It's not like I'm sitting here regretting being the only one, right now, that can fly this thing. Jumpers are the very definition of 'fun to fly', and the fact that I got to prove a point, one that McKay and I have being trying to get permission for, is just an extra benefit.
No, I don't regret it. But you could call me...conflicted.
If I wasn't as good at flying as I am, we wouldn't be here right now, climbing steadily from four thousand feet underwater with McKay in the aft section. And that kind of was the problem.
Radek and I heard the slip-thunk a few moments ago and spared a second to glance back, then at each other.
"Ten minutes to safe depth," he cautioned me, knowing my first instinct - heck, his first instinct too - was to go help.
It had only been a matter of time before McKay passed out. He wasn't shivering anymore, but he was freezing cold with a nasty head wound. He was concussed, hypothermic, and right now he was as much on his own as he'd been down there at the bottom of the ocean. Zelenka was busy balancing the power use like a juggler. And me? I had to frickin' fly.
Ok, maybe regret was too strong a word, but I was definitely wishing I could be in two places at once.
I'm a soldier. More, I'm head of the military contingent on this planet, and my mandate is the protection of the city and its population. Pretty sweeping, huh? A lot of the people I was sworn to protect, I hadn't even really met. Didn't mean they weren't important to me. But I knew that the gods of Atlantis would forgive me if some were more important to me than others.
I still kept glancing at the depth gauge, though I knew it wasn't making us rise any faster, or helping him. Or my state of mind, for that matter. I told myself sternly to focus, and I managed to keep from looking behind me, at the top of a bloodied, balding head, and curled shoulders, too often. Ten, maybe fifteen times. That wasn't too often, right?
"Five minutes to safe depth."
McKay had started to stir, sluggishly, and he was breathing oddly. Something he'd said poked me in the back of my mind, but it wasn't till he cried out, a sharp sound like something was stabbing him, that I remembered. Swearing, I began to increase the pressure inside, fighting the basic urge I had to just leave the controls and go back there. Between sub-vocal curses I talked to him, trying to do with words what I - we - couldn't do physically. I tried to sound calming, confident, to put something of the relief we felt at his survival into what I said. The cries faded to moans, then those quieted.
"Colonel?" Radek sounded scared, and I nodded. He probably hadn't had much chance to scuba dive where he'd grown up.
"The bends," I replied. "Nitrogen dissolved in his blood when he was stuck down there. It was bubbling around his joints as the pressure eased."
Radek said something, astonished, in Czech.
"Yeah, it hurts like hell." I really was picking up the language. "I brought the pressure back up to about four atmospheres, just enough to get it stopped."
Elizabeth had looked shocked when I contradicted her. But really, that was the first truly...stupid...thing she's ever said, 'I can't order you to do this...'
'I can!' What did she expect? Apart from McKay's being about as necessary to the Atlantis mission as, say, air, he was a member of my team and the kind of friend I'd sworn off having after Afghanistan - go figure. If I had to, I would have put the whole damn city under martial law and damn well drafted...
It hadn't been needed. And if Radek hadn't been here, I'd have had all that pain all over again. There's still a chance I will, but I'm pushing that possibility right to the back of my mind.
Sure, I'm being selfish. Know what? I'm entitled, every now and then.
I heard McKay whimper behind me, sort of a lost, pained sound, and I glanced back. "Rodney? We've got you. You're safe, and we're heading back to Atlantis. We'll be there soon." Yep. Two places at once would be really good.
"How long?" I asked Radek. He'd done extremely well on this trip, and I planned to tell Elizabeth so.
"We are almost there." He leaned forward, as if he were willing the thing to climb faster, and I brought up the depth gauge again, big and bold on the HUD.
I'd never forget standing outside that door, four thousand feet down, and waiting for it to open. If it had taken much longer I would've over-ridden the lock - it's something I can do - but it wouldn't have given McKay any time to brace against the water flooding out. We stood back as the ramp came down. Spread out on the ground, the water didn't look like much, but the walls were wet almost to the ceiling and it made me shudder. The only sign of life left was a blinking light, showing the emergency beacon had been activated, and as soon as we lifted off that, too, would die. There was no point trying to retrieve the body in the cockpit. The shield didn't stretch that far.
It must have been hard on him, stuck back there. Worse for Griffin. Another letter to write, but at least it would only be one.
I hoped it would only be one.
I glanced again at the HUD, and Zelenka did the same. We saw it together, but he said it first, with almost the same relief I felt.
I was framing a response that wasn't needed; he grabbed the first aid kit and was in the back in the time it would have taken me to say it.
I could feel the field collapse; it's weird the way I'm attuned to the ship. It's like a presence in the back of my mind; even when I was lying there with a bug on my neck I knew the pod was damaged. It was like an itch I couldn't scratch.
I brought the ship up as fast as I could, making for the air. Once up there we could be home in under an hour. I got on the horn to Carson, who of course began giving me instructions.
"Hang on," I said. "Zelenka!"
