could swear Sheppard's face said 'just how does Zelenka get all the women?' Instead, Sheppard shook his head and said, "Uh, back to the cast." Zelenka yanked his gown behind him. "Yes, what is it?"
"Don't forget to return my…" Sheppard cocked his head to the side to read the rest. "Wire crimper." He looked up with a smug smile. "Wow, great friend you got there, McKay."
"Oh, that was Dorkman." McKay grimaced at his blatant mistake. "I mean Dr. Dorfman."
"Ah, that is now two for the collection," murmured Zelenka happily.
"Major, what's he's talking about?"
"Blackmail material," replied Sheppard matter-of-factly. "You really don't want to know. Believe me." He leaned back against his propped-up pillows.
He probably didn't, but he'd ferret it out eventually. Secrets were hard to keep on Atlantis. McKay settled into what Sheppard had termed 'the comfy chair.' "How are you doing?"
"Oh, you know, same old same old, give blood. Eat Athosian tofu, sleep," remarked Sheppard dryly. "Go nuts from boredom."
McKay carefully scrutinized the major. Outwardly, he appeared on the mend. His eyes no longer looked like some insane Hollywood makeup artist for a horror film had attacked him, although the red dots on the whites of his eyes still creeped out McKay a little no matter how much he said it didn't.
But he didn't know how the major could be so… okay. Rodney had worried himself to the point he hadn't eaten and almost passed out, and then in a frenzy had scarfed down several PowerBars in one sitting and nearly made himself sick. He'd managed to get by on precious little sleep, spending every waking minute in a futile attempt to try and save the two men.
McKay shifted uncomfortably in the chair, and then put his casted leg on the floor. It wasn't that he wanted to play resident shrink; lord knew he wasn't one to talk about feelings, but Sheppard seemed just too status quo for all that happened, and dammit, he wanted to get it out of his system. Even after that Wraith bug, Sheppard had been more talkative, unless…
"Major, what day is it?"
Sheppard regarded him as though he'd suddenly sprouted a third eye in the middle of his forehead. "Thursday. Why?"
"Saturday," corrected Zelenka. Rodney nodded.
Sheppard's eyebrows raised. "Really?"
"Yes," confirmed the scientist.
"The fact that Zelenka's starting to look like Grizzly Adams wasn't a hint?" said McKay sarcastically. But then again, both men had come through the gate looking like victims of the ultimate bad camping experience. Zelenka refused to get anywhere near a razor until the poison ivy died down on his face, and McKay could blame him one bit. Suddenly, McKay found himself on the receiving end of an uncomfortable stare. "What?" asked Sheppard.
"I—it's just that," stumbled McKay, not ready for such a direct question.
Sheppard closed his laptop. Look, I'm fine, okay? Or at least I will be," he admitted. "Right now I feel so tired that even that little Japanese scientist who thinks you're the best thing since Cheese Whiz could wipe the floor with me."
McKay frowned in confusion. Miko? Mitsibishi? What was her name?
Sheppard ignored his silence. "Only scary thing is that that awful tofu stuff is beginning to taste good."
"That is scary." McKay had tasted an earlier version of it a while ago and had spit it out.
"Can you sneak me in some real food?" Sheppard nearly begged. "Even a PowerBar?"
"Carson'll shoot me." McKay shook his head. He had to laugh, at least inwardly, that Sheppard now considered those bars 'real food.'
"Coward," Sheppard said in mock disgust.
"Live coward," McKay grinned.
"We are fine, Rodney," interjected Zelenka. "We will probably have a few bad dreams about parasites but otherwise will recover, so there is no need to worry yourself. And hopefully, we will have no scars to show for our experience." After that, he began to pick at a crusty patch on his arm.
"Beckett said not to do that," warned Sheppard.
"He is not here," muttered Zelenka.
"Thank god, I'm getting tired of the man taking blood," remarked Sheppard.
"I thought he said you were –"
Sheppard interrupted him. "He's just monitoring the potassium levels, because of the hypokalemia – "
"Hyperkalemia," corrected Zelenka. McKay looked over, then decided maybe he should stop watching the Czech pick himself apart. So gross.
"Yeah, that. He stuck in IVs of .. .insulin and glucose?" McKay watched curiously as Sheppard looked to Zelenka for verification. The other scientist nodded. "Because my potassium levels were up around 6.8."
"Should be 3.5 or thereabout," added Zelenka.
"Anyway, it was borderline severe, which would have been, what, 7.0?" Zelenka nodded again. "Which would have caused…"
"Peaked T waves with, er…"
"Widening of the KSR…"
"QSR, I believe." Zelenka looked up, thought about it, then nodded vigorously.
"Yeah, that's it," grinned Sheppard. "Or QVC."
McKay crossed his arms against his chest. "Did you two clowns rehearse this act? Do you even know what you're talking about?"
Sheppard shrugged as though he were discussing sports scores. "Beckett basically said I had one foot on the banana peel, y'know?"
McKay swallowed nervously. It had been that close.
"But, that's all done, in the past, never stepping foot on that blasted planet again." Sheppard relaxed back against the stack of pillows behind him and stared at the ceiling. "You know, once we get out of here, we should do a salute to making it out of there in one piece. Dr. Z. You still got any of that rotgut left? But maybe wait a week or two. Don't think my stomach would survive it right now."
"If only," sighed Zelenka. "Do not forget Dr. Weir confiscated that bottle."
"Well, if you hadn't brought such a big bottle from your Athosian buddy," argued Sheppard.
"Do not forget that it was you and Rodney who showed up for the briefing with hangover, not me." Zelenka snorted.
"He has a point," thought back McKay. Lord, it had felt like an A-bomb had detonated inside his head that morning. "But, we really do need to follow up on the additional data Radek brought back." He knew he had to tell Sheppard sooner or later about the new mission. At least this way, if anybody's T waves peaked – whatever they were – Beckett's people would be on hand to fix them.
"Zelenka tore that place apart," countered Sheppard. "What's left to look at?"
"Not those files," said McKay. "The ones from the second data unit. You know, from the body."
Sheppard's eyes had been closing in fatigue, but suddenly shot open as thought he'd been hit with a jolt of electricity. "Body? What body?"
McKay frowned as he realized this could get interesting. "The one you fell in on."
"Huh?" Sheppard sat up, shifting his stare to Zelenka. "What is he talking about?"
The Czech gestured at the laptop on Sheppard's bed. "Did you not read my report?"
"Not all of it," admitted Sheppard. "It's taking a while to get past the boring encryption theorems."
McKay saw Zelenka's eyes narrow ever so slightly at the word 'boring.' Sheppard seemed oblivious to his faux paux. "Body? Where was that?"
"I saw no reason to needlessly worry you," said Zelenka with a shrug. "Besides, since it was most a dried-up skeleton—"
"Those sticks were bones?" Sheppard shot back abruptly. "It wasn't like I'd freak out over that. It's not like they were spiders."
Spiders? Since when did Sheppard have a phobia about spiders, McKay wondered. Of course, maybe those things were on his hate list now after that encounter with the Wraith bug that had glommed on to his neck.
"Oh, like you told me about cat," came back Zelenka's curt reply.
"I told you about the cat," refuted Sheppard.
"Not then, when it was stalking us from the water's edge."
Sheppard had to think about it for a moment. "You couldn't have done anything if you'd known."
McKay watched as Zelenka got that look on his face. He was getting pissed.
"As if you think I would panic?"
"No," refuted Sheppard. "It's just that animals can sense fear."
Zelenka glared at him. "I think that the blood would have been far more attractive."
McKay couldn't believe this inane discussion. What blood? The blood on his arm, back and head. Sheppard had looked like the survivor of a bombing when he'd been dragged through the gate.
"Where the rat clawed me."
"Rat?" repeated Sheppard.
"Yes, on piece of tree."
Sheppard looked absolutely blank.
Zelenka looked flustered. "Like surfboard."
Comprehension dawned in Sheppard's eyes. "Ah…"
"You're dying and you're going surfing?" blurted out McKay. Damn, he wished Zelenka would finish his report and let him read the thing instead of giving him dribs and drabs of it.
"Shut up, Rodney," ordered Sheppard.
"No, that's it!" Zelenka slammed down the top of his own laptop and crossed his arms against his chest. "I quit! No more off-world missions!"
McKay gawked at Zelenka, while Sheppard looked confused, even a bit hurt. "This isn't because I punched you and nearly shot you?"
Now McKay was speechless. Punched?
"No, that was not personal." Zelenka calmed down. "Although I think in retrospect it was a mistake to let blind man hold the P-90. No," repeated Zelenka, just as Sheppard was about to argue that insane point. "No more off-world missions to planets with jungles. You want me to come along? Nice sterile alien buildings. No plants. No poison ivy."
"Ah," muttered Sheppard in realization. "Okay. Gotcha"
McKay wasn't certain what just happened. One second the two men were yelling at each other, and now, it was all over.
"But I did get that cat," Sheppard decided to add.
"Not entirely," shot back Zelenka.
Zelenka popped open his laptop and opened a file. "Page 18 of mission report, line… 960."
"You number your lines?" McKay couldn't believe it. And people called him compulsive?
'Yes, in drafts, why not?" posed Zelenka.
Sheppard was busy looking at the file on his laptop, scrolling through the text. He stopped, reading silently. It was interesting to watch the various expressions that flitted across his face, until he finally looked up. "That was pretty, um…"
"Ingenious?" suggested McKay smugly. Zelenka smiled at Sheppard's inability to form an instant response.
A moment later, Sheppard assumed what McKay had once overheard Elizabeth call the 'hurt puppy dog look' and said, "But I did get some bullets in it. I shot it…" He scrolled down the page. "See, four times. Zelenka put it in his report." He jabbed a finger emphatically at the laptop's screen.
"But Zelenka had to finish it off with the force field," reminded McKay. "Plus the other shots went into the gateroom."
Sheppard blanched. "They did?"
"The cat struck you in the chest, knocking you and gun backwards," explained Zelenka, his eyes darkening momentarily as he fell back into the memory. "Apparently you kept your finger on the trigger as you were falling backwards."
"No, you didn't hit anyone," McKay quickly clarified at Sheppard's concerned expression. "Ceiling took a beating but you can hardly tell."
"Little touch up paint?" Sheppard winced.
"Something like that," said McKay. He drummed his fingers anxiously against the stuffed chair's arms. Maybe he'd broach the mission later. Didn't Beckett say both men needed rest? Sheppard still looked tired.
"Wait a sec." Sheppard fixed a stare at him. "What did you mean by following up on the data?"
McKay smiled weakly. "We're sending a mission back to the planet."
"Rodney, have you lost your mind?" chimed in an upset Zelenka. "The whole area is flooding."
"Not to mention a slight problem with parasites," ground out Sheppard.
"The team will be in HazMat suits," defended McKay. Damn, he should have left this task to Elizabeth.
"And they're going to swim across the flooded areas?" interrogated Zelenka.
"Puddle jumper," responded McKay, and then he smiled to himself. "Hmm, in this case, I guess it really is."
"And fly a jumper through that huge tree that blocked us from that option in the first place?" posed Sheppard.
"It fell down," said Zelenka.
Sheppard turned, astonishment plain on his face. "It did?"
"Yes, during storm, while you were concussed," explained Zelenka drolly. "Details are not far past one of the 'boring' sections of the report."
Ouch, thought McKay, as Sheppard winced at the digging remark.
"But anyway, to make a long story short, the team's been, um," McKay paused for a moment, "dosed up with the antibiotic used in the eye drops that Zelenka used, that also kept him, Teyla and Ford parasite-free."
"And Beckett's going along with this stupid scheme?" asked Sheppard.
"Yes." McKay frowned at the antagonism in the remark and almost responded in kind until he searched Sheppard's eyes. It wasn't that the major was pissed off at being left out of the loop – well, there was that – but it what shone through the hazel orbs was fear. Fear that his friends might befall the same horrors he'd just barely survived.
McKay drew a steadying breath and tried to smile, hoping it didn't come off too smugly. "We'll be fine. We jump from Point A to Point B, get out, go in, snug in our HazMat suits, extract the power source, dig up any new files, retrieve whatever was left behind, and come home."
After several long seconds, Sheppard blinked and said in a level but tense tone. "We? You're going?"
McKay felt uncomfortable under the dissecting stares of the two men on either side, like a fly caught in a spider's web. "Well, yes, I'm heading up the team. Walking cast, remember?" he replied. "Sergeant Markham is flying us in, and providing backup ATA gene touching. Drs. Branford and Waller are handling the biology department, and Lieutenant Ford and Corporal Rensen are there to handle any security issues."
Sheppard stared at him for the longest moment, his emotions unreadable. "And Elizabeth approved this?"
"Yes." McKay didn't like the cold gleam that glittered in the major's eyes.
"We'll see about that."
Elizabeth hadn't expected that Major Sheppard would embrace the idea of another mission to PX8 3H6, but on the other hand, she hadn't expected the outright hostility from him either. It hadn't been a situation she's been able to defuse over the radio: he'd taken over the conversation, barely letting her get a word in edgewise in his opposition to the mission, so she'd gone to the infirmary for a face-to-face talk.
Before she even stepped ten feet into the infirmary, Beckett snagged her and steered her aside into his office. He confirmed that yes, McKay had brought up the mission, but that Sheppard hadn't taken it well, something she already knew, but she hadn't realized that both Sheppard and McKay had argued the point vociferously, which culminated with McKay stomping out of the infirmary in a foul mood.
If she couldn't get Sheppard settled down, Beckett threatened to sedate the major.
It had been what she'd been afraid of since Sheppard's return: that the intense ordeal, along with everything else he'd had to go through since coming to the Pegasus Galaxy, was finally affecting John.
Sheppard and Zelenka were talking about something when she approached the beds, but both men fell silent when they spotted her. Judging from their tense expressions, it looked like Zelenka was prepared to back up Sheppard's qualms.
Levity. She had to inject some humor into the situation before it fell down a long, dark tunnel that ended with the prick of a needle and no progress.
"Major, I didn't realize that Carson had perfected personality transplants," she remarked. Sheppard stared at her, the tense expression unchanged.
"Ha, yes," sounded another voice. Zelenka got it. "Fortunately, is not possible or the major would be complaining about citrus."
"Very funny," Sheppard responded curtly.
As Elizabeth studied Sheppard's glare, which was now focused on the ceiling as he'd slid back against the pillows in an obvious act to ignore her, she realized this wasn't going to be a five-minute discussion about the base's best interests. She pulled the stuffed white chair back in between the two beds and sat down. A silly grin enveloped her face.
Sheppard actually noticed her behavior. "You find this funny?"
"No." Elizabeth refused to react to his anger, but knew she'd have to tread carefully. "I just never realized how comfortable these chairs were," she replied, sinking into the plush material. It almost seemed to automatically conform to her body. "We've been here how long now? Have you tried them?" she threw out.
"No." Zelenka looked almost… envious. Hospital beds could not be that comfortable.
"Who has time?" remarked Sheppard flatly.
She wished Kate Heightmeyer were there. This was her area of expertise, but she knew Kate was busy enough already, but Sheppard was their lead military officer. Elizabeth could deal with diplomatic entanglements and warring countries. Mending damaged psyches from near-torture situations was new to her. She knew that Sheppard refused to talk with Kate, professing that he'd made it through the ordeal unscathed. Beckett still held out hope that Zelenka's continued presence would have a healing effect.
For the first time that she could recall, Elizabeth found it difficult to stay on topic. As they discussed the mission, she had to rein back the urge to go into command mode, stating that despite his deep concerns, the mission was going ahead as planned. His arguments were sound, but only to a degree as he was letting his emotions rule his thoughts. It was only when he pushed a point, with precious little to back up his reasoning that Zelenka, who had been quietly watching the discussion from his bed, spoke up.
The Czech cast an unsettled glance at Sheppard. "Dr. Weir, if you had proposed this mission a month from now, I would not be so reticent myself at it occurring, but…" He paused, frowning deeply. "The memories are too fresh."
Sheppard's eyes darkened in some unspoken memory, and he looked away.
Elizabeth suppressed her own looming trepidation as she continued. "Every conceivable precaution is being taken. If anything - anything - looks wrong, Lieutenant Ford has orders to abort the mission and return home."
After a beat, Sheppard managed to turn back to face her. Most of his expression still remained unreadable, but she saw a glimmer of something positive. "Ford is good at that."
"Yes," she agreed evenly. More so than some people, she thought to herself.
Sheppard studied her for a few seconds. She noticed the tiniest of quirks tug at a corner of his mouth. He knew what she was thinking.
"Is a possible ZPM worth it?"
Elizabeth froze at his question, and the fact that he had even asked it. In the beginning, the ZPM had offered them the promise of a new galaxy to explore and, if they were gifted, a chance to meet the gatebuilders themselves. Instead, it had become almost like a coveted drug, something that they pursued at almost any cost in order to survive. Lives had been lost, alliances created and shattered.
"I hope so," she replied truthfully.
"So do I." Sheppard turned his gaze away once again.
