Summary: McKay and Sheppard take a Jumper on a survey mission and find out just how alien the universe can be.

AN: It's been a while since I've written or read anything, so hopefully the old fingers didn't get too rusty! We bought a house back in July when the only thing done was the footing laid, and we closed on the finished product the first week of October. I actually got to close the door last night and write in peace instead of sharing a living room with the family while I write. This is a WIP, but you all keep me writing every time so I pinky promise to update in a timely manner and finish so don't beat me with sticks...

And lastly, thanks to gaffer for being the best beta ever!

AN 10-23-2005: This is the beta'd chapter. When I uploaded the fic, I accidentally uploaded the wrong version, the unbeta'd version. This would make twice for me, and I'm totally aggravated with myself. There isn't any pressing reason for re-reading this chapter as the fixes were just better wording in some areas and no plot changes or add-ins so you won't miss anything by not re-reading, promise! Sorry for the mix-up!

The Crazy Normal

The Jumper was cold as it lazily drifted through space. Sheppard shivered in his jacket and stared at the dark vista that enveloped them like a pair of blinders. The only break in the blackness came from the spattered light of far away stars.

"I don't suppose there's a way to turn up the heat?" joked John. He wasn't sure if he asked just to break the growing grim silence of the cockpit, or if he actually believed that McKay could do something.

The grimace that wrapped across Rodney's face made it clear what the answer was before he'd uttered his reply. "I don't suppose you can go outside and push?" At Sheppard's droll look he sighed and said, "Then the answer remains no."

"You know, it could be worse," offered John, back to staring at cold space.

A look of incredulity and McKay snapped, "How? We're stuck in a burned out space ship, drifting through space and slowly freezing to death? How can it possibly be worse?"

A dead console did the impossible and beeped. Sheppard and McKay both stared at the contradiction to what they knew as reality. Tentatively, Sheppard reached for the console and pushed the switch. In response, a wave of discordant noise broke into the air, causing both men to wince.

Holding his hands over his ears in an attempt to stifle the discomfort, John said, "It's worse."

"What?" shouted McKay, pulling his own hands away from the sides of his head.

John pulled his hands away and shouted back, "I said it's worse!"

McKay's visceral response was as comforting as it was bothersome. John knew that Rodney had an inner core of toughness, but the outside was all cowardly lion. You had to shock the cowardly lion enough, beat him up, shout him down, and poke him as if with an electrical prod used on cattle, before you could get to it, but it was there. Right now, there hadn't been any such prodding and McKay was in the beginnings of panic mode.

The reason was the cause of the ear-splitting noise. The Jumper's course was mostly straight, but with a leisurely rotation that hid the source until the large arc came to a close, about the last twenty degrees out of three hundred and sixty. There, space rippled, exposing a blackness that wasn't typical cosmos. An anomaly that promised trouble. It was a sea of space not marred by the years-old light of distant stars that was just now reaching this area of the galaxy. Either something was blocking the light, or absorbing the light.

John's mouth had gone incredibly dry. "Black hole?" he asked. His eyes were permanently drawn to the area of perpetual night. If it were a black hole, then the greater mercy would be to end it now. His hand slid down to his pistol, almost of its own volition, and tightened on the metal grip, all the while wondering if it came down to it, would he have the guts to follow through.

Rodney angled his head to the right, peering out the screen to see as much as he could. The fear of the unknown had been pushed into the background by the scientific puzzle. He shook his head, preoccupied with the search for an answer. "No, at least not any black hole that we know of."

"This isn't something out of Star Trek, is it? You know, cloaking device or something like that?" Sheppard almost hated to ask because any space faring people that could possess that level of technology could present yet another threat to the Atlantis expedition. Then again, they could also be an ally against the wraith –

"Or something," McKay answered distractedly. "Does the noise seem quieter now?"

It did, actually, thought Sheppard with relief. But the relief was quickly squashed as the ship jolted forward.

"What is that?" Rodney jerked away from the view screen as if burned.

That felt like the ship was being moved forward, and with a growing sense of danger, he checked the panel, verifying what he already knew. "Still dead," he said, glancing across at Rodney. "Whatever is out there, it's what's pulling us."

Rodney seemed to be running scenarios through his mind. He mumbled, and frowned, and when the ship lurched forward again, he breathed out the words, "Tractor beam."

"Tractor beam! Then, you think that -" Sheppard pointed at the blanket of nothingness, "- is a ship?"

"It has to be. A black hole would be a steady force. There wouldn't be any sharp tugs against the jumper, and I don't know if you've noticed, but we're speeding up." Rodney turned to Sheppard and shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "We're screwed, Colonel."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"If you get us out of this alive, I swear on Samantha Carter's blonde head, that I will never doubt you again."

Sheppard puzzled over McKay's comment, but vowed then and there, when he held up his end of the bargain and got them home alive, that he was going to finally get the story on this Carter person.

Seeing the determined glint in Sheppard's eye, Rodney thought maybe he should have kept his mouth shut. Then again, if it inspired Sheppard to higher levels of confidence, ability –

"Rodney!"