The checklist for the upcoming mission was extensive, and McKay had checked it over at least a half dozen times but what could it hurt to go over it one more time? Especially since by doing that, he'd kill some time and get his mind off the reason why he wasn't down in the infirmary checking in on Sheppard and Zelenka.
Because they were … fine.
Fine. Both he and Sheppard had yelled that word at each like total idiots, abruptly ending the argument over the new mission. He'd stalked back to his lab, griping about the military mentality or lack thereof and fighting over the escalating guilt because he knew why Sheppard was so upset and he'd just blindly walked into it. McKay wasn't good with certain death and he wasn't much better with people were still reeling from narrowly escaping death's clutches either.
Did they really need two of that? McKay stared at the computer screen and readjusted the figures.
Elizabeth had dropped by to see him afterwards, feeling him out on the mission as well as Sheppard's state of mind. McKay had almost lobbed a sarcastic remark about the major's mind not being in any state, in fact, it was definitely out of country, but he knew that wouldn't do any good, and wasn't this Kate's job anyway? Why wouldn't the major just talk to her? McKay had seen her once, okay, maybe a few times, but he realized he hadn't even admitted that to Sheppard, so he was hardly one to talk.
He'd had to waste ten minutes justifying the mission – to Elizabeth – of all people. Maybe Sheppard's arguments were getting to her and she was looking for that chink in the plan so that she could pull the plug. Or just was looking for reassurance that they were doing the right thing.
Hell, he wanted reassurance. The thought of that parasite burrowing into his skin scared the hell out of him.
A loud thud behind McKay nearly made him jump off the stool he was sitting on.
Turning, he glared at the new equipment cases that had been added to the stack that seemed to be breeding like cockroaches.
"Does this look like the loading dock for a freighter?" he remarked acerbically. "What are those for?"
"Sample cases." Dr. Branford shrugged. "For wildlife."
McKay knew his eyes must have increased to the size of hubcaps. "Wildlife? You said you were bringing back plant samples!"
"Mammals, if we can snare them."
Good god. McKay put a hand to his forehead, his mind racing at all the implications. "Well, you can have the joy of telling Sheppard." He'd already had his head bitten off once. He'd like to give it the chance to grow back.
Branford looked leery. "I heard he was pretty ticked off about the mission."
Who hadn't heard? They'd yelled loud enough at each that they could have woken the dead, mused McKay darkly.
"Let Dr. Weir handle it," suggested McKay.
"He's okay, right? Sheppard?" asked Branford.
McKay paused. The younger scientist's face was lined with worry. Then it hit him. Sheppard was like the Rock of Gibraltar to many people on the base. If he cracked, what chance did any of the rest of them have? "He'll be … okay," replied McKay with confidence, although inwardly, he couldn't muster up that emotion very easily. "He's just a little stressed."
McKay blinked, then turned his attention toward the new cases added to the stack. "Just how much junk are you bringing? We're going for a day at the very most, not a week."
Branford proceeded to rattle off the contents of the half dozen other cases he'd deposited there earlier – all sorts of medical equipment. McKay glared suspiciously at a silver bag, the kind used to keep your frozen entrees like a block of ice until you got them home from the market.
"Bringing a picnic, are we?"
"That's for the blood units."
"Blood?" Rodney didn't like blood, particularly when it was outside of the body.
Branford nodded eagerly, detailing the plan that made McKay truly understand more as each second ticked by why Sheppard had nearly turned purple during the argument. Despite the short time period scheduled for the mission, the biologist planned on 'inoculating' the blood samples with parasite he'd get from an animal on the planet. He hoped to grow a big enough society of them to experiment upon before the team had to return to Atlantis. Since the parasites' growth had been out of control in Sheppard, Branford didn't see any problem replicating the same environment within a bag of blood.
McKay just blanched. And he was going on a jumper with this junior Frankenstein wannabe?
"Dr. Waller's in charge of the experiment," continued Branford, checking one of his cases. "Dr. Beckett approved it."
"And Beckett is just going to loan you a pint from the blood bank?"
"The stuff's got a limited shelf life, so, I'm taking a couple pints that will expire pretty soon." Branford suddenly looked glum. "I have to replace them."
McKay suppressed a laugh when he realized just what that meant. "Ah, the joys of working in the biology department," he said to himself.
The moment of semi-sadistic glee vanished as the impact of where they were going, and what they were going to do, came back to the forefront of his thoughts. It was only a day trip, nothing more. But then, that's what Sheppard and Zelenka had thought, too.
As Halling was now back on the mainland, Teyla had promised to keep him apprised of Dr. Zelenka's progress with the herbal remedy he had brought for the scientist. The tall Athosian had known he didn't need to ask for such a favor because Teyla had visited the infirmary every day since both the major and Dr. Zelenka had returned from the planet.
She had taken turns, as had the others of the major's team, sitting vigil on and off for those first couple of days that Sheppard had remained unconscious. Unlike many of the people she traded with, Teyla did not marvel at the various machines that Dr. Beckett's team had hooked up to the major. She knew that once, many generations ago, her people had had similar if not superior technology. The massive spires of the old city on Athos, shrouded in mist in the early dawn light, had instilled both awe and terror in her as a child. Her father would gather the children at night to tell them stories of what had once had been, and what the Wraith had taken away, but he never let her forget that the Wraith could never take away their will to live.
The major had looked terrible at first, so pale and his eyes swollen shut and bright red, but over the days he had begun the road to recovery, both physically and in spirit, from his near-death experience. Yet now it was not difficult to detect a change in the major since he'd been informed of the second mission.
Atlantis' sun had nearly set by the time Teyla made her way down to the bed where Sheppard was sitting, looking intently at the portable computer in his lap. Dr. Zelenka's bed was empty, which meant he was probably soaking in the herbal remedy. She would have checked on him, but instead decided to wait for him to return to his bed. She had long ago learned that Sheppard's people were not as open as her people, and that included matters of modesty as well. Sheppard had once explained that in his culture, or at least parts of his culture, his people preferred to 'take things slow.' She envied him that luxury. With the ever-present threat of the Wraith, her people, luxuries were few and far between.
She pulled up the white chair that Dr. McKay had dragged in that first day, positioned it between the beds and sat down.
Sheppard didn't remove his gaze from the computer screen. "I think it's the chair people want to visit, not me."
"You know that is not true, major."
He looked away from the computer, smiling tentatively as he met her gaze. She decided to take the opportunity to broach what she knew was troubling him. "Are you working on your mission report?"
He blinked, his eyes darting back to the computer screen, but not before she caught a glimpse of a dark emotion flitting past. "Yes. No." He sagged back against the pillows. "I'm just adding notes to Zelenka's report. It's not like I was really awake for most of it anyway."
"You were ill. It is not expected--"
"'Infested' is the word Beckett likes to use," interrupted Sheppard sarcastically.
"But you are well now," she said with confidence. "And the mission that is leaving is taking--"
The top of the computer was slammed down with a loud snap. Teyla did not flinch as Sheppard carefully focused his unsettled gaze on her. "Please don't use that phrase. I've heard it enough."
"I know," she acknowledged, raising an eyebrow in response.
"Word sure travels fast." He found the distant wall suddenly fascinating.
"Atlantis is a small community, major, as was our settlement on Athos," replied Teyla, and whether or not the major wished to acknowledge it, communities such as those rallied around their own in time of need. "You and Dr. McKay frequently disagree, and quite loudly. Do not forget that I am usually within earshot on those missions."
"Ford as well," he admitted with a hint of embarrassment.
"Do you truly fear that Dr. McKay and the others could be exposed to the parasite?" she asked gently. "Both the lieutenant and myself, as well as Dr. Zelenka, are proof that the antibiotic prevents the creature from inhabiting a body."
Sheppard struggled for a response, but none was forthcoming. She knew that his fear was in part irrational, but it was no doubt bolstered by the terrifying memories of what he had experienced, and memories could not be erased, only dimmed by the passage of time.
"The parasites are very much like the Wraith."
Sheppard seemed to think about it. He looked tired. "In that they want to suck the life out of you? Sure, except the Wraith are a helluva more efficient at it."
Teyla paused before continuing. The major was a private individual, but that did not mean he did not value others' opinions. "Both inspire well-justified fear."
"But now they're gone," Sheppard began sarcastically, as if repeating someone else's words, "so I—"
"I too was hesitant about the mission when I first heard of it," she interrupted, refusing to let him go down that path. "But as you have pointed out yourself, the city of the Ancients needs a ZPM in order to protect it from the Wraith."
"It's a big 'maybe' that the power source is a ZPM," countered Sheppard. "Even McKay wasn't 100 sure. Or course, maybe he's more sure now, and I just haven't gotten the e-mail."
The brusque manner in which he delivered those last few words didn't escape Teyla's notice. She remembered how tense both she and the lieutenant had been when quarantined. It wasn't only because they were worried so much about their own fate, but their friends' lives as well. The fact that they had to rely on information parceled out to them as it came – which entailed long stretches of silence – had become so unbearable that it had driven the lieutenant to actually begin pacing their room.
An idea formed in her mind, one that she would need to discuss with both Dr. Weir and Dr. Beckett.
"Dr. Beckett is a cautious man, but he has faith in the cipro…" Teyla stumbled on the word.
"Ciproflaxin," finished Sheppard. "Hey, at least I'm safe from anthrax," he shrugged. "But if he's so convinced it works, why the HazMat suits?"
Teyla just arched an eyebrow at the word 'anthrax.' She had heard Beckett and another doctor discussing it once, shaking their heads in regret. "Even you have no knowledge how you contracted the parasite."
Sheppard at the top of his computer, his eyes focused on the Atlantis emblem emblazoned across the gray surface. "Could have been … anything." He held up his healing arm. "Maybe a cut. Those leaves were pretty sharp, remember? Insects? You know, with my luck, it would be some damn bug that bit me. If I'd know this galaxy was gonna be so full of dangerous bugs, I would have brought along 60 gallons of DEET."
"The doctor doesn't want to take any chances, and…" Teyla glanced over her shoulder, toward the bathroom area where the Czech scientist was no doubt relaxing in a tub. "I know he was rather emphatic that no one else return as Dr. Zelenka did."
Sheppard winced in sympathy. "Yeah, I can see that. It's been bad."
Teyla studied him carefully. He seemed a little more relaxed about the mission, but would it last? It would be at least 48 hours until the mission departed, plenty of time for the major to dwell on what might happen.
Zelenka tossed about fitfully on his bed, yanking on the sheet but after a moment, his eyes fluttered open and he realized that he was tangled up in the hospital gown instead. Maybe Rodney had a point, as much as he hated to admit it. Although the garment was comfortable while he was awake, it was an incredible nuisance when he tried to sleep. A subtle sigh escaped his lips as he looked across the dimly lit infirmary. Soon, the bulk of the poison ivy would be down to a tolerable activity and he could get back to wearing a uniform, or at least something more desirable than the hospital gown.
The infirmary was quiet, almost empty if not for his and the major's presence and, he could see, a nurse seated at the far end. However, a strangely familiar noise drew him from watching that nurse totally absorbed in reading a paperback. He rolled over to his other side.
Major Sheppard was sitting up, staring intently at something in one hand while he scratched absently at the back of his neck.
"Major?" Zelenka leaned on an upraised elbow.
Sheppard pulled his eyes away from his hand. Zelenka saw that the man held the Palm Parasite Detector, as Sheppard had wryly named it at one point. "Did I wake you?" He sounded regretful, but looked weary to the bone.
"No." Zelenka sat up, disturbed at what he saw. "The parasites are gone."
"I know." Sheppard rubbed a hand over his face. Even without his glasses, Zelenka noticed that the dark hair looked damp, plastered down slightly. A thin sheen of sweat glittered on his skin in the dim light. Nightmares. Sheppard sighed and placed the detector down on the table between the two beds. "Just woke up and felt this itch."
"Healing wounds have a habit of itching." Zelenka offered a comforting smile. "I know."
"Ever have a caterpillar crawl across your skin?"
Zelenka paused, unsure of where the conversation was now headed. He had to think back, to his childhood and time spent playing in the large woods at his cousin's home. "Yes."
"Imagine that it's under your skin, inside you," said Sheppard, staring intently across the room. "Now, multiply that caterpillar by a hundred, hell, thousands, and then put sharp little spikes on all their feet. That's as close as I can describe what those parasites felt like when they were in me." He leaned forward, wrapping his arms around upraised knees, and the similarity between that pose and how Sheppard had huddled in the compound's corner was eerily similar. Sheppard rubbed at his already tousled hair. "Hey, they're still in me, sorta. Just dead."
"Thankfully," added Zelenka.
"I can't believe McKay wants to go back to that planet." Sheppard swung his legs over the side of the bed. He began aggressively poking around the potted plants.
"Radio," he explained.
"At this hour?" But it was too late. Sheppard found the earpiece and tapped on it. "McKay?… McKay? You do realize going to that planet is an insane idea, don't you?"
Zelenka put hands over his bleary eyes and rubbed at the grit. He was not going to waste the time to end this absurd call. He could see that the nurse had already noticed the unusual activity and no doubt would have Beckett there in minutes.
"…you're always awake anyway," Sheppard continued sharply.
A moment later, Zelenka watched as Beckett, clad in blue and white striped pajamas and a bathrobe and, yes, floppy slippers, appeared and talked briefly with the nurse. She nodded and went off to get something, while the physician headed toward the source of his consternation. Beckett didn't look so much like a doctor coming to check up on a patient as a man being annoyed by raccoons trashing his garbage cans.
Beckett strode up and with one deft motion, ripped the earpiece off Sheppard. "Hey!" protested the major but he instantly shut up at Beckett's caustic glare. Beckett listened to the earpiece for a second. "Rodney, go back to sleep. Yes, it's me. Just go back to sleep. I'm handling it." He pocketed the earpiece in his robe, crossed his arms and glared at Sheppard.
"Major, it's three in the morning. What couldn't'a waited 'til a more proper hour?" he asked bluntly. "We all need sleep, especially you."
Sheppard leaned back against one pillow and punched the other pillow, which he had clutched to his stomach. "That mission is insane."
Beckett shot a questioning glance at Zelenka, who silently mouthed 'nightmare.' The physician's stance immediately softened. "Major, every precaution is—"
"What?" snapped Sheppard unexpectedly. "Do you and Elizabeth read off the same cue cards?"
The nurse who'd been reading the book appeared at Beckett's side. Zelenka noticed she had a syringe in hand. Sheppard saw it as well.
"Gonna sedate me?" His words were sharp, like a knife.
Beckett looked only a little apologetic, but he stood his ground. "You need to sleep, major. Stayin' awake worryin' every hour isn't going to help you heal."
"I'm doing fine, Carson."
Zelenka knew better. While the major was recovering physically, ever since he'd been apprised of the new mission he'd been distracted and short-tempered.
"Maybe I can put it another way," offered Beckett. "Rodney McKay is one of the biggest hypochondriacs I've ever met." Sheppard looked up from where he'd been staring morosely at his bandaged arm. "But he's going on the mission. Ye knew we're—"
"Taking every precaution," mimicked Sheppard in a weary tone.
"Yes. "Beckett took the syringe from the nurse, holding it casually in one hand.
Zelenka could see that the major wasn't going to have a choice.
"Major, I'll talk to Dr. Weir tomor—um, later this morning," Beckett corrected himself. "I'll see what we can do."
Zelenka wasn't sure what that meant, and he could see that Sheppard was unsure himself. The major didn't protest when Beckett gave him the sedative; he looked too exhausted and maybe would welcome the dreamless slumber it would produce. Zelenka wondered how long Sheppard had been awake before he'd noticed.
Within minutes, Sheppard succumbed to the drug's effects. Satisfied that his patient was finally getting some much-needed rest, Beckett turned to Zelenka, handing him the radio earpiece.
"Thank you," said Zelenka. He knew Sheppard didn't like being out of touch.
"Are you all right then?" asked Beckett.
Zelenka nodded, then picked at the hem of the hospital gown. "I think I will take a pair of scrubs now, please."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, why?" Zelenka was confused.
"Ach, ye dinna know?" Beckett grinned as he motioned for the nurse to get the item. "Nurse Browning rather likes your legs."
Zelenka felt his face flush, but then. "Really?"
Elizabeth looked down at the round face of her watch. In twelve hours, puddle jumper two would go back through the gate to PX8 3H6. And in another 12 hours past that, the mission should be complete, and the anxiety that pervaded some quarters of Atlantis would be gone. At least she hoped it would be.
The past two days had been trying. She'd seen more of Kate Heightmeyer in that time period than she had in the last month. Remarkably, it hadn't been Sheppard who had been the focal point of their discussion, but one of their engineers. Dr. Spiven, a quiet-spoken mechanical engineer, had shown signs of high stress, which culminated in a physical altercation with a colleague. Medication wasn't the answer; instead, Spiven had been sent off for a week on the mainland to 'de-stress.' The Athosiasns didn't mind guests, as long as the guests pulled their own weight. Not everybody adjusted well to life on Atlantis, and Elizabeth knew that if and when they re-established contact with Earth, that some personnel would be making a one-way trip back.
After Sheppard's early morning call to Rodney, Carson had spoken to her at length over breakfast. "I can't fault him for his concerns," the doctor had said, "A lesser man would have cracked after all he'd had to endure." Carson had then folded his hands in front of him, in a manner reminiscent of an old college professor who loved to give droll lectures. "The major's the ranking military officer on the base, and now decisions involving his people are, in his opinion, being made without his input. It's affecting him, Elizabeth, so I'm putting him on semi-active duty." Elizabeth had frowned. "Which means?" Carson looked slightly confused himself and explained, "Well, that would mean he's back on active duty—" She'd cut in with "So soon?" Then he'd gone on to explain that Sheppard was definitely still confined to the infirmary, but that when it came to military decisions, he needed to be involved, even if his decision was overridden.
In retrospect, holding that first briefing without Sheppard or Zelenka's real-time input had been a mistake, so she took Carson's (and Teyla's) suggestion to heart. The rest of the briefings, the few that were held, were done in the infirmary.
The expected fireworks between Sheppard and Rodney never transpired. Instead, everybody clustered around a spare table that Beckett had set up. McKay almost immediately took over the briefing since he was in charge of the science aspect of the mission. After a while, Elizabeth could sympathize with the major's pained expression as Rodney had gone into excruciating detail, as if he daring anyone to poke holes in his plans. Nobody did.
A tense moment came when they realized that in order to access the lab which the two men had locked shut when they'd left, that someone with the ATA gene would have to remove their glove to touch the actual wall. Rodney had stared silently at his own hands, while Sheppard had looked terribly introspective. "Maybe I should go," he'd said aloud. Everyone had looked at him, aghast at the suggestion. "I don't think so, major," countered Beckett. Sheppard had his argument all ready. "The antibiotic would protect me," he protested. "Hell, I was practically mainlining the stuff and you've got me on pills for the next couple weeks." Beckett had just smiled very smugly. "Trouble is that as soon as you stepped foot on to that jumper, you'd pass out on the floor, lad." Sheppard had just glared. "I'm doing fine, Carson. Besides, we're not walking from the gate. It's a jumper. Point A to Point B as Rodney is so fond of pointing out."
"Aye, but I'll be jabbing you in the backside with a fast-acting sedative," Beckett explained further. "You're grounded, major." His tone of voice brooked no argument. "For at least another week. And no amount of complaining or cajoling is going to change my mind."
Sheppard had scanned the faces around him, seeking backup from his own team, but Rodney just happily nodded, an action that was repeated more reluctantly by Ford and Teyla. Elizabeth's negative response was the final nail in the coffin as far as he'd been concerned, so he'd crossed his arms against his chest and slouched back in his chair. "It's a conspiracy."
"Besides, major." Rodney seemed to be enjoying his newfound power. "You're hardly in peak shape at the moment. You wouldn't be able to outrun one of those cats."
"You've still got your cast and you're going," reminded Sheppard sarcastically. "And you can run?"
"We'll be using a jumper," countered Rodney quickly.
"So then I wouldn't need to run from a cat?" Sheppard smiled, very much like a Cheshire cat.
McKay made a face of disgust when he realized that Sheppard had tricked him with simple logic. "Beckett's grounded you. It's out of my hands."
Then it had been 24 hours and counting, when Elizabeth had been able to visit Sheppard again. Carson had kept her apprised of any unusual activity. Fortunately, the major hadn't made any more ranting calls to McKay at an unearthly hour, and for the most part, had slept soundly through the night, except for Rodney's own midnight visit to the infirmary to discuss just how big the predatory cats were on that planet. The interruption hadn't sat well with Zelenka, who had angrily thrown his pillows at the Canadian.
Elizabeth had found Sheppard sitting in the stuffed white chair. He wore a plain white T-shirt and blue jeans. Someone must have fetched the clothing from his quarters for him as she knew Beckett was strictly enforcing the major's confinement. The major's bare feet were propped up on the table and he was occupied with a computer placed in his lap. His dark hair stood out in spiky disarray. He must have just washed it.
She found her attention drawn to Zelenka's bed. It was too neatly made from what she had observed since visiting the infirmary. "Where is Dr. Zelenka?" She sat down carefully on that bed.
"He abandoned me first this morning," Sheppard sighed in mock disappointment.
"Well, it was just poison ivy." Elizabeth smiled. She'd known that the Czech had stayed on in part to lend support to Sheppard during his recovery. The major wasn't stupid; he had to have known that as well.
"Two things, actually." Sheppard said as he typed away on the PC. "First, he was working on some project and needed to run some tests. Beckett was averse to Dr. Z dragging his lab here, but I really think it was reason number two."
Elizabeth was happy just to see Sheppard basically back to normal. His participation in the few briefings seemed to have helped his attitude immensely, even if virtually all his concerns had been challenged and dismissed, but at least it had been done with logic, except for the few caustic remarks that Rodney had tossed in, which had been met with scowls from Zelenka and some rather well-placed zingers from Sheppard himself.
"And reason number two would be?" she asked.
"I think he was tired of the nurses walking in on him while he was soaking in the tub." Sheppard's grin vanished as he suddenly cursed. "Ah, damn. Cocooned again."
Elizabeth frowned, then slid off the bed to see what on earth he was talking about.
"Wait," he said, but more to himself than to her. "I have a knife. Yes, Level 10!" he crowed.
Definitely a computer game, but one she wasn't familiar with, not that she played any of those games herself. Wait… a shadowy figure skulked across the screen. Clad in black, its long white hair rippled just like… "A Wraith?" she said aloud.
"If we survive the Pegasus Galaxy, this could be a best-seller on Earth," he remarked casually. "One of Zelenka's buddies made this. It's what he does in his off time to relax. Think he's calling it Wraithkiller."
"Ah." Elizabeth couldn't see how playing a game in which a Wraith hunted you down could be considered relaxing, but then maybe virtual Wraith were tame compared to parasites. As if reading her mind, Sheppard said cheerily, "Took a few practice sessions to get the hang of it. I've been killed a few times, but only cocooned for later feeding just twice."
"I think I'll pass," replied Elizabeth, grimacing at the thought.
"You should try it," he said. "It's the 'B minus' version."
"Don't all these software games have bugs?" she pondered.
"Wraith bugs," he clarified with a mock shudder. "Told Zelenka I wasn't stepping ten feet near the darn thing if it had any of those bugs in it."
Elizabeth could understand the sentiment. It had been a bad time for all. She waited quietly, watching as Sheppard moved his 'character' through what she assumed was the interior of a Wraith hive ship. "What's the ultimate goal?" she asked.
"To destroy the hive ship, save Atlantis," he explained. He looked up and shrugged. "And yes, I am all caught up on my real paperwork."
She hadn't intended on posing that question, knowing that once he was released from Beckett's care, he would have handled any backlogged administrative chores.
Several Wraith were shot, rather gorily, and fell like toppled trees as the animated character made its way toward what had to be the control room.
"How do you escape?"
Sheppard drew his attention away from the game. "Um, uh…" A brilliant blue flash enveloped the screen. Seconds later, the Wraith dragged off their stunned prey.
"Crap, an ambush," he muttered dismally. "But, I don't know. Guess I don't. Just blow up with the ship."
Elizabeth felt distinctly uncomfortable at how easily he conveyed those words, even if it was just a game.
"Zelenka found an escape pod or something," Sheppard said as an afterthought, "but then I think he knows where the Easter Eggs are and he's not telling."
"What are those?"
"Hidden clues," explained Sheppard. "So he's advanced to level 18."
Ah. She carefully studied the screen. "And you're still at level 10," she said wryly.
Sheppard slowly shut the laptop and then, with a pained smile, looked up at her. "I'm sure you didn't come here just to see that Zelenka is beating the pants off me in a stupid game. What's up?"
"I just wanted to see how you were doing."
"I'm bored out of my mind," he admitted. "And Beckett won't let me out of here until tomorrow."
"He wants to make sure you actually rest," replied Elizabeth knowingly. "I know you, John. You might rest for a few hours in your quarters, but then you'd start roaming the city, maybe even go down and bother Rodney."
Sheppard grinned. "Oh, I think I'd have to take a number for that. I spoke with him a little while ago. He was busy arguing with someone on the best way to remove the ZPM from the wall. Well, that is, if there actually is one there. I told Ford that C4 was not an option."
Elizabeth sat back down on the bed, careful not to muss the immaculately made covers. She folded her hands in her lap. "You're all right with the mission?"
Sheppard made a face, like he'd just swallowed something bitter. To him, perhaps he had. "It's not like I have a choice but well, yeah," he said grudgingly.
"It's difficult to stay behind." Elizabeth knew that was part of the problem, and Sheppard nodded weakly in response. He hadn't asked to be in command of the military on Atlantis; it had been thrust upon him. And he was accustomed to sending himself into danger, not ordering others to do that while he stayed behind.
"Well," spoke up Sheppard after a minute. "At least Zelenka found all the problems, so there's not much else they can uncover to get themselves into trouble."
Elizabeth hoped that was the case.
Sheppard leaned his head back and shut his eyes, a non-verbal hit that he wanted to end the conversation.
She knew that until the mission returned, and everyone was safely accounted for, that a tenuous worry would always be with Sheppard. She knew that, as every time his team went through the gate, she felt the same way.
McKay remembered that fateful day he'd been shipped off to Russia, not to mention the rather sadistically happy faces of the Stargate SG-1 team – especially Colonel O'Neill, who still treated him like a government lackey despite all his contributions to the Stargate program. He'd taken two suitcases, not huge ones either – just some clothes and basic necessities. It wasn't like he was being sent to the far end of the world. Well, actually, once he'd gotten there, he'd changed his mind rather quickly on that assessment. He hadn't had a cat then, luckily.
He didn't need much, never had, so he never over-packed for trips like he recalled his late aunt doing. She'd make a yearly visit to the house, dragging along everything but the kitchen sink, and sometime he'd wondered if that beat-up bright red suitcase had indeed contained a sink.
Dr. Branford and his comrade, Rudy Waller, must have inherited the same packrat gene as his aunt. It was very fortunate that Lieutenant Ford actually had some guts and told the scientists they couldn't bring the entire lab with them. So a few items were going to be left behind.
HazMat suit, antibiotic eye drops. He'd dosed himself just a few minutes ago, as Beckett had prescribed. Even though they were going to be vacuum-packed, seal-a-meal in the damned HazMat suits, one couldn't be too careful.
HazMat suit. Drops. Okay, did that. Ford and Rensen were loaded with enough weaponry to blow away a busload of bears, so no giant sabertooth tiger clones would be noshing on their bones.
"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale…"
McKay turned suddenly at the voice, someone singing – someone who sure as heck wasn't going to secure a record contract. Sheppard stood at the base of the jumper's ramp. He was in sneakers, blue jeans, and a black T-shirt. McKay could see the healing marks on the major's arm, and that was an uncomfortable reminder of what dangers they walking into. Zelenka stood beside him, in uniform pants, but wearing a worn T-shirt that said 'What part of' --- and there was a complicated, at least to mere mortals, mathematical problem – 'do you not understand?'
"This is my send-off?" mused McKay as he came down the ramp, tugging at the uncomfortable HazMat suit. Thank god he didn't have to seal on the top till they got to the other side. "What? No leis?"
"With your allergies?" remarked Zelenka knowingly.
"Ah yes, there is that," murmured McKay. He shifted, at which point he noticed Sheppard intently studying the inside of the jumper. He wondered how long Sheppard and Zelenka had been standing there watching him mutter to himself about crates and protocols before making their presence known.
"Amazing." McKay stared at Zelenka. "You even spiffed up for this momentous occasion."
Zelenka, now clean-shaven though still showing the redness of the poison ivy that had covered half his face, just snorted in derision. "You think far too highly of yourself, Rodney."
"Well, that explains it." Sheppard stood back, nodding and crossing his arms in satisfaction.
"What?" McKay looked at the interior of the jumper. It was now perfect.
"How the Howells and Ginger had a new change of clothes in every episode of Gilligan's Island," elaborated Sheppard with an innocent look. "You packed for them."
"I- oh, for Pete's sake, major," complained McKay abruptly. "This is an important scientific mission, not some silly TV show which had no basis in—" His rant was interrupted as he had to move aside when Branford and Waller came on board. They were literally minutes from taking off. Ford and Markham were already upfront, although it was hard to tell because of all the junk they were taking with them. Rensen showed up, saluting at Sheppard, who just cocked his head in response. Off-duty, but then McKay couldn't recall ever seeing the major salute anyone.
A second later, Ford came to the rear of the jumper. "Major." The soldier beamed. "Dr. Beckett let you out?"
"Nah, I just chewed off my chains and escaped," said Sheppard dryly. "Bloodhounds will be after me soon."
Ford just laughed, and even McKay was tempted to do so but his mind was too swamped with the minute details of the mission to focus on that. Everybody knew that if Sheppard passed the physical, he'd be released.
Despite the casual appearance he projected, Sheppard was restless. He had to be – half his team was leaving without him, going to a planet where some hideously out-of-control biological experiment had nearly taken his life – and he was stuck twiddling his thumbs back on Atlantis.
"Ford," ordered Sheppard. "I expect you to bring everybody back in one piece."
"Yes, sir," the lieutenant acknowledged, glancing directly at McKay. "You got one minute, doc."
"Yes, yes," grumbled McKay at the unnecessary reminder. The lieutenant went to the forward compartment. He could hear everybody settling in for the trip through the gate. Seconds were ticking by, but also dragging as though they were being drawn through a black hole.
Sheppard's brow furrowed. "Sure as hell hope you're not expecting a kiss and hug before you go."
Zelenka rolled his eyes. McKay couldn't keep the disgust off his face. "How juvenile of you, major," he replied.
"I try my best," said Sheppard with a smirk.
"Dr. McKay." Corporal Rensen was suddenly behind him. "Time to come up front."
"Coming." McKay began backing up the ramp, keeping his eye on both Sheppard and Zelenka. He knew that none of them cared for schmaltzy good-byes, and it wasn't like he was going to some place awful, well, not too awful. But the stupidity of the farewells was better than having someone overtly worrying over him.
Zelenka waved just once. Inanely, McKay thought of that drecky Love Boat series. "Be careful, Rodney."
"It's my middle name," he shot back as the ramp began to move up.
"Hey McKay," said Sheppard.
McKay frowned but studied the major intently, hoping he wasn't going to hear any last minute warnings about brain-sucking parasites or the like. "Yes?"
"Don't drink the water," said Sheppard simply.
The ramp came up quickly, cutting off both Sheppard and Zelenka from view. Was that some cautionary warning because if so, it was pretty stupid considering they're be stuck in HazMat suits for virtually the duration of the mission and of course they wouldn't drink any water on the planet. Or did he mean…? Damn. Now he was going to spend hours thinking about being trapped in a sealed-up HazMat suit for God knew how long and what if he had drunk too much water before he left?
Teyla missed the breeze on Athos. The softness of its caress as she performed her daily practice had been soothing, leaving her in a deep contact with the environment around her. Atlantis did not have the soft sound of insects, nor the creak of tree branches bending under the breeze. Instead, the city seemed 'sterile,' devoid of nature. That had also been a concern, and a reason, why her people had departed for the mainland. The children had been at a loss at what to do on such a massive but restrictive city, torn away from the night skies.
At first she had found it difficult to stay on Atlantis, and felt disconnected from her own people, but time had healed the wounds of the suspicion that Sheppard's people had exhibited toward the Athosians. She kept in contact with Halling, and when possible, visited the mainland. Her people were doing well; the children were thriving once again in a natural environment.
For a while, they had been lost.
And speaking of lost… Teyla concluded the last of her moves, sweat glistening off the contours of her muscles. "I have just finished, major."
Sheppard leaned against the room's doorframe. He looked disappointed. "Aw, come on, you're inexhaustible. So, one match?"
The major always considered the fighting practice to be a contest of sorts, although he was slowly realizing that it was more than just physical conditioning, but a way in which to keep the spirit whole. However, some time away from actual practice and he seemed to have regressed back to his original beliefs. However…
"And Dr. Beckett does not mind this strenuous activity immediately after your release?" she asked, quirking an eyebrow.
"No, he's fine with it." Sheppard's voice practically squeaked.
"You need to practice your lying, major." She teased as his smile evaporated. "Within a few days, we may continue our sessions. Dr. Beckett does not want me to undo what he has done."
"Did he come down here to lay down the law, or did I just miss the city-wide announcement?" asked Sheppard sarcastically.
Teyla just smiled as her reply. She draped a towel over her shoulders as she began to gather up her equipment. Sheppard came into the empty room that Teyla had taken over as an exercise and meditation room. He sat down on the bench by the window, looking out through the translucent windows that let the sun's rays illuminate the hard floor.
"I'm surprised that you weren't at McKay's send-off," he remarked.
"I saw Dr. McKay earlier, before you were released from the infirmary," she explained." He was quite busy with loading the jumper."