McKay jerked back to the problem at hand. "Yes, yes, I know. Imminent doom, again."

"No," snapped Sheppard, holding out something to McKay. He'd retrieved their weapons, and a life signs detector. He wasn't sure what else they'd need, or, for that matter, if these items would even do any good.

"And we all know how good I am with this," grumbled McKay, accepting the weapon anyway, and tucking it into the holster on his thigh.

"Just shoot at anything trying to hurt you," drawled Sheppard, trying to reassure him. "Or me," he added dryly.

"I can do that."

Sheppard slapped a reassuring hand on McKay's back. "I have faith in you."

Rodney paused. "You mean that?"

The memories of recent events intruded into both men's minds. The debacle over the super weapon had left a chink in their friendship…in Sheppard's faith in McKay. It wasn't so much that he didn't still believe in Rodney, it was that Rodney had used that belief to gain a second chance, and then almost took them both into oblivion by refusing to believe he was wrong.

But time, and other missions, had given McKay a chance to heal that breach. Rodney had been there when he'd been changing from the retrovirus – had watched over him in the stasis pod and risked his life to keep Sheppard alive, despite Caldwell's attempts otherwise.

Sheppard's easy grin stilled and drooped into seriousness. "Yeah, I mean it."

The grin was picked up and used by Rodney. The right hand corner of his mouth smirking higher than the left in trademark McKay. "Then what are we waiting for, let's go kick some alien butt."

Sheppard didn't move.

McKay's grin faltered. "No, really, let's go."

"We're waiting to be sucked up into the great beyond, remember? There's nowhere to go…yet."

"Oh, right. Well, then, let's get ready to kick alien butt."

Sheppard figured that was a pretty good idea. Before he could move, the dim darkness was banished by a bright light. Their attention was pulled to the front again, and this time, what they saw confirmed what they had suspected. It was a ship, and the outer hull was opening. It was a gaping maw two, maybe three, times the size of Atlantis. Big didn't begin to describe what they were seeing.

"I guess that's our invitation to the party," observed Sheppard.

He moved through the bulkhead door and into the rear of the ship. McKay followed, mumbling, "I never liked parties."

OoO

It probably wasn't more than ten minutes till the Jumper was landed inside the alien ship, but it felt like an eternity to Sheppard. Judging from the sweating face of McKay, he wasn't the only one worried. The difference between Rodney and himself wasn't that he didn't get scared, it was just that John was able to hide it better.

"Ready?" he whispered to McKay, gripping his weapon tighter.

McKay nodded wordlessly.

Sheppard took a steadying breath, and hit the emergency release button. Since the energy blast hours ago, the origin of which they still didn't know, the Jumper's power systems had been down. The redundancies built in to the tech allowed for the opening of the hatch and some basic functions with the screens, but that was about it. The growing suspicion that the energy wave had originated from this ship had begun to niggle at Sheppard after it had started towing them in.

The aliens probably figured their prey would wait, and hide in the ship, in hopes of escape or trying to get in position to defend the Jumper, but that wasn't the Sheppard way of handling Things that Go Wrong on Missions. The best defense was to have a good offense. They were going to sneak into the alien's ship, and learn what they could, and hopefully manage to get out of here alive, or if the people behind the tech looked friendly enough, seek out someone to initiate contact.

"Keep low, and be careful," John warned Rodney, as he slipped out the hatch in a fluid motion, feeling the solid weight of the deck when his feet landed…

…and that's when he lost all grips on reality. The glaring light that had beckoned from the cold beyond filled his senses, blinding him. Sheppard groped for McKay. "Rodney?"

"I can't see!"

Sheppard felt McKay latch on to his free arm, and felt the man's nails dig in through the fabric of the jacket. "Same here," he said, trying to keep his voice low, and confident. "Stay close."

He stepped forward, not knowing where it would take them, but knowing they had to go on. His foot sank, and not even his fast reflexive tug backwards saved them. The problem was, when you are walking forward and expect to step on an even surface, smooth, hard – you don't hold back your momentum. Despite the blinding state, Sheppard hadn't held back. He'd hoped to go forward as fast as possible and get out of the glaring light that was keeping them from being able to see…and that's when he realized that thing about being prepared was all an illusion.

His leg was sinking fast, and the two states; sinking and blindness; drove even his anxiety level beyond recognition. John could only hope McKay wasn't in the same situation.

"Sheppard, I'm sinking!"

There went that hope. "You didn't step forward, did you?" he whispered hurriedly back towards Rodney. He couldn't see anything, but he could feel the physicist's presence.

"No," came a hoarse reply. "Oh god, this isn't good."

It's kind of funny how even in the worst of predicaments, McKay could manage the art of understatement, because now both of John's legs were sinking into a floor that suddenly took on the consistency of marshmallows.

John hadn't seen a lot of real aliens in his short time assigned to Atlantis. His exposure to Hermiod had been the exception rather than the rule, and the ribbing he'd taken over his naked comment had only recently leveled off. Seeing how he'd said it to McKay, he was still miffed that his supposed friend had let it slip just how shaken the imperturbable Colonel had been with his first face to alien encounter. Rodney was one of the few that knew his smart-ass comments covered the inner boy. The one that watched with unease and sought to keep others from knowing his true feelings.