"Ah, must have missed you," Sheppard looked over.
Teyla stretched back, easing out her muscles, aware that the major was studying her. "He was rather pre-occupied with telling Dr. Branford how to arrange the cargo."
"Oh well, I can see why you didn't hang around," quipped Sheppard. She understood his words. Dr. McKay had been rather obsessive on the placement of each container.
"One day I would like to know the origin of your planet's phrase, 'move it or lose it.'" Teyla watched Sheppard make a face. "However, as I may not 'beat the tar out of you,' as Dr. Beckett so colorfully described it…"
"You don't do – well, hey, I am getting better," protested Sheppard weakly. "I'm just a little out of practice now."
"Yes, you are," she agreed lightly. "But there are some movements you can do that will not cause so much strain to your healing wounds."
Sheppard tilted his head inquisitively.
Within minutes, the pair were doing a series of stretching exercises. The major commented that the moves were similar to yoga, an Earth discipline in which people could twist themselves into pretzels and remain in such a pose for hours. Teyla knew of various cultures that revered in such meditative states.
After twenty minutes or so, Sheppard broke from a stretching pose, rolling over on his back, grimacing. "Okay, uncle."
"Uncle?" she asked, kneeling down next to him.
"It's what you say when you've had it. You quit, capitulate, want to crawl away and lick your wounds," he explained after catching a breath.
"Your wounds pain you?" she asked in concern. She'd seen the extent of damage he'd done to his own back. It had to be painful and would not heal overnight, even though the major wished they would.
"No, just ache a little," he admitted, pulling himself into a sitting position.
Teyla saw him check his watch, knowing of his trepidation regarding McKay's trip to the planet. She knew that the session was his way to keep his mind off that mission.
Sheppard stared at his watch, unaware of Teyla's scrutinizing gaze.
"Major, there is something I'd like you to show me, if you have the time, of course."
"Oh?" he commented curiously.
The south pier wasn't exactly an exciting piece of real estate, and it wasn't something a person could easily dive off without having a means to climb back up. The wave action could easily pound a person into a chunk of hamburger if the ocean wasn't calm, thought Sheppard.
It was also an area of Atlantis that wasn't necessarily off-limits to all personnel, but one in which orders had been dictated that people just didn't wander off alone, in case of accident. In all the time they'd been there, he didn't think Teyla or any of her people had been there, so it hadn't been a difficult choice to agree to her little 'field trip,' even though he knew she suggested it just to keep his mind off McKay's mission. They'd even walked there, avoiding the transporters, which had definitely added an extensive amount of time to their little sojourn. He'd expected someone from the mission to call, ask questions about something on the planet, but apparently help wasn't needed. He'd even contacted Elizabeth, who confirmed that the mission was progressing just fine. While that made him happier that they weren't encountering anything disastrous, part of him couldn't help but wait for some ominous piece of news to come over the radio.
However, time seemed to fly as he and Teyla studied the fish that would occasionally linger in the water below, perhaps checking out the activity on the other side of the water's tenuous surface. Although fishing hadn't been a pastime Sheppard had engaged in back on earth, the thought of doing it here on Atlantis seemed appealing, especially when he spotted something like a ten-foot grouper pop up, eye them like they were a potential lunch, and then swim back to the ocean's depths.
"That could have served the entire base for a day," he'd imagined, entertaining the very brief thought of shooting the next big fish that came along, but then, he had no way to get the fish out of the water. They should make nets, or maybe Ford could just lob in a stick of dynamite and see what floated up.
Teyla was truly intrigued by the variety of fish they'd seen. She mentioned a world she'd visited that had abundant fish in their lakes; at least it had been, years ago, but now, with the Wraith culling going on galaxy-wide, it would be hard to know what might be left. The Wraith not only culled the people, but also destroyed the environment if the people fought back. They did not tolerate their food misbehaving.
"So nice to have a welcoming party when we got back," said a familiar voice in mock derision.
Sheppard turned from studying the lulling waves, noticing that the sun was heading toward the horizon. McKay, back in his uniform, was walking toward the pair. Sheppard didn't have to look at his watch to know the team had returned before the pre-arranged time. "What? No decontamination?" He felt uneasy at that thought.
"Been there, done that," said McKay in a bored tone. "Had way too many samples of a highly personal nature taken and we're all fine, hunky dory, etc. We came back early. Gilligan would be proud."
Sheppard let the hint of a smile grace his face at that last remark. "Why?" And why hadn't anybody told him? Probably so he wouldn't hang around the infirmary pestering Beckett.
"High tide." McKay had a sour expression.
"And the power source?"
"Yes, in fact, it was a ZedPM in the wall," said McKay wistfully. "Not a fully charged one from what we could determine, but I'd have killed to have brought it back."
Sheppard noticed that Teyla was content to stand back and simply observe. He marveled at her patience. "What happened?"
"First, whoever put that ZedPM in the wall, booby-trapped the damned thing," complained McKay, peering over the edge. "Was that a yellow fish?"
"Probably," remarked Sheppard. He'd seen various colored fish swim by in the last few hours. "And…?"
"Even Corporal Rensen was averse to defusing it since neither of us were very keen on blowing up a quarter of the planet, not to mention ourselves. We didn't have time to figure out how they rigged it, plus, we can't take it anyway." McKay crossed his arms petulantly.
"You know, the sun's gonna set before you finish this if you keep adding in all these dramatic pauses," warned Sheppard lightly.
"Well, I'm just trying to stall the forthcoming case of depression that will make me eat the last Ding-Dong I have stashed in my lab. At least I hope I still have it stashed," muttered McKay. "It's just like, like… hell, that Lord of the Flies planet with the kids. The ZedPM powers the shield, or in this case, it powers the force field, and the force field has to stay in place."
"To keep the parasites from leaving," finished Sheppard grimly.
"Give the man a kewpie doll." McKay waved both arms dramatically. "Branford and Waller whined ad nauseum that if we removed the field, it would be worse than when we'd awoken the Wraith. If that parasite got out into the galaxy, we could potentially wipe out the entire human race here, yada yada, you know?"
"Not a good thing." Although Sheppard also felt regret at not having a ZPM to protect Atlantis, at this point he'd rather deal with the Wraith than the parasites again.
"But on the bright side, we found some more data files, and picked up all the stuff you and Zelenka left behind." McKay looked a bit happier. "Laptops just don't grow on trees."
"No, you get them at the store," smiled Sheppard. "Or mail order."
"You know, you could have said something." McKay's tone had done a complete one-eighty. He was now dead serious.
"About what?" Sheppard frowned.
"The state in which you left the Ancient compound."
Sheppard was confused. "Um, yeah, we forgot to call Housecleaning before we left. What are you talking about?" Sure, they'd left behind laptops and the like, but he could barely remember leaving. Bouts of dizziness and literally feeling his way out of the structure were his memories, and that's only because Zelenka forced him to go. If he hadn't… Sheppard knew he'd be a rotting corpse by now. "Look, the lab was trashed when we got there."
"I'm talking about the blood."
Blood? "You mean the fingerprints?" Zelenka had made some sarcastic remarks about the bloody daubers he'd left over virtually all the walls during his search for the vault.
"The pool of blood."
Pool? Sheppard's hand went to the side of his head, where the hair was growing back around the laceration that Beckett had had to stitch up. Zelenka's haunted words about Sheppard 'bleeding out' came back to him. He looked up from where he'd been staring at the deck, saw the darkness in McKay's eyes. They were all doing their best to put the entire horrid experience behind, or least deal with it, and some coagulating pool of dried blood would probably give McKay a nightmare or two.
"Head wounds bleed profusely," said Sheppard. His mind was blank as to what else to say.
"And heal quickly," added Teyla.
Thank god, a voice of not-doom, thought Sheppard. "So, uh, find any poison ivy?"
"As if I went there to look for that?" McKay looked annoyed, but also seemed to be glad that the topic had changed. There was nothing more they could say anyway. "Actually, if there are any 'leaves of three' there, I didn't see them. Probably some mutated alien version with five leaves or something."
"Something," agreed Sheppard.
"Brought back some rodents though." McKay stepped forward to lean over the side and gawk openly at the waves lapping at the city's base.
"Rodents?" repeated Sheppard, feeling his pulse quicken. "You brought something live back from that planet? I thought that—"
"Force field, major, remember? Force field," McKay reminded, holding up a finger superciliously. "Branford had time to 'de-bug' the bunnies – he thinks they're rabbits but they look more like big rats to me – so he brought a couple of them back for study. Probably going to slice and dice them like sushi when he's done."
The force field wouldn't let through any live parasites. Sheppard knew that all too well, but the thought of any animals brought back from that planet still gave him the creeps.
McKay suddenly shoved past him. Sheppard had to grab the scientist before he toppled into the water below. "Did you see the size of that fish?"
"Always thinking about food," grinned Sheppard.
If she'd been back on Earth, Elizabeth knew that she would have been extended 'executive privilege' when it came to perks. She'd never resisted the smaller ones: a meal delivered to her when she was working into the wee hours of the morning, a limousine instead of having to flag down a cab in the pouring rain when she had to get to an important meeting. But on Atlantis, she'd made certain that everybody was on the same level playing field. While command decisions were one thing, who was privileged to get that last cup of coffee was, by her own edict, to go to whoever got there first.
Her hand reached out for the faux blueberry muffin at the same time that another hand touched it.
"Oh, sorry," came the accented voice.
Elizabeth turned. Dr. Zelenka had relinquished his hold on the solitary blueberry muffin. He paused, pushing his glasses back up his nose.
"No, you may have it," said Elizabeth.
"No, I insist," he replied, switching his glance to the meager selection of other artificially flavored muffins that had been baked up for breakfast in the mess hall.
Elizabeth smiled, then took the muffin and its tiny plate and deposited them in the middle of Zelenka's tray.
"This is not that 'contagion' thing, is it?" he pondered suspiciously.
"Contagion?" Elizabeth was perplexed.
"Poison ivy," he answered wearily.
"You're actually looking very good considering what an extensive case you had." Elizabeth could see the faint redness on his face, but he looked nowhere near as ghastly as he had during those first few days he'd been back in Atlantis. The bruising on his cheek was basically gone now.
"I am sorry," he apologized. "You would be amazed at how many rationally-minded, rather intelligent people felt I would be contagious."
"It's a common misperception," she remarked. She plucked another muffin from the countertop. It looked like it was cranberry, but it could be anything, but when it came down to it, they all tasted somewhat artificial and alike.
"I heard rumors," said Zelenka, arching eyebrows dramatically and looking around as though he might be spilling state secrets. "That perhaps we may be receiving some fresh berries from the mainland."
"Real food," she said, then caught herself as she'd almost slipped into a dreamlike daze at the thought of actual fruit again. "Yes, I suppose you heard that from Halling when he came by with his poison ivy remedy."
"Yes," acknowledged Zelenka. "It helped immensely."
"Dr. Beckett was a bit hesitant at first but he told me he honestly didn't have enough calamine lotion to handle your case," she said. The expedition was prepared for gunshot injuries, burns and infections, but not for poison ivy.
Zelenka smiled as he grabbed a small box that contained some kind of artificial fruit juice. "It is all done now, fortunately."
Elizabeth had planned on taking her muffin and coffee substitute and heading back to her office to plow headfirst into the waiting backlog of paperwork, but instead decided to grab a table out on the balcony. "Care to join me?" she asked Zelenka.
The scientist looked startled, but grabbing a quick cup of the hot beverage to add to his tray, he settled down across the small table from her and bit into his muffin. "I miss real blueberries."
Elizabeth slathered some fake butter on her muffin. "Well, we all knew going into this mission there would be some concessions."
"Ah, yes," he admitted.
"Your mission report made for some interesting reading." Elizabeth looked out over the ocean. She'd awoken early, so the sun's morning rays were saturating the ocean with gorgeous shade of pinks and oranges. It was sights like this, full of beauty and hope, which made the Atlantis expedition so worthwhile.
"You read it all?"
"I'm obligated to," she smiled, sipping at her cup. It was weak. The cook was rationing out the substitute now as supplies were once again running low. Rodney was not going to be happy at this new development. "Some of it, well, it was a bit technical."
"The 'boring' parts, as Major Sheppard referred to them," said Zelenka knowingly.
Elizabeth nodded, aware that she was not insulting the scientist in any manner. That's just the way things were. "Although we did have time to talk when I visited in the infirmary," she began. "I do want to thank you for saving the major."
Bits of blueberry muffin scattered across the table as Zelenka fumbled briefly with the item. Elizabeth smiled cautiously as his discomfort was rather obvious. The Czech was not one to rush in order to stand out in the limelight, preferring to do his work quietly and efficiently in the background.
"He helped as well," pointed out Zelenka quickly. "Without him, neither of us would have made it back alive."
She knew that, but also knew that without a doubt, Sheppard had been in no condition to make it back to the gate on his own. The major had thanked Zelenka several times for dragging him across the flooded forest.
"It was mutual effort," insisted Zelenka.
She'd read the report, more than once. Sheppard had annotated the scientist's report, explaining that his report would have been incredibly short otherwise. He slipped away from military protocol in a few instances, stating that it was really fortunate that Zelenka hadn't been military, otherwise he would have obeyed Sheppard's foggy order to leave him on the floor of the compound, to go back and get help if it was available. Carson had explained that those additional hours could easily have cost Sheppard his life.
"Agreed," she conceded, but it would not stop her from pushing one particular piece of paperwork to the top of her stack.
"He mentioned that perhaps one day he might do the 'director's cut' of that report," remarked Zelenka. He drained the contents of the small juice box. "Rodney brought back some fascinating data from the Ancient compound."
"Yes, he's been sending me some rather detailed reports," admitted Elizabeth.
"It is difficult to tell at the moment if we will find anything beneficial within that data to assist in our fight against the Wraith." Zelenka paused, his brow furrowing before he looked up at Weir. "However, it cannot hurt to look."
"No, definitely not." Elizabeth hoped that they would find something. Her mind wandered slightly. She hadn't been very keen on the idea of bringing back live animals from that world, but the nearly paranoid precautions which had been taken in regards to their new home in a high level biohazard containment lab convinced her, Beckett, Bates – who had a surprisingly vast knowledge of containment procedures – and even Sheppard, that it would be safe. Not that anyone would see the major within a hundred yards of that lab.
"Best part is that we are alive," grinned Zelenka. "And that when I walked into Rodney's lab last night, he and the major were having an argument."
Elizabeth felt a surge of anxiety. She'd thought that the problem with the second mission had been settled. In the days since the final mission, Sheppard had actually had a couple of sessions with Kate, and as a result of that and no disasters from the second mission, his mind was finally at ease.
"Over the virtues of Ding-Dongs versus Ho-Hos."
"Pardon?" Elizabeth shook her head in disbelief.
"I know," agreed Zelenka to her obvious body language. "Everybody knows that Suzy Q's are far superior."
Sheppard slowed down from his jog, then stopped for a moment. Checking his pulse, he knew he'd done better in the past, but he was still recovering from the parasites' effect and all that time of enforced bed rest. His T-shirt was soaked with sweat, and his normally unruly hair had flattened down, but it felt so good to be active again; to have the blood coursing through his veins and feel his lungs hungry for air, but not in a bad way.
Beckett had given him the a-okay to get back to an exercise regimen as long as he didn't overdo it. Remarkably, he resisted the urge to push himself too far, knowing that if he slid back, it would be that much longer till the physician let him go back out on missions and he was itching - in the figurative sense - to get off-world again.
He settled into a walk, and realized a moment later that he wasn't far from McKay's lab. Maybe he'd drop by, see what the scientist was up to and while there, steal a cold drink or whatever that McKay had stashed in that little fridge hidden in his lab.
When Sheppard turned the corner, he was surprised to see McKay, Zelenka, Branford and even Beckett, all clustered around a table in the lab. There were indistinct murmurs from the intellectual crowd, but something else as well, that filled the air.
"Did I just hear what I thought I heard?"
McKay turned around, astonished. "You can actually recognize the sound?"
"Rodney, I got nailed in that field several times." Sheppard wiped some sweat off his brow as he entered the lab. "You don't forget. Why the hell do you have one?" He stared at the miniature tabletop version of a pseudo-gate, with that wretched red field shimmering inside the structure. "Wait a sec - that thing stops parasites. You don't--"
"Don't have a conniption, major," McKay looked smug. "We just readjusted the parameters. No parasites required."
Sheppard studied the device with a worried expression. "Then what are you doing with it?"
"Experimenting, what else?" remarked Zelenka.
"We also plan to utilize it with our test subjects," added Branford happily.
"Those damned rabbit things?" Sheppard still detested the fact that the scientists had brought back live animals.
"Getting back to reality," interrupted McKay, waving his hand at some alien items on the table near the field. "We've discovered why you never found that room with the body until right before you left."
Sheppard waited. "And?"
"The parasite," answered McKay. "Hologram-man, as you called him, rigged the door. You could touch the access panels on the outside wall but not activate the opening mechanism as long as you were infected. If you had somehow bypassed the panels, you would have been zapped with another force field."
Sheppard pondered it a second. Sure would have saved the time going to the gate to zap himself, but he certainly wasn't going to admit that aloud.
"But by that time you did open it, you were parasite-free so your Ancient gene activated the panel, so, voila!" concluded McKay.
"Yeah, we fell in on our butts," recalled Sheppard, and not fondly. "Why the hell did he do that?"
"Because one of his fellow expedition members, as far as we can extrapolate from Hologram-man's notes," answered McKay, "was going a bit whacko and maybe homicidal from the parasites getting into his brain."
Sheppard glared at McKay. "Didn't you get the memo where I stated categorically that 'brain' and 'parasite' were not to be used in the same sentence?"
McKay cocked his head, like some stupid dog. "Yes, I recall that. I deleted it."
An objection nearly fell off Sheppard's tongue but he swallowed it instead. He shook his head, pushed past the cluster of scientists and reached into the rear of a shelf.
"Hey!" protested McKay.
Sheppard extracted a nice medium sized Gatorade from the tiny fridge in back. He twisted off the cap and took a long swig. "Just don't stick your finger in it," he warned as he strolled past the aggrieved scientist.
"What did it feel like?" Branford's voice. Geez, why couldn't scientists just take someone's word for it?
Sheppard looked around the lab, his eyes settling on a metal stool. "See that?" The men all nodded. "If I pick that up, and smash you in the face. Well, that's about how it felt."
"I'll pass," gulped the younger man.
"Smart move," Sheppard nodded as he left the room, but once outside in the corridor, he slowed his pace as loud voices carried out.
"Don't be daft, Rodney," argued Beckett. "That's a dangerous thing ye got there."
"Sheppard survived it just fine," countered McKay. "This model is--"
"Hardly, those wee beasties might have been stunned every time the major hit the force field," said Beckett, "but I've no doubt that repeated contact with the field would have eventually killed the major."
Sheppard nearly choked on a swallow. Damn.
"It's not like I - OW!"
Sheppard turned on his heel, about to run back when he heard a steady stream of invectives emanating from the lab, all in McKay's loud angry voice. If the man could swear, he was awake; ergo, he was alive. Sheppard paused, listening as everybody else in the room starting yelling. Rodney knew Russian? Well, he said he'd been in that country briefly. But the worst thing was the loud Scottish brogue that drowned out everybody else. Oh, nothing worse than a doctor who catches you damaging yourself.
A lazy grin touched Sheppard's parched lips as he finished off the rest of the bottle. At least now, Beckett would leave him alone, now that he had a new patient.
A dreaded word for any physician, or perhaps anybody in general, but the chore had to be done and, as Chief Medical Officer, he had assist and sign off on the tedious but necessary results. He only wished he could restock on low supplies; one of these days they'd run out of something vital, and he dreaded that day.
Yet on the other hand, the monotonous process beat, hands down, dealing with alien parasites and Wraith stun victims. McKay hadn't even needed medical attention after his foolish accident when he'd mistakenly brushed his hand into the miniature force field he'd created in his lab.
He had no patients and everything had been quiet now for days. Major Sheppard had rebounded very well and was now cleared for active duty. The infirmary was silent, save for the occasional sound of his staff plodding along in their dreary task of doing inventory.
What more could a man ask?
Beckett winced, looking past his number-laden computer screen to a darkened monitor on another counter. Its screen reflected back the image of Dr. Waller.
He'd thought that both Rudy and his protégée Dr. Branford would never leave that biohazard area. They'd been in there for days, except for sleeping and eating, since returning from that accursed planet. He'd rather hoped they'd stay down there with those creatures they'd brought back.
"Rudy," Beckett responded, turning back to his computer. "What brings you back up to the land of the living?" Please do not ask for supplies. We'll have to do a recount.
"We need to use your scanners," replied Waller seriously. "And can you round up Pearson and Biro, too?"
Beckett swiveled around on his chair. "Why on earth do you need a radiologist and a pathologist--?" He stopped short in horror. "Bloody hell, why did you bring them here?"
The Scotsman was just glad that Major Sheppard was not there at that very moment to see that Waller and Branford had brought both the alien rabbits into the infirmary.
"Are you daft?" exclaimed Beckett.
The rabbits were both encased in clear Plexiglass biohazard containers, but it was obvious that one of them was no longer a true threat. Its dissected body was splayed out on a tray against the clear bottom.
Beckett came over, studying the carcass with a feeling of apprehension. "Did it die?"
"No, euthanized. We needed extensive brain tissue samples," said Waller. "Before you burst a blood vessel, Carson, you need to see what this is all about." Waller set down the live animal in his containment unit on the floor, then brought over a tiny laptop and opened it up.
"What am I looking at?" Beckett asked. When no answer was forthcoming, he held back an annoyed remark, settling for a grunt instead, and scrolled through the data. Images, words and graphs. It reminded him of his university biology courses, until he saw the microscopic images that made his blood run cold.
Beckett turned to Waller, then looked in alarm at the dead creature. Waller simply nodded, and that single act was all Beckett needed.
"The original scans we took didn't show any of this. "Beckett stared at the circular images on the screen as Waller continued talking. "Those had to be there when we caught the animals. Since they seem to be attracted to a vascular environment, we wanted to run a scan, with dye, on the other subject."
Beckett changed his anxious glance to the live rabbit, which was sitting there quietly, munching on what looked like half a PowerBar, oblivious of the terror its presence was invoking.
"D'ye think they'll show up with the dye?"
"Yes," said Branford. "We've already run some preliminary tests and the cysts light up like the 4th of July with the dye. If the second subject has them, we'll know."
Beckett quickly put in calls for Biro and Pearson, as well as a few other personnel whom he knew could be of assistance. The sooner the better, in his estimation.
"And the subjects exhibit no symptoms?" Beckett stared grimly at the tiny orbs on the screen, seeing the images of his colleagues, both shaking their heads, reflected back to him.
"Dr. Beckett?" Branford looked distressed. "Where is Major Sheppard?"
Beckett shut his eyes. Oh God.
No more antibiotics. No more I.V.s. No more Beckett saying "Just one more scan, major." He'd start to glow if they scanned him anymore. And definitely no more of that damned Athosian tofu. Cleared for duty. "Go off-world but try not to get shot on the first day," Beckett had warned lightly. Nearly three whole weeks trapped on Atlantis but now he was free.
Sheppard grinned as he studied the various instrumentation lighting up at his touch on the puddle jumper's panel in front of him. Heck, if he'd been standing at the moment, he would have rocked on his heels in anticipation of this trip to S27 3L9, or Bennar, as the locals called it.. Finally, going back through the gate, getting off-world, and not just hanging around on base going stir-crazy.
Teyla had re-established contact with some old trading partners. Nice, peaceful folk, but not like the Genii, who had been duplicitous to the point they could now be classified as a mortal enemy for all the damage they'd done. The mission should be a cake-walk. Simple meet and greet. Chat a little. Maybe get a snack or two. No nasty bio-engineered parasites lurking in their ecosystem.
"Anxious to go back through the gate, sir?" Ford's voice came from behind. Sheppard turned to the man seated behind him. "Just a little, lieutenant. Been cooped up here far too long." Ford just grinned, that bright, eager smile Sheppard remembered from the first time they'd gone through the gate on Earth to the Pegasus Galaxy.
"Well, I'm looking forward to some of that latva bread." McKay smiled broadly from the co-pilot's seat that he'd quickly commandeered, much to Ford's dismay.
"Always thinking of food," drawled Sheppard, although Teyla's description of the hearty bread had made him salivate as well.
"This from a man who, not long ago, was willing to sell his soul for a PowerBar," reminded McKay.
"Not just a PowerBar," countered Sheppard. "An oatmeal raisin one. Which, by the way, you didn't get me."
Everything was back to normal, at least as normal as it could get in a galaxy where your welcome wagon was a bunch of life-sucking vampire ghouls. Beckett had removed the cast off McKay's leg earlier in the week and had approved him for the mission as long as he didn't have to run a four-minute mile. "I just don't want him coming back whining, that's all," Beckett had commented wryly.
Normally casts like that just got tossed but Sheppard had heard scuttlebutt that Rodney had saved it somewhere because of all the signatures.
"Puddle jumper one, the mission's scrubbed," Grodin's voice suddenly erupted over the radio.
"Now what?" grumbled McKay, fixing a worried stare on Sheppard.
"Elizabeth," Sheppard asked. "What's going on?"
There was a moment of silence before Weir replied, an undertone of apprehension evident in her voice. "John. Dr. Beckett needs you to report to the infirmary. Now."
"Crap," muttered Sheppard, trying to ignore all the worried eyes now scrutinizing him. Trying to ignore the alarm bells ringing in his head as to why Beckett needed to see him.
"I'm not a neurosurgeon, Carson." Josh Levin studied a scan on the computer screen. His dark brows drew together as he stood next to a counter in the infirmary. "Even if I was, if he's anything like this… it would be impossible to handle on a surgical level. In case like this, we'd need a vascular specialist at the very least to handle those clusters, but we're talking microscopic…" Levin just shook his head dismally.
Beckett sighed heavily. Levin was their trauma surgeon, best equipped to handle anything that required the sharp blade of a scalpel, but this was beyond his means, perhaps any surgeon's means. And worse, their medications were limited.
Sheppard barged into the infirmary with all the grace of the proverbial bull in a china shop.
"Beckett, this had better be good." The major hadn't even bothered to ditch his P-90, which was still clipped to his tactical vest. He stopped right in front of the two doctors and glared at them. "Well?"
"Major, you might want to have a seat." Beckett gestured at a nearby chair.
"Not enough blood samples?" Sheppard commented. "Or do you need another scan?" He looked riled up. He held up a hand, putting forefinger to thumb with a small gap in between the two digits. "I was this close to going through the gate when you pulled the plug."
Beckett noticed the rest of Sheppard's team appear in the infirmary, stopping just short behind the man. All of them looked anxious, except for Sheppard, although Beckett began to think that the major was letting anger rule him so it would submerge any fears that had to be fighting to surface.
Branford stepped forward. "The rabbit died," he said succinctly.
Sheppard frowned in what looked like utter confusion, then turned to McKay. "That's the punch line, right? I seemed to have missed the joke. Did you hear it, Rodney?"
McKay shook his head, but kept his eyes focused unerringly on Beckett. He knew something was dreadfully wrong.
"As everyone knows, we brought back some of the indigenous animals for testing, so we could study the parasites' effect on them," said Branford.
"Remember, I voted a big fat no on that," said Sheppard.
"I remember," said Beckett. It was, in fact, hard to forget the choice words the pilot had used at one point to vent his feelings on the matter.
Branford continued his explanation, but Beckett knew that for Sheppard, it was simply delaying the inevitable. "We've run a number of tests, and it seems that the mammals on the planet, from what we can ascertain, probably all contain the parasite but for some reason, it doesn't run rampant in their bodies, like it did with Major Sheppard."
"Just cut to the chase. We have a mission to go on," interrupted Sheppard sharply.
"The antibiotic definitely kills the parasite in both human and animal hosts," continued Branford, unnerved under Sheppard's harsh glare, "although the animals didn't suffer the deleterious effects the major did due to the massive infestation he experienced."
Beckett watched as Sheppard grimaced at that statement.
"We discovered some abnormalities in the first rabbit."
Sheppard looked definitely unhappy.
"It showed up in the necropsy, but not on the original scans or MRIs, so we ran the second animal through a CT scan with contrast dye, which revealed that the antibiotic kills the parasite but not the cysts," Branford finished quietly.
"Cysts?" asked Sheppard slowly. "You mean like tumors?"
"Like eggs," clarified Branford reluctantly. Beckett watched the color drain from Sheppard's face at that revelation. His teammates closed in around the major protectively, as if sensing his horror and vulnerability, but nothing they could do would help the major.
"The cysts are viable."
McKay gulped audibly. "You mean they'll--"
Beckett nodded. "They can hatch."
Sheppard unconsciously grabbed his now-healed arm with a hand, gripping it, perhaps reliving a bad memory. "Where…?" He paused, fighting to keep his voice calm. "Where are these cysts located?"
"In the brain," replied Branford reluctantly
Sheppard couldn't have looked any worse than if someone had sucker-punched him with a sledgehammer. Teyla grabbed the chair that Sheppard had refused to sit in earlier and positioned it behind him. It took just one gentle press of her hand on his shoulder and he crumpled into the chair.
"You're saying that I could have alien eggs inside my head that could turn into those parasites?".
"It's a maybe, major. A big maybe," Beckett said encouragingly, hoping to God he was right in his belief. "The parasites' behavior seems different in the lower animals than it does in humans, so for all we know, you're totally free of them."
"But if these cyst things are alive, why didn't the force field stop them?" asked Ford.
"Because maybe the Ancient who created the field did so with very specific parameters," theorized McKay. "Maybe they didn't know about the cysts, given the Ancients' short lifespan after being infected, or maybe when they're in that form, they're dormant. They don't register on that detector device, like hibernating Wraith don't show up on the Life Signs Detector."
"Great, now I've got Wraith eggs inside my skull." Sheppard leaned forward, dread evident in his voice and posture as he put his face in his hands. McKay began to reach out a comforting hand, but withdrew it when Sheppard abruptly sat back in the chair. He looked weary, almost accepting of his potential fate. "What are my options, Carson? Do I even have any options?"
"We'll run a scan with contrast dye," replied Beckett. "We need to determine, well, if there is…"
"An infestation?" Sheppard finished in a flat tone.
"Yes." Beckett grimaced. "If so, we'd start with a drug regimen."
"And if that doesn't work?" asked Sheppard. "Surgery?"
Beckett just shook his head in response.
"When can you do this scan?" Sheppard unclipped his P-90 and handed it off to Ford. "The sooner the better."
"We need to prep you first," spoke up Levin. "The contrast dye adds additional steps to the procedure. Do you have any allergies to iodine?"
Sheppard shook his head slowly. "Not that I know of."
"Good." Levin sounded happy but he was the only one who looked remotely positive.
Sheppard handed off his weapons belt to Ford, then his tactical vest. He knew the drill, and sadly, knew that until the situation was rectified one way or the other, he wasn't leaving the infirmary. Beckett felt a twinge of pain at this sight, wishing if anything to have the old Sheppard back, the one whom the physician had to yell at to make him stay put and obey simple orders.
The pilot locked sorrowful hazel eyes with Beckett's. "Just how many cysts did ole Fluffy have in his gray matter?"
Beckett and Branford exchanged a dark glance before he replied. "Hundreds."
"If Dr. Branford hadn't'a brought back those test animals, we wouldn't'a even known," Beckett replied to Elizabeth's question of why the cysts hadn't been detected beforehand. "And if the major does have them and they… it could'a wiped out all of Atlantis."
Elizabeth looked sadly through the glass partition to the small room beyond, where Sheppard lay on a hospital gurney. The reddish-purple scrubs were a stark contrast to the gray uniforms of his teammates, who sat around the prone man, trying in vain to offer support.
She turned back to Beckett and Branford, clutching her arms tight to her chest, but finding no comfort in that action. Both men looked appalled at what they'd discovered in the animals and what now, god forbid, might be alive inside Sheppard. How much more hell did the major have to endure before this ended, she thought morosely, but instead schooled her emotions and asked, "You said the cysts in the rabbit were dormant. Isn't there some drug you can give the major to keep them in that state?"
Beckett glanced over at Branford, who took the cue. She'd rarely seen the young man before this mission, but now was seeing far too much of him. "To find that particular drug – if we ever have it – might take months. And we'd honestly need a live parasite for the best test results."
Not happening. Elizabeth could still hear Sheppard's tense words in her mind, his opinion of bringing animal life back from the planet. He'd been overridden, and now…
"And, eventually, the major's immune system will detect the cysts."
"Isn't that good?" Elizabeth asked of Beckett.
"No," he replied grimly. "Some parasite cysts throw off proteins to prevent phagocytes from accurately targeting and destroying the cysts. But eventually, the immune system kicks in aggressively, releasing more antibodies and complement proteins. The area around the cysts could become swollen, which could lead to brain tissue compression as well as seizures." Beckett grimaced as he continued. "As the immune system response progresses, scar tissue and calcium deposits will result. They can cause seizures, and continued immune response could cause irreparable brain damage."
Elizabeth couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"And," Branford spoke up. "Some cysts attach to the brain tissue itself, which causes seizures. Others go for the brain-fluid cavities, which can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and even an altered mental state, such as hallucinations, as well as seizures."
"Surgery?" Elizabeth hoped.
"We're shy of neurosurgeons here on Atlantis," replied Beckett regretfully. "If, and I repeat if, the major's brain looks anything like those rabbits, then no. It would be inoperable. Drug therapy would be our only course of action."
"And I thought the Goa'uld were bad," Elizabeth said to herself.
"Ironically enough, if I had a Goa'uld symbiote here and the Tollan technology to extract the bastard…" Beckett paused. "God forbid, if the major had the cysts, I'd think of using one of those hideous things on the major."