They'd visited quite a few worlds, and aside from the wraith, they'd met humans. Rodney had gone into a detailed explanation of why they spoke the same language, or appeared to at least, but in the end what it distilled down to is minimal exposure to anything truly alien. Before now, that is.

"Rodney, can you grab the Jumper?" Even while Sheppard's mind was debating the situation, the military mind was searching for possible escapes.

He heard McKay grunt as the man twisted at the waist, already the floor had risen to mid-thigh on John and judging from the effort being expended behind him, it must be a similar state for Rodney.

"I can almost -" another strained groan before defeated, McKay whispered "I can't."

It was like being encased in ballistics gel. As he was sinking, the floor seemed to mold to his body. It was up to his waist.

"McKay, I -" John broke off. He didn't know what to say. The light was still blinding them, he couldn't move from the waist down, and every sense on him screamed panic. The feel of cold metal in his hand reminded him of the pistol still held tight. The warmth in his legs from the material holding them made him feel like he was being immersed in a standing bath. Every nerve seemed on overdrive.

"It's been nice knowing you, Colonel."

McKay's voice amplified along his jangled state. "We're not going to die," Sheppard replied harshly. They weren't. He would make sure of it. "You still have to tell me about Carter, remember?"

The thrashing of Rodney's arms stilled. "She wouldn't give up, either. Funny, how I keep getting stuck working with people who have God complexes."

"Birds of a feather," snorted Sheppard.

"Having a God complex and actually knowing you are one is not the same thing, but nice try."

"Maybe it'll stop soon," wondered Sheppard, ignoring McKay's dry arrogance. "Lift your arms!" he ordered as the warmth reached his sternum.

"Are we sinking, or is it rising?" McKay asked suspiciously.

"I don't know. I thought we were sinking, but now it almost feels like it's rising. I should've brought my sunglasses."

McKay started to reply, but his words were drowned in a cacophony of the same discordant noise that had broken into the cold dead cockpit of the Jumper. Was it ten minutes ago? An hour? A lifetime, it felt like.

Now Sheppard couldn't hear his only lifeline to companionship. He could sense McKay was still there, but the overwhelming sound isolated them as efficiently as would solitary confinement.

Whether they were sinking or the floor was rising, he didn't know, but Sheppard fought against the instinctual panic as the viscous material reached his neck. They were going under, and with the thickness being such that there was no hope of movement, it did look like things were coming to a gruesome end. Now he wished he'd told McKay, that oddly enough, it'd been nice knowing him, too.

He fought to keep his head above the material, but in the end, it was a fruitless effort, and he felt the gel sliding over his lips and into his nostrils, before rising slowly past his eyes and finally enveloping him entirely.

The comforting aspect was the cessation of glaring light and deafening noise. The nightmarish side was not being able to breathe. He mentally counted each painful second and fought to remain calm. Would it be like drowning? He'd heard when you drowned it was peaceful.

Breathe.

The word was spoken, but he didn't hear it. He felt it. Sheppard tensed. Thirty seconds. Thirty-one. Thirty-two.

Breathe.

Sheppard wished he'd told Elizabeth how much she'd meant to him. Her faith in him. Her support. He'd made Lieutenant Colonel and been granted the military command of Atlantis. Things he'd never dreamed of, he'd lived, all because she'd believed in him.

Thirty-four. Thirty-five.

Breathe.

McKay. He'd been an arrogant bastard from the get go, and the very qualities that kept most people away, drew him in. It wasn't the cowardly exterior, or the belief that Doctor Rodney McKay always knew best, or his selfish absorption in the worry over his own life that was the real McKay. It was the man who actually did care what happened to others. The man who believed that what he was doing would change the face of science for the future. The man who worked till exhaustion in trying to save them all, and not just because his hide was at risk, but his friends lives. The man who refused to give up with the shield that wouldn't work on the planet with all those kids, or faced down a wraith, twice, to protect Sheppard.

How could he have misjudged the situation and gotten them literally up to their eyeballs this time? He'd let Rodney down, and now they were going to die because of it. He should've gone out alone and scouted before getting McKay involved.

Forty-two. Forty-three.

Breathe.

The word that wasn't spoken was growing more insistent. Almost as if the encasing gelatinous fluid vibrated with the urgency. To breathe was the last thing Sheppard had the courage to do. But, it was the one thing his body was going to do in the end, whether he wanted to or not. If he hadn't been immersed, his mouth would've tightened in a worried frown, but he couldn't even feel his facial muscles' movement.

Fifty. Fifty-one.

God help him, because his lungs were burning now, and he knew it was coming to an end. There had been no change in the material. He hadn't dropped out of it, or been pulled from it. There would be no final thoughts to his friends or last minute warnings. No reprieve this time. He'd been on the cusp before, and survived, but he couldn't see surviving this.

BREATHE!

And Sheppard did.