Elizabeth shut her eyes for a moment, steeling her resolve. She understood his intent. A Goa'uld, a parasite itself, would eradicate the cysts and anything else that stood in the way of having a healthy host body.
"It's that bad?"
Beckett almost nodded. "Even if the cysts remained dormant, he'd be grounded. He could be prone to seizures or worse if we can't eradicate the cysts. Even then, unless we got a 100 handle on the parasite's physiology, the major would have to be put into quarantine."
Oh god. John could never return to Earth, never fly again, Elizabeth realized.
"If the parasites abruptly hatched, especially in a synchronous manner, it could be a hazard to anyone around him," continued Beckett. "It could also produce permanent damage, or even a fatal stroke."
"Does he know all this?"
"No," said Beckett. "He's got enough on his plate as it 'tis, and he didn't want all the details. I dare say he's got a vivid enough imagination from all those horror movies he enjoys watching."
Beckett watched as Teyla placed her hand against Sheppard's arm, trying to offer comfort. "This is the worst case scenario, Elizabeth," he said, trying to smile, but failing. "It's very possible the major is totally free of any cysts."
"But we aren't having good luck lately, are we?" observed Elizabeth dismally.
"I'm afraid not." Beckett knew what she meant. The nanovirus accidentally unearthed on Atlantis had killed five of their own people.
"When will you know?"
"It will take a few hours."
Those hours would be long, but she knew that for John Sheppard, it would be an eternity.
Sheppard turned the alien device over in his hands as he lay against the all-too familiar gurney. The blue outline was calming, like a slow, languid tide lapping up against an empty beach, but the anxiety that a red dot would suddenly appear on the tiny screen hovered in his mind like a spectral ghoul. All the worry he'd felt from the time on the planet, and over McKay's team befalling the same fate he'd narrowly escaped, had finally dissipated. The nightmares had vanished, but now… it was all rushing back like a surging tidal wave.
Too bad the damned device didn't have a buzzer. It required constant skin contact to work. If he had the cysts, he'd have to duct tape it to himself as an alert if a parasite hatched. God.
The dreary realization that he'd probably never get any more decent sleep, without the help of a sedative, scared him.
"You know, you're not accomplishing much sitting here." Sheppard's eyes were glued to the device's screen, like some kid addicted to a Gameboy.
"We don't mind, major," said Ford.
"Remember, a watched brain never bursts," quipped Sheppard.
"Major!" McKay was appalled.
"Chill out, Rodney." And please go away, Sheppard implored silently. The old adage of 'misery loves company' was a joke. That's only if you wanted to make everyone else miserable. He didn't.
Ford looked uncomfortable, like he wanted to be anywhere else but there, but he was doing his duty and sticking by his commander. McKay? The Canadian looked ready to stroke out from the stress, and since he was a scientist, Sheppard bet the man knew a heckuva lot more about the parasites than he was letting on, which would account for his nervous twitches. Beckett? The man was holding back; he was a lousy liar, but Sheppard didn't want to press for the gory details.
"I am sure that there will be no reason to worry."
The voice was comforting, and if anybody else had made such a placating statement, Sheppard would have shot back with a sarcastic 'easy for you to say.' However, Teyla had a way of assuaging the worst situation with a few simple words. On the other hand, if you were a jerk, she could make you feel like the lowest piece of slime that just crawled out from under a rock, by simply altering her tone of voice. It was no wonder she'd ended up the leader of her people.
"You should all go on the mission," said Sheppard.
"Sir, we—" began Ford.
"To PL2 land-of-latva-bread," continued Sheppard.
"The mission can wait." Teyla smiled slightly.
"You told Aspon we were coming," reminded Sheppard. "Shouldn't stand him up. We might get a bad reputation." Sheppard put down the parasite detector against his chest. His eyes were going to burn out if he didn't stop staring at the device.
"That's an order." Sheppard glared at his team, but his heart wasn't in it, and they knew it. "It's not like we can go off to a 7-11 and get take-out. We need to establish trading partners. Besides, this test stuff is gonna take hours."
And he didn't want everybody staring at him with pity for that long.
"If you are certain," said Teyla.
"Yes, but if I see one toothmark of McKay's in that latva loaf you're gonna bring back for me," threatened Sheppard in mock anger, "then things could be mighty ugly."
"I'll make sure, sir," Ford said obediently.
"You do that," confirmed Sheppard.
It took only a minute for Sheppard to contact Sergeant Markham and line him up for the pilot's seat. McKay was becoming a decent pilot, but he was stressed right now, and having a fourth on the team couldn't hurt. They needed to get away and not dwell. Bad enough he was dwelling on the worst.
It was several more minutes before he was finally able to force his team to leave. They were reluctant to go, but he needed the solitude badly.
Once they were gone, and the only noise was the faint voices of various medical personnel in the other room, Sheppard drew an arm across his eyes, blocking out the light.
These might be the last few minutes of peace he'd ever have.
Zelenka leaned back in his chair, sipping lazily at the hot brew in a cup as the computer ran some lengthy calculations on the latest piece of Ancient technology they'd unearthed.
A week in the infirmary had made him appreciate his laboratory, and those few days off-world had done wonders for his grumblings about never getting enough 'real' fresh air. No, going out on a balcony would now do quite nicely. He would not complain about missing out on the excitement of off-world trips ever again! He wasn't totally against another trip, but never, never again would he set foot in an alien rainforest.
He liked the quiet. It gave him time to think. While he'd had a steady stream of visitors while laid up in the infirmary, it was nice to actually be left alone now.
Some of his colleagues had been by the lab, wondering how on earth he'd endured being stuck in a bed next to Sheppard. To many scientists, they knew that the military used them as a tool to accomplish a goal. Major Sheppard was not above that himself, but the difference was that he appreciated those who helped him and treated them as equals, not slaves. Sheppard cared about those around him, to the point he would willingly sacrifice his own safety.
No matter how much some of his scientists felt that he had gone through the most hellish experience of his life, Zelenka knew that he would take away some very good memories as well.
He'd felt a tinge of envy at one point, as the major lay unconscious and his teammates came to visit him, talking to him about nothing important but just speaking so that he'd know they were there for him. He wondered if Sheppard truly realized how much he meant to his friends, especially Rodney, and not because of his military acumen or his Ancient gene. No, the major was a lucky man, in more ways than one.
Zelenka drained the last of the brew. He had no idea why Rodney complained about it as the drink possessed a strong nutty taste.
No, the best of all today was the absence of one Dr. Rodney McKay. The man had become insufferable since returning unscathed from that planet. Never mind that Dr. Beckett had worked and fretted around the clock to insure no more infestations or infections for the second mission. If Rodney had returned with a working ZPM, well, then, he might actually think about begging for a vacation to the mainland until Rodney's ego deflated to a manageable size. Of course, he'd ask to be kept away from Spiven. He didn't need to get punched out for not answering an email quick enough.
The only truly gleeful thing about Rodney lately was that the man was still flummoxed by what Zelenka had written on his cast. Of course, if he'd actually written it in Czech, and not gibberish, Rodney might have more luck in deciphering it.
Zelenka's radio chirped. He tapped on it. "Zelenka here."
"Dr. Weir, a pleasant surprise." His smile faltered drastically as she explained her grim reason for calling.
Sheppard poked at the inside of his elbow, studying the tiny red dot on the skin as he pulled aside the small ball of cotton wadding. He'd really thought that the days of a smiling nurse approaching him with one of those syringe things and a rubber tie were done and over with, but apparently not.
Beckett or one of his buddies needed more blood for more tests, and he knew it wouldn't be long before someone else would come along to inject his veins with some toxic glowing dye so they could light up his brain like the Las Vegas strip.
The least they could do for all these constant blood withdrawals is give him some cookies. The Red Cross always did.
But Beckett had shaken his head sorrowfully. "No food."
Wondering what they were doing with his blood kept his mind busy for a little while, but then he always came back full circle to the reason why he was flat on his back on a gurney.
Parasite cysts. Eggs, or what had Branford called them? Oocysts. With two O's, not one. And then, as he'd noticed scientists were prone to do, Branford then rattled on about some earth-based parasite cyst, that within its four-day life cycle, could easily produce more than a million new cysts. At that point, Sheppard had sucked in a deep breath, stared directly at Beckett while patently ignoring the younger parasite expert who stood next to the Scotsman, and announced that he would go down to the armory, get a .9mm, and after that, he wouldn't be held responsible for his actions because he had millions of 'occysts' in his brain so he wasn't thinking clearly.
Branford had blanched to the same shade of provolone cheese and hastily retreated back to another more secure area of the infirmary. Beckett had been unusually tolerant about a patient making homicidal overtures toward a staff member, which made Sheppard wonder just how bad it truly was.
Sheppard shut his eyes.
So much for getting some time to himself.
Or zoning out into some empty, serene plain of existence.
So he'd decided to dwell on the worst case scenarios, like parasites eating up his brain, or bursting out of his head in some gooey mess, but after a while concluded that the worst option would be the least painful one. In an odd sense, massive brain hemorrhage or toxic poisoning from parasite overdose seemed acceptable to losing his mind. He couldn't help think of Pete Linsky, a tall, gawky kid back in high school. He'd only met Pete's mother a few times, but Pete said she was a little 'scatter-brained, but that's mom for you.' But then it got worse, as she forgot the days, would pick up Pete from a sports event on the weekend that had happened days before, and eventually, she forgot Pete. She got shipped off to some hospital. Of course, now, Alzheimer's was a known disease, but still, its effects had been devastating on Pete's family.
Death by Wraith seemed far preferable to losing his mind one chunk at a time and everybody knowing about it except him. Or going nuts like that guy who had trashed the Ancient compound. Of course, he might not be thinking all this crap if he hadn't overheard someone mention the phrases 'brain damage' and 'altered personality.'
On the flip side, maybe he was totally clear of parasite cysts. He'd been given so many antibiotics since stepping foot on that damned planet that he'd thought his stomach would never recover. Since half the doctors were talking about how the parasites acted differently in lower mammals, this could all be just one huge mistake, no doubt worthy of a huge lawsuit for mental stress if he were back on earth as he might be maxing out a credit right about now on stupid things.
He sure as hell hoped it was much ado about nothing.
Sheppard sighed. Maybe he could try to relax before Beckett came back, but then, he sensed a presence nearby. Damn.
At first McKay thought Ford was going to be a gung-ho I'm-not-screwing-up-my-promotion-chances commander and force him aboard the jumper, but after the second pitiful excuse, where McKay had practically flinchd after the words had escaped his lips, Ford had capitulated – far too easily.
Then he'd seen the look in Ford's eyes. In Teyla's eyes.
They wished they could stay behind, too, but they'd promised the major they would complete the mission.
McKay had stood silently at the end of the room, watching Sheppard just lie there, motionless on top of the gurney. He wasn't sure if the major was asleep or not. Maybe it was better if he was asleep. McKay knew that he was pretty useless in the sitting-by-the-bedside-of-a-dying-person making-useless-chatter stuff, as he'd never really done it before.
Well, no, he had done it once as a kid when his sister had been really, really sick and he'd thought she was dying, but instead, she recovered quite nicely and he'd caught her flu bug and was laid up for over a week.
McKay approached the gurney. Sheppard suddenly hugged his arms to himself. "Go away," he ordered.
"Uh," replied McKay lamely. "The jumper's already left the building."
Sheppard's eyes shot open and he studied McKay with a strangely quizzical look. "I'm going to have to talk to Ford about letting scientists get their way."
McKay spotted a stool and dragged it up beside the gurney, than sat down, feeling exhausted.
"Thought you were that nurse coming back for more blood," Sheppard explained, rubbing at his arm. "Why aren't you on the mission?"
McKay paused, his mind running over the horrible excuses he'd foisted upon Ford, knowing that Sheppard sure as hell wouldn't accept them, so, he settled for a half-truth. "Me. Trapped inside a jumper. Loads of latva bread. Just be crumbs left."
"Those rumors about you being a human Hoover are greatly exaggerated," countered Sheppard lightly.
McKay smiled a little. "Nice to know that someone knows the truth."
"Yeah, you're more like a dustbuster," added Sheppard.
"Very funny," shot back McKay.
Sheppard stared up at the ceiling. "I thought so."
Silence permeated the room like a suffocating shroud. McKay clenched his hands together. What had he been thinking? He didn't know what to talk about. He was pretty positive that discussing the parasite was the last thing Sheppard wanted to hear. This kind of waiting was reserved for loved ones. He knew he didn't fall into that category. He wasn't family, although, if someone pinned him down and repeatedly stuck bamboo shoots under his fingernails to make him talk, he would admit that yes, Sheppard would have been the kind of brother he'd like to have had. Someone who at least understood him to a degree, who put up with him when no one else would and, he'd like to think, someone who might give a damn when he finally died.
"Ow!" McKay rubbed his shoulder where Sheppard had just smacked him. "What was that for?"
"Because you weren't listening to a word I was saying and that looking gloomy and introspective just doesn't suit you, Rodney," explained Sheppard bluntly. "I'm not dead so stop thinking about it."
"I wasn't," replied McKay testily.
"So, what did you really think of that planet?" Sheppard asked abruptly. "Beyond that dry reading you put in your report."
"Rainforest world?" McKay watched Sheppard roll his head toward him, brow crinkling in disdain. "I can see why you banned Ford from naming things," commented McKay weakly. "It was wet. Very wet. I'm beginning to think we're just not visiting the right worlds. Too wet, too dry."
"Or they've got Wraith," added Sheppard.
"Yeah, sure as hell ruins the property values," joked McKay weakly.
A heavy silence ensued again. This wasn't working, but what if this was it? The last time they could really talk without the reality of a cyst-ridden brain staring them smack in the face?
"What I…" McKay paused, wondering if he should proceed. Sheppard shifted his gaze back toward the ceiling, as if he realizing that the scientist didn't quite like being under a microscope. "What I didn't put in the report was that I couldn't get off that planet fast enough." Even the enticement of a ZedPM had lost its sparkling allure after seeing all the dried blood smeared across the floor from where Radek had dragged the major from one room to another. It had looked a murder had happened there. He'd had to bury those too-vivid thoughts, put the interest of the base in the front of his mind, and get down to business – only to find that the damned ZedPM had been intricately booby-trapped. If the rising water hadn't threatened to swamp the compound, he would have stayed longer.
"Sorry about the ZPM," said Sheppard. He didn't comment on McKay's remark, as well, he hadn't exactly enjoyed the planet either.
"When the water recedes sometime next year or whatever, maybe we can try going back," muttered McKay, although not very optimistically. "At least Branford was happy with his experiments." McKay cringed, mentally kicking himself for mentioning that.
"Well, at least it proved that the damned things don't care if it's blood from someone with the Ancient gene or not," said Sheppard in an off-hand manner. McKay didn't bother to nod. He'd included that bit of information in his mission report, which he knew Sheppard had gone over with a fine-tooth comb because he'd made some inane remarks that there was no 'u' in the word color. But Branford had grown a healthy batch of the parasites in both blood bags. Sheppard hadn't been thrilled with that part of the report. The young parasite expert had included the 'headcount' of the parasites and Sheppard could easily do the math, so he'd gotten an extremely good idea of just how infested his body had been with the nasty creatures.
"And that the Cipro kills them dead," McKay said with a weak smile.
"But not their kids," said Sheppard darkly.
"Sorry, sorry," apologized McKay quickly. He was making matters worse.
"For God's sake, it's not your fault, Rodney," sighed Sheppard, shifting uncomfortably on the gurney. "Just the luck of the draw."
"Or statistics," came another voice.
Zelenka pulled up a stool on the other side of the gurney. "I heard the news, major. I am sorry."
Sheppard smiled briefly toward the Czech. "It's not confirmed."
"If there is anything I can do," offered Zelenka.
"Think this is all in Beckett's hands," replied Sheppard. He flashed a half-hearted smile at both men but that didn't last long. "Unless either of you rocket scientists has a solution."
"We are not medical doctors," Zelenka said apologetically.
"And it's not a nanovirus, so an EMP would be useless," said McKay sullenly.
"Radiation?" posed Zelenka.
"It works on tumors." McKay suddenly saw a light at the end of this long dark tunnel.
"But these aren't--" Sheppard stopped himself. "If I have them, they're not tumors, they're… cysts."
"But they are both foreign objects," added Zelenka. "Which radiation could destroy."
McKay mulled over the idea. "But don't they usually focus the radiation on the tumor? You'd have to irradiate the whole brain, or maybe more. What if these things move around in the--?" McKay's voice faltered as he caught Sheppard eyeing him with a look of revulsion.
"Like I said, Beckett can handle this," he said tersely. "The two of you would fry my brain to a pile of mush from the sounds of it."
"Sorry," McKay apologized.
"It's just that we--" began Zelenka.
Sheppard cut off Zelenka's words, waving a hand. "I'd just rather talk about anything else." He shut his eyes tight. McKay could only wonder what horrors the major might be pondering.
"Jane Tenney?" suggested Zelenka curiously.
"What?" Sheppard's eyes shot wide open in alarm as he choked out the word like it was poison.
"Who?" McKay was confused.
Sheppard coughed. "How did you--?"
"You mentioned her name while we were on the planet," Zelenka explained, looking slightly apologetic. "You said you would rather stick your hand in a…" Zelenka squinted as he tried to remember. "In a hornet's nest, than date her again. Should I not have brought it up?"
Sheppard covered both eyes with his hands, but then let his arms fall to his side. "Ah hell, why not? But this doesn't go any further than you two, understand?"
Zelenka nodded. "Agreed."
Sheppard glared at McKay. "Rodney?"
What? Did Sheppard think he was going to blab this all over the base? "Yes, fine. Cross my heart, stick a needle in my eye type stuff."
"Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that," muttered Sheppard. "To make this story really short, back in junior high--"
"Junior high?" repeated McKay incredulously.
"Are you going to interrupt all the way through?" questioned Sheppard.
"No, no. Go ahead," McKay sighed. He didn't care for the disapproving glare he got from Zelenka either.
"Anyway, I was at Tom Martin's house. We were working on assembling model rockets in the family room when he had go to the basement to get something. So Jane – his sister – comes in and sits next to me on the couch. We start talking and next thing, I know, she put her arm around my shoulders..." Sheppard smiled fondly at the thought.
Sheppard had to have been what? Ten or twelve or something at the time, mused McKay. So even then, the girls were going after him. Why did this not surprise him?
"And the out of the blue, her father has his hand snagged in the back of my shirt and he rips me off the couch. Pretty much blew a gasket," recalled Sheppard with a dismayed frown. "Dropped me face down on the floor. So I was thinking okay, this is it; he's going to blow my head off as he did have a gun. He was a staff sergeant, after all."
"And?" asked Zelenka, leaning forward.
"Well, obviously he didn't," said McKay with a smirk, "or else we wouldn't be talking with him now."
"Made me do 100 push-ups, then showed me the door and told me never to touch his daughter again. My arms felt like melted rubber bands for the next couple days." Sheppard grimaced at the memory. "About a week later Tom came over to my house with the rockets and said his sister wanted to know if I wanted to go out on a date."
"100 push-ups?" Zelenka looked mortified. Even McKay could share that sentiment.
"Think it was originally 50 but I made the mistake of opening my mouth," winced Sheppard.
"So?" asked McKay. He knew barely anything about Sheppard's life before Atlantis so this was a bit fascinating.
Sheppard turned his head and glared incredulously at the scientist. "What do you think, Rodney? Her father was six five and built like a mountain and could pick me up with one hand. I steered the hell away from her." The major's expression mellowed a bit after a moment. "She was cute though. You know," he quickly added, coming back to the present. "For back then, in junior high, of course."
"Of course," repeated McKay with a faint touch of sarcasm.
"Always wondered what she was like in high school," Sheppard said aloud, but to no one in particular. "Darned shame her father got transferred out before that."
Even in Atlantis, medical personnel still had the ability to skulk into a room unnoticed. Beckett and a nurse were suddenly there, like shadows evolving out a mist. They positioned themselves on either side of the gurney like sentinels.
McKay gloomily realized that they were going to take Sheppard off to his tests. The brief trip down memory lane, as well as the respite it had offered, vanished as it was replaced by the stark reality of why they were all waiting. The major became aware of Beckett's presence as well and began to sit up. Beckett gently shoved him back down on the gurney.
"Beckett, I can walk," groused Sheppard.
"Aye," agreed the physician. "But let's keep your blood pressure nice and even and besides, I don't get this opportunity very often."
"To suck blood out of me or scan me?" Sheppard asked in confusion. "I sorta recall a lot of that being done lately."
"No, major," replied Beckett. "The chance to push you around."
Sheppard just sagged back further into the gurney, if that were even possible. "So, any last words of wisdom?" He looked directly at McKay.
Great. No pressure, thought McKay nervously. "You know, major, there really is nothing to worry about," he said with a confidence he sorely lacked.
"And you base this reasoning on?" Sheppard craned his neck around on the gurney as Beckett began to take him away.
"Everybody knows there's nothing up there." Rodney forced a grin as he tapped at his own skull. "After all, you're in the military."
Sheppard's voice echoed as the gurney was taken out of sight. "I'm going to remember that remark, Rodney."
McKay shut his eyes as he felt a headache coming on. Great, now he wasn't sure if Sheppard meant that seriously or if he understood what McKay had been trying to say. He opened his eyes, only to find Zelenka glaring at him like he's just drained all the energy from a ZedPM.
"Nothing up there?" The Czech sounded annoyed.
"What?" shot back McKay in an irritated tone. "You know, last week, that joke about military intelligence and — oh, never mind!" McKay almost felt like throwing up his arms in defeat, but instead decided to retreat back to his lab where maybe he could find something – anything – to occupy his mind for the next several hours.
Several small children ran past, squealing in noisy laughter as an adult shooed them away from their guests. The boys and girls scampered toward the massive field of yellow wheat grain that bordered the Bennaras village. The landscape was a perfect blend of the fields, homes and tall green trees, reminding Teyla of tales of the Spring season when Athos had once flourished.
Teyla smiled at the children's temporary intrusion into the bartering festivities. The feeling of innocent delight lasted a fleeting moment as she looked across the way to see two young women on either side of Sergeant Markham, both vying for his attention. Part of her felt that she should go over there and warn the young pilot to be careful in what he said, or else he might find himself accidentally betrothed to one of the women.
But her heart wasn't it. With regret, she wished that Major Sheppard were there with his team. She had no doubt that he would enjoy this world immensely for its people were what they professed to be – a simple agrarian culture.
"Guess it's a good thing Dr. McKay stayed behind." Lieutenant Ford sat down on the bench next to her, munching carefully on a stevann, a rolled sheet of baked patha flour stuffed with various local vegetables.
Teyla remembered how the scientist had begged off the mission, standing at the bottom of the ramp, staring in trepidation at the interior of the ship as though it were the maw of some gigantic beast.
"I believe he would have liked these festivities." Food was everywhere. Dr. McKay was predictable in that he always had an appetite.
"Uh, bread, wheat, um, allergies, you know, all that pollen. I'd better stay behind." McKay's excuse had been weak, and Lieutenant Ford had not accepted it; he was determined to obey Sheppard's orders. Then, McKay had followed up with a more argumentative reasoning that if for some unexplained reason the jumper failed, he shouldn't be walking all that much distance all that soon. Ford had let him back out at that point. They all knew why he wished to stay and knew he would be miserable throughout the entire mission, and, in turn, he would probably make everyone else miserable as well.
"Well, the food part," agreed Ford, bringing Teyla back to the present. "But the kids? Not at all. He can't stand 'em."
She recalled the young lieutenant's vivid tale of how McKay had nearly caused a little girl to cry, and almost got into a fistfight with a five-year-old boy, on the world with a society of young people who committed ritual suicide.
"I don't believe he dislikes children," she replied softly, watching several children playing in the distance.
"No," refuted Ford with a smile. "Kids are like cats. My grandma said that cats always know when someone doesn't like them. And they make a beeline for that person and bother the heck out of them."
Teyla frowned, watching as several of the smaller children darted happily in and out of the tall waves of grain. "I think that Dr. McKay simply does not understand children."
"Well…" Ford seemed to hesitate, but at her curious look, he dove in. "I heard that he didn't have the happiest of childhoods. He's got a sister, but doesn't even know where she is." Ford looked astonished at that last bit.
Teyla understood his emotions. She could not comprehend how a family bond could fracture so badly, although she had seen it occur over the years, but it always saddened her.
"Nah, all these kids." Ford swept his arm out. "The doc would be like a walking target with them around."
"The major would have handled it with ease," she broached. He had a way with children that made them feel that were equal to him. Or perhaps he just enjoyed the simplicity of being like a child himself. She suspected that at times, it was both.
Ford slowly lowered the stevann from his mouth. He looked like he'd just lost his appetite. "Do you think the major is gonna be okay?"
"I do not know," she replied honestly. "My hope is that Dr. Beckett's team is wrong in their suspicions."
"Amen to that," he said with heartfelt convention.
"No matter what the outcome," Teyla said as she watched Aspon and another village elder approach through the crowd, "we will be there for the major."
Ford nodded emphatically, stuffing the rest of the food into his mouth quickly as more introductions were made. Aspon had an infectious laugh and he'd been sorry to hear that Major Sheppard hadn't been able to attend.
Teyla against expressed her apologies, as well as her wishes that on their next visit, that Sheppard would accompany them.
The worst part wasn't the contrast dye, which, as Beckett had warned him, had some undesirable side effects. His mouth had a strange metallic taste that reminded him of nails, or maybe screws. Heck, maybe both tasted the same. It was something stupid to think about, better than the reason he was being scanned to death. The headache was mild, but with his luck, would probably escalate and hang on for hours, as they'd decided to scan not only his head, but head to toe as well.
No, what was the worst were the voices. He could sporadically hear Beckett, Dr. Pearson, the radiologist, and some other doctor talking about this and that. Luckily he didn't see Biro. He didn't want to see a pathologist discussing his head because she liked to cut them open! Even Branford was lurking about, studying scans while Sheppard lay stuck there on his back, waiting to be released from purgatory. Branford tended to whisper, as though he felt if he talked any louder, he thought Sheppard might actually shoot the messenger. At least Beckett would come over every so often and try to offer him a modicum of comfort as the scans proceeded.
Being immobilized had its advantages. He was starting to drift off. He could deal with being unconscious.
"Wait, there." A hesitant voice echoed from where the physicians were out of his view.
"Is that – it is, isn't it?"
Then, nearly a whisper, as if to hide the truth. "No, definitely. I see it."
Shit. Sheppard shut his eyes tight as his world began to spiral out of control. Shit shit shit.
McKay hated doctor's offices. It didn't matter where they were: Earth or the Pegasus Galaxy. Visitors were always shunted off to the side, made to wait, drink vile tasting coffee, beat a vending machine to death to get that last Snickers bar out of it, and sit in uncomfortable orange plastic chairs.
At least the chairs on Atlantis weren't orange, and the ones that sporadically dotted what passed for a waiting area were moderately comfortable.
He hadn't been able to concentrate on anything in the lab, so he'd given up and returned to the infirmary, only to find that he wasn't the only person worrying that much about Sheppard.
"You're wearing down the carpet," sniped Zelenka.
"There is no carpet," pointed out McKay. In fact, when he thought about it, the Ancients had no carpets anywhere. It was weird.
"Then please just sit." Zelenka went back to typing on his laptop.
"I, oh…" McKay sat down, hard, on the chair next to Zelenka. Not the wisest thing to do as the chairs weren't soft, but… "What are you doing? I thought your mission report was done?"
"Bound and published." Zelenka flashed him a quick smile.
McKay looked down at the small rectangular screen. "A game? You're playing a game? At a time like this?"
Zelenka stopped typing and focused a tired stare on McKay. "Better that I worry myself into a mess like you? Besides, I am trying to beat the Major's score. He is at level 26."
"Sheppard could be—" McKay couldn't bring himself to say the word. Would uttering it make it true? Was his mind melting down that he couldn't rationally sit back and just wait?
"Dying?" Zelenka closed the laptop screen down with a soft click. "It is difficult."
"I read your report," said McKay. "And I mean every word."
"I am impressed." Zelenka smiled again. Rodney knew he had a bad habit of sometimes skimming parts of reports he felt were not relevant to the matter at hand. Zelenka looked over at the closed door, chewing thoughtfully on his lower lip.
"I don't know how you did it." McKay stared at the floor, wishing there were a pattern on it, something he could aimlessly focus on. "I thought that half hour on the jumper was bad…"
"It was bad, for you." Zelenka arched an eyebrow meaningfully. "Yes, you kept calling me Zalonka."
"I have trouble with names sometimes, okay?" grumbled McKay.
"Could be worse," admitted Zelenka. "I did not know you as well then but I was very busy working, trying to save your sorry Canadian ass."
McKay's eyes widened at such a bold admission but then he saw Zelenka grin again. Maybe that's how Zelenka had made it through the ordeal; he just kept a positive outlook. How he could do that, McKay couldn't fathom. "On planet, it was very similar. I had very little time in which I was not working, trying to figure out the DHD…."
"That was a waste of time." McKay couldn't help but think back to Sheppard walking into the field not once, but three times because he thought he'd had it fixed. When he'd read Sheppard's mission report - which was really Zelenka's report with annotated remarks - he'd been startled to learn that the major had intentionally walked into the field to alleviate the tormenting itch.
"Atlantis to Rodney," came Zelenka's sharp voice.
"Oh, sorry." McKay leaned back in the chair, then against the wall. He just wanted to blend into the walls, particularly because he wanted to know what was transpiring on the other side. He hadn't liked it that other medical staff had started to arrive at Beckett's request. Second opinions? Third? The waiting was driving him nuts.
"The waiting's the worst," said McKay aloud.
"I do not know. Both sides are bad, the dying and the waiting," said Zelenka quietly.
How could he be so stupid? McKay let his head fall back and it hit the wall. He rubbed gingerly at the sore spot. "I'm sorry, Radek. You were--"
"Dying, but not dying." The Czech almost laughed. "I thought for certain that I had the parasite... When I found out that I did not, I could have died laughing."
"Well, fortunately, you didn't." McKay said weakly.
"I told the major of my discovery, but at that point he was very sick," continued Zelenka darkly. "As it was, he did try to make me leave him behind, return with help, but he was in no condition to make me do that."
"Good thing you didn't." McKay couldn't forget how close Sheppard had been to death when he'd been brought through the gate. He couldn't believe that Zelenka had practically dragged the major all the way from the compound. "Um, how is your back?"
"Not so sore now. Thank you for asking," replied Zelenka. He seemed genuinely appreciative of the question. "I believe that the major can accept dying, as long as it is with purpose."
McKay nodded. He'd basically panicked in the jumper but Sheppard had been the glue that held them all together, who'd been more concerned about the de-molecularized Stackhouse and Markham than his own skin when they'd been lodged in the Stargate.
"I think it was just the impending manner of our … demise, that disturbed him the most," admitted Zelenka.
"Parasites taking over your brain." McKay made a face of disgust. It was much worse than having a nanovirus-induced aneurysm burst. He looked at his watch and, agitated at what he saw, stood up. "Hello? Come on, guys. It's been hours. I know it doesn't take that long to scan a head!"
"Rodney, sit down," ordered Zelenka. McKay looked down at the sharpness of the man's tone. The Czech looked incredibly introspective. Dammit. Was he going to lose it? McKay realized he'd better hold together, for Radek's sake. Yes, that sounded good to him.
"When I was twenty, in university." Zelenka held up a finger, forestalling what he knew would be Rodney's 'is this relevant?' query. McKay settled back instead. "I had friend in university. Jiri. Brilliant student. I think he could have been next Stephen Hawking."
McKay stared at the door. He hoped this wasn't going to be some schmaltzy Hallmark card type story.
"There was a lab fire. Jiri was totally engulfed."
"I'm sorry," said McKay.
"He did not die, not immediately," explained Zelenka. "It took nearly two days for him to die in hospital. He was hideously burned. His parents refused to see him. They said that that could not be their son." Zelenka sighed wistfully. "I sat with him for those days. He was given drugs to ease his pain, but before he passed, I realized that he knew I'd been there with him."
McKay felt weak and cold inside. God, how awful. He'd seen Zelenka's records, having helped approved all the scientists on the mission, but had never known about that incident. "On the planet, with Sheppard…" he said under his breath.
"Yes, was strikingly similar," agreed Zelenka. "There were some times when I thought that I could not continue, especially when the major was in such misery, but then I knew I could not quit, for his sake, and that if there was anything I could do to ease his suffering, that I should help."
McKay's memories drifted back to the heated debate he'd had with Beckett in Elizabeth's office. "The morphine?" he pondered, his voice almost a whisper.
"Only if the major wished it." Zelenka paused, perhaps lost in a memory. "I would not have forced it on him, no, but I was grateful that Dr. Beckett sent it along, in the event of the worst."
But now the worst might be happening just behind a door several feet away.
"I don't know if I could have been that strong," McKay said very quietly.
"You may be very self-absorbed at times, Rodney," Zelenka said with a sad smile as McKay cast a sideways glance at him. "But you are his friend."
"Do not sell yourself short," Zelenka cut him off quickly. "If you need someone to do that, Kavanagh is more than happy to fill those shoes."
"Gah," muttered McKay in aversion. Thankfully that jerk's advice had not been needed during this particular crisis. The man was very good at his chosen field, but his people skills were minus zero. McKay leaned forward, staring morosely at his feet. Boots. The cast, covered with signatures, had been removed, but he could not forget Sheppard's crude cartoon, and what it now meant to him.
"If I'd just gone on the mission," he sighed.
"Then the major would be dead, as would you." Zelenka didn't take offense at McKay's shocked expression. Instead, he gestured at his eyes.
"The… the pink-eye," realized McKay as thought someone had struck him in the head with a hammer. "If you hadn't had the conjunctivitis…"
"I would not have brought along the drops," finished the Czech. "You see, you need to be more social. Catch pink-eye like rest of us."
McKay laughed, briefly. "And have gooey, pustuler, grossly red eyes because of your lack of hygeine? No, thank you."
"Such a simple twist of fate," said Zelenka. "Was it not?
"All because of a pen," mused McKay. "If I hadn't broken my leg, I would have gone on the mission."
The door not far away suddenly opened. Nurse Hennings appeared, looking tired. She brushed aside a stray strand of hair that swept across her forehead. "They're done with Major Sheppard. You can see him now, but just for a few minutes. He's got some minor side effects from the contrast dye. Understand?"
McKay realized he didn't want to ask the nurse what the verdict was, even though the question was ready to launch off his tongue, but he couldn't force himself to say it aloud. Apparently, Radek couldn't get up the gumption to ask either, so they both just nodded obediently and went through the doorway. Sheppard was lying on a bed at the far end of a row of beds. Beckett was standing beside him. The two men were talking, but Beckett seemed to be doing the lion's share. Rodney strained to hear the conversation. As he approached, his feet turned to lead as some of the words filtered down to him.
"I'm sorry, laddie. Truly I am." With that, Beckett patted Sheppard in sympathy on the shoulder. The major snagged the doctor on his sleeve, asking something that McKay couldn't catch. "I'll get Elizabeth to agree to that," Beckett nodded, and he left. Sheppard draped an arm across his face.
McKay rushed up to the bed, almost tripping over his own feet. Sheppard looked like he was convulsing, or worse, crying. McKay panicked and pulled Sheppard's arm away from his face. Tears were welling in the hazel eyes and Sheppard was… laughing?
"Beckett!" shouted McKay. "Oh god, he's hysterical."
"I'm fine," choked back Sheppard.
McKay wasn't sure he heard it right. "You're what?" Suddenly he was pushed aside and that dark-haired doctor he'd seen arrive earlier was standing next to the bed. The man scribbled something on a small card, and with a little effort, stuck it in Sheppard's hand. "Don't even think of trying to go off-world to avoid this," the man warned. "I can ground you as easily as Carson can. At least I think I can."
Sheppard nodded, not even bothering to look at the card. The doctor left as quickly as he came.
McKay felt like he was trapped in some bad movie. Zelenka grabbed the card as Sheppard wasn't paying attention to it, his brow raising as he read it. McKay couldn't take the suspense any longer and he ripped the item from Zelenka's hand.
"DDS? Columbus?" he muttered to himself. "You've got a dental appointment in Ohio on Friday?"
Sheppard managed to stop laughing. "God, that's a bit far. I thought he had an office here."
"What the hell is going on?" demanded McKay.
"I'm fine." Sheppard let his arm fall down to his side as he caught his breath. "No parasites, no cysts, no eggs, nada. My brain's fine."
"Yes, empty, devoid of alien infestation of any kind, nothing up there," Sheppard said with a laugh as he rapped at his head, imitating McKay's comment of just hours ago. "It was all a damned false alarm."
Zelenka stood by the bed and reached out, placing a reassuring grip on the major's arm. "I am very glad to hear that, major."
"Makes two of us, doc," Sheppard grinned. "Believe me, that makes two of us."
McKay felt like he could melt into a puddle from relief. "But… Beckett? What was he talking about, and what's this?" He waved the white card like a flag.
Sheppard lifted his head, studied the card and let his head fall back to the pillow, laughing. "They scan and x-ray the hell out of me, and after all that, they found a cavity."
"A cavity?" McKay wondered if there were any PowerBars around. When had he last eaten? He felt ready to pass out.
Sheppard let out a weary sigh. "I still say it's just a small pit."
McKay didn't care if it was a full root canal job. He pulled over a nearby stool and sat down, then grabbed one of Sheppard's hands in his own hand and squeezed.
"Got a bitch of a headache from that dye." Sheppard shut his eyes.
"But at least your head won't blow up and mess the walls," replied McKay, not caring how stupid he sounded.
"Damned straight it won't," agreed Sheppard.
McKay felt a reassuring squeeze against his hand and he closed his eyes, leaning against the bed. He held his grip firm, not wanting to let go, but he knew that now, Sheppard was going to be fine.
Two days passed before Sheppard truly felt that it was all over. It had been a few more hours before the headache from the dye had dissipated into nothing more than a bad memory, but he'd used that time to unwind from the built-up stress, and to explain to McKay what Beckett's apology had been all about.
The Scotsman hadn't realized that his and his fellow doctors' discussion could be overheard, at least in part, by Sheppard, so by the time Beckett came over to deliver the good news, Sheppard had been waiting for his life to flash before his eyes after wrongly putting two and two together from all the vague snatches of dialogue he'd heard. Beckett had apologized profusely when he realized what had happened, but Sheppard had been so relieved to hear his brain wasn't going to home to millions of parasite cysts that he didn't care.
McKay had intimately understood that kind of insane relief. When he'd found out that his own head wouldn't implode from the alien nanovirus, he hadn't cared about much else either except his own ongoing existence.
Sheppard took advantage of Aspon's invitation to return to Bennar so his team went back through the gate the next day. Teyla had already done the bulk of the diplomatic chit-chat, so there wasn't really much to do except sit back and enjoy himself.
The latva bread was every bit as good as Teyla had described it. They'd returned to base with several big bushels of the bread, which lasted perhaps two hours before it was distributed to and devoured by all the expedition members.
Sheppard waved to Grodin as he headed toward the briefing room. Elizabeth had called an informal meeting at nine o'clock at night, which in itself was unusual but Grodin had said it wasn't an emergency, but it was mandatory to attend. Sheppard hoped it had something to do with his earlier request to Beckett while still lying on the gurney.
Beckett was already settled in, seated next to Elizabeth, when Sheppard entered the room. The physician smiled, not the nervous kind of 'I'm sorry but the diagnosis is fill-in-your-worst-nightmare' kind of smile,' but a happy one. Thank god. Within minutes the rest of his team, as well as Zelenka, all came in and sat down.
McKay, clad in a pale blue striped shirt and tan dockers – everybody had come in casual attire as they were off-duty – looked around with a bored glance. "I hope this is important. I was right in the middle of an experiment."
"Still trying to make coffee out of thin air?" quipped Sheppard.
Zelenka let out a short laugh, but that left McKay looking even more annoyed than ever.
Sheppard slouched back lazily in his chair as Elizabeth stood up. "We're here to wrap up the events of PX8 3H6, as well as one other matter."
"Shouldn't Branford or Waller be here then?" asked McKay.
"They were busy," said Elizabeth simply.
"Probably too busy with that damned rabbit thing," Sheppard said under his breath.
Beckett, seated to Sheppard's right, leaned over and whispered. "It might have something to do with you threatening to shoot Branford."
"Would I do that?" Sheppard replied innocently.
"Of course not, lad," came back Beckett in an almost conspiratorial whisper. "But he doesn't know that."
"Gentlemen." Elizabeth was suddenly looking down at them both as though they were errant schoolboys. "Do you have something to add?"
"Uh no, no," Sheppard replied with a ingenuous smile. Beckett immediately followed up with a shake of his head. Sheppard could tell from the look on Elizabeth's face that she knew something was up, but decided not to press the issue. Instead, she opened up the black pad holder on the table in front of her, pulling out a solitary piece of paper. "Major?" She looked questioningly at him.
"Oh no, I'd rather you do the honors," he replied when he realized precisely what the item was.
Elizabeth nodded, then read aloud the typed words on the paper. They were formal, short and to the point – the way a commendation was written up in the military. Zelenka just sat there, looking a bit embarrassed as Elizabeth concluded the tiny speech. Sheppard knew it was pretty much impossible to convey in a commendation how much he truly appreciated what Zelenka had done for him. He'd already thanked the Czech, but he wanted something in the man's record, so his unselfish acts would not be forgotten.
Ford flashed a bright smile and gave the poor man a hearty slap on the back, and even McKay had the good graces to congratulate his fellow scientist.
"Thank you," said Zelenka simply, meeting Sheppard's eyes. The major merely smiled and nodded.
Zelenka managed to compose himself as Elizabeth signed off on the paper and handed it to him.
"It's not 'official' official until Stargate Command signs off on it, of course," Elizabeth said with a hint of regret. "But as far as we're concerned, it's chiseled in stone."
Zelenka nodded gratefully, but then frowned slightly. "Do I get a raise?"
"What?" McKay nearly shouted. "And where are you going to spend this money?"
"We may one day return to Earth," Zelenka replied, still happily studying the paper now in his hands. "If it is retroactive and the interest is compounded…" He stopped in his musings as his eyes traveled across to the black pad holder. "Wait. Oh, that's my pen."
"Your pen?" chorused several voices at once.
Sheppard stared in surprise at the blue pen with the silver clip, the one that had been in Beckett's possession after the accident until the good doctor got tired of McKay hounding him for DNA tests so he'd foisted it on Elizabeth with the hopes of never seeing it again.
McKay reached across the table and brusquely snatched the pen away before anyone could stop him.
"I think we'll need a drink after this," Sheppard heard Beckett moan beside him.
"I broke my leg tripping on this damned pen," began McKay furiously, waving the item in front of a shocked Zelenka. "I--" Abruptly, McKay stopped ranting. Sheppard watched in confusion and curiosity as McKay stared oddly at the pen, then at Sheppard and back to Zelenka. He carefully placed the pen back down on the table's hard surface. "Well, next time, be more careful," he said, without a single hint of anger, to Zelenka.
The Czech seemed as confused as the rest of the small audience. "I will."
Sheppard resisted the urge to put his hand to his forehead to feel for a sudden fever, but he was pretty sure he'd know if he was hallucinating. At least he sure hoped so.
McKay turned the pen around very slowly, almost reverently, on the table. "But I think I'll keep it."
Zelenka seemed to consider the odd request for a moment. "All right."
McKay went to put the pen in his shirt pocket, but then realized the ballpoint was still out. He went to click down on the top, but then Zelenka spoke up. "No, not that way." He held his hand up, indicating a clockwise motion.
"Ah yes," said McKay. "A twist."
Zelenka arched an eyebrow. "Yes, just a simple twist," he said strangely.
Sheppard watched as the two scientists fell silent, both with the oddest of contemplative smiles on their faces.
"Just wait a second," spoke up Sheppard, breaking the silence. He knew he was confused as hell, and judging from everybody else's faces around here, the feeling was mutual. "McKay, what happened to 'I'm going to have the moron who dropped this pen drawn and quartered?'"
"I'm hardly one to hold grudges, major." McKay acted as though the mere suggestion was insane.
"Forgive me, Rodney, but you spent every single day until that cast came off, bitchin' and moaning incessantly about that pen," interjected Beckett firmly.
"Oh puh-lease, Carson," began McKay haughtily. "I hardly--"
"Gentlemen," interrupted Elizabeth. "Let's just put that in the past, shall we?"
Everybody nodded and murmured agreement, but Sheppard was sure as heck going to find out why McKay was suddenly being so amenable. It just wasn't … natural.
"We'll now conclude the final matter at hand," continued Elizabeth, turning to Beckett. "Carson, would you do the honors?"
"Finally," grumbled the doctor good-naturedly.
Sheppard received a none-too-subtle jab in his ankle to move, so he slid his chair aside and Carson brought out a cardboard box from beneath the table. He settled it on the table, then removed seven tiny beakers and set them out.
"Are those from your lab?" asked McKay suspiciously.
"Yes, and they're perfectly sterile and the proper size," replied Beckett.
"For what?" pressed McKay, squirming uncomfortably in his seat.
Beckett brought out a large, dark green bottle from inside the box. Sheppard broke into a broad grin. Yes, Beckett came through! Within seconds, Beckett had poured out the remains of that bottle into the tiny beakers. It wasn't as though anybody had packed shot glasses for the expedition, and heck, a glass was a glass.
"I thought you threw out that bottle?" McKay eyed the glass stuck in front of him, then looked at Elizabeth.
"It was very tempting to do just that, considering the first results of certain people imbibing it," replied Elizabeth with a knowing smile, "but the bottle will be returned to the Athosians, and well, we do deserve to celebrate making it this far."
"And fortunately there's not enough for either the major or Dr. McKay to get hungover again," added Beckett dryly.
"Hey, how were we to know this Athosian stuff had such a kick?" defended Sheppard, realizing that excuse hadn't worked the first time either. He remembered that the drink's impact had hit him rather suddenly and after that, just one more tiny glass didn't seem like it could do any harm. Of course, when he woken up the next morning with a gang of little gremlins smashing hammers into both temples in a discordant tempo - and Rodney hadn't looked much better at the briefing - he'd realized his error far too late.
"Carson says one glass won't do any damage," continued Elizabeth smoothly as she sat down. "Would you care to do the honors, major?"
"Me?" Sheppard asked, but he stood nevertheless, his mind going over just what he should toast to. To surviving yet another day? To the memories of those they'd lost? There were lots of things that deserved a good stiff drink, but as he looked around the table at the expectant faces, he realized that throughout the ups and downs, there'd been one constant that had grown and strengthened from the day they'd set foot in Atlantis.
Sheppard raised his beaker, and said simply. "To friends."
Everybody repeated the heartfelt sentiment, and drank down the liquor.
Sheppard was barely able to hiss out "good stuff" after the liquor seared his throat. Everybody looked similarly affected - except Zelenka.
The Czech coughed briefly, and remarked with a happy smile. "It has aged well."
It was bizarre, just standing in front of the Stargate, not fully geared and ready to step through to another world where they could meet new people and maybe get shot at – again. The least he should do is have something in his hands, and not have them shoved in his pants pockets like he was waiting for a bus.
It was a simple ceremony, nothing more. To a few people, it held hope far beyond anything they'd dreamed of when stepping through to the Pegasus Galaxy. To others, like Sheppard, it meant letting go of certain memories.
Elizabeth stood to his one side, while the rest of his team, and even Beckett and Zelenka, stood off to the other side.
Months had passed since that day he'd nearly died from the parasites he'd contracted on PX8 3H6. Now that gate address had been dialed up again.
"How do we know we're not making things worse?" muttered McKay, watching as Dr. Branford entered the gateroom.
"Rodney, ye're the expert on blackholes and quarks," replied Beckett. "Leave the biological tinkering to folks who know what they're doing."
"And that's probably what the Ancients probably said, too."
"Ach," grumbled Beckett.
An old argument, one that had been raised time and again since Branford had brought back the bunnies from Hell. The scientists had gotten a good idea of what the Ancients had been attempting to do, and possibly where they went wrong. They'd done some tinkering of their own – and hopefully developed a means to combat the parasite. If it worked, it might eradicate the parasite from the planet, leaving it safe for humans to visit. Sheppard had been averse to the idea of anybody stepping foot on the planet again, until Branford pointed out that Sheppard had been the lucky one. Who knows how many countless travelers might have stepped through that gate during the centuries, only to die horribly, their bones scattered to dust as time passed on?
"Shouldn't Marlin Perkins be here or something?" suggested Sheppard.
"More like Steve Irwin," came back McKay sharply.
Ford laughed softly behind the Canadian.
Everybody watched as the event horizon solidified. Dr. Branford, wearing heavy duty gloves, opened up a biohazard containment box and extracted the 'rabbit.' He walked up to the gate, knelt down, and gently tossed the animal through. With a dramatic flourish, he peeled off his gloves, stuffed them back into the box and sealed it shut.
The gate turned off.
It was gone, the last vestige of the parasite. His back and arm still bore scars, so faint he had to really look to find them, from his savage attack to stop the itching but that was all that remained. The nightmares were long gone, replaced by worries and shadowy dreams with vampire-like aliens that were a more present danger.
Sheppard looked over at Elizabeth, who studied him briefly and smiled, aware of what the ceremony meant to him. Months ago, in a darker time, at least for him, he'd asked her if returning to that planet was worth it. If this was their only legacy to the Pegasus Galaxy, then maybe it was. He smiled back and she nodded briefly in acknowledgement.
"You know," he drawled, turning to McKay "Gonna miss the little fella."
"What?" McKay groused. "You haven't stepped anywhere near that lab since those animals arrived. You hated that rabbit-thing with a passion."
"Nah, that was when he was full of cysts," explained Sheppard. "Now he's clear of them."
"So?" pushed McKay.
"Bet he would have tasted good roasted."
Sheppard's abrupt laughter collided with that of the others, while McKay hacked out a noise of utter disgust and he stalked off.
Some things didn't change. The Wraith were still coming, they might all end up dead, but in the end, it was still fun to mess with Rodney's head.
Author's note: I hope you enjoyed reading this story! I had fun writing it and now that it's finished, I plan to catch up on reading everybody else's fiction.
Huge thanks to for betaing my story and helping with all the medical points. J
Czech translations done at http/www.workdbook.cz/", so if I goofed anything...
Oh, and the title…" I've Got You Under My Skin" … it's from an old Frank Sinatra song. It just stuck in my mind, and I just liked the play on words with critters under the skin ;)
Feedback gratefully appreciated. Thanks!