He came on the com, speaking in the very careful way he has when he absolutely doesn't want to be misunderstood. We had made certain everyone was trained in first aid, so the pulse, respirations and pupil reactivity he reported were accurate. McKay was semi-conscious, still in pain, and under Beckett's direction I brought the pressure up a bit more. It seemed to help.
I heard my name, more than once, and I called back encouraging things. He talked to Zelenka, in a confused babble, and Zelenka replied, his tone comforting though I couldn't hear the words. Gradually the indecipherable conversation reverted to a one sided muttering of Czech and increasingly broken English. McKay had stopped responding.
It gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and mentally I urged the flying pop can to go just a bit faster.
So much of what we're dealing with here is just - unreliable. New friends turn out to be foes. Old Ancient technology seems to be functioning fine - rats, lost the hot water again, and it always happens first thing in the morning. Even the food we eat - supplemented as it is by the Daedalus, we still want to be self-sufficient, but that means a lot of variety in our meals, and it's as simple as the fact that if you like something, you'll have a few days to enjoy it, because you may well not taste it again.
Our people are the constant here, in theory, but then you get something like what happened to Ford…
Point is, the single, reliable soundtrack to my life here has been McKay's voice. One way or another. Arguing with me, or with any other carbon-based life form that was near; bitching about the lack of hot water or coffee; happy about the presence of hot water or coffee. Nattering on to me for hours when I was de-bugging and feeling pretty isolated, giving me something else to concentrate on than the Iratus's blind need to kill and feed. Having to concentrate on some of the math problems he posed helped me more than he'll ever know - more than I ever told him.
And now the soundtrack is gone, and I'm praying to anything that's listening that Beckett can help him, because after McKay I'm thinking an iPod just won't cut it.
Atlantis appeared in the HUD, and in the odd double-exposure that I was getting used to, on the forward screen, big and gorgeous. I called in our ETA - must have been a tail wind, we'd made it back in less than forty minutes - and received assurances that we'd be met.
"Bring it into the jumper bay, John."
Huh? "The control room's closer to the infirmary."
"We're bringing it to you, Colonel," Beckett said. "We're able to pressurize the whole jumper bay. I don't want to put Rodney through the cycle again. Everything we need is portable, and it's waiting for you."
I confirmed our arrival, and signed off. "Hear that, McKay? They're waiting for us. Hang on just a bit longer."
Yeah, it wasn't original, but it made me feel better.
It was like a tap on my shoulder when the automatic systems in Atlantis began to take over landing. As a rule, I stay with the controls during the process, it's the usual flyboy ego that 'no damn computer can out-fly ME' but this time I bailed out of that chair like it had grown spikes, making for the back. Zelenka had McKay stretched out flat, an emergency blanket wrapped tightly around him, but when I touched his neck gently, checking for a pulse, his skin was cold as ice. The cut on his head was still bleeding, sluggishly, and he was as pale as a corpse and about as animated. And that was just so wrong.
I felt the pods touch the ground, and I had the door open half a second later. Beckett and one of the nurses crowded in, and we had McKay on one of the gurneys, stripped of his soaked uniform and wrapped head to toe in warming blankets faster than I'd have believed possible. Beckett began his assessment, pausing long enough to glare at us, and I realized we'd been dismissed, so we stepped out from behind the privacy panels that they'd brought. It had been a thoughtful thing, and I knew McKay would have appreciated not having the whole package on display - never mind that the bay was almost deserted, and he'd been buried under thick, pre-warmed blankets during the whole process. I stopped just outside, seeing Zelenka wander over to the main control panels, curious. The whole bay, pressurized? Must have taken a whack of power.
It was like Lorne knew what I was thinking; he stepped up beside me and grinned. "Kwang's idea," he supplied. "She actually cut Dr. Weir off in mid-word, she was so excited by how it could work. I think Dr. Weir was impressed."
I nodded. Something shifted behind the panel and I swung around, feeling that need to be there again, and Lorne caught my eye.
"Still jumpy," I said, trying for casual.
"It was close," he agreed, still giving me an appraising look. "We have a couple of benches over here, and some coffee and food. Figured you might want to relax. It'll be a couple hours, at least, before the pressure's equalized."
I looked at the panel again, and heard Lorne say, "Beckett'll let you know…"
"…when I…" and Zelenka's voice rose and fell over by the panel, reminding me "…we can see him," I finished. "Hey, Zee! Food and drink over there."
"Zed. If you do not call me by my name, at least use proper pronunciation of initial." he called back sourly.
"Then it would be Zed Zed Top," I muttered to Lorne, who grinned. I know it was lame, but I was working on fumes, and the feeling that the gods love irony…McKay had died by drowning in another timeline. This was a different version of the watery grave…
I realized I was staring at the privacy panel, again, and met Lorne's straightforward gaze with one of my own. He gave me an understanding half-grin, and we headed for the benches.
It was forty-three minutes before Beckett appeared, and he was smiling. He beckoned us, and I managed to cover the few yards to the jury-rigged emergency room at a pace only slightly faster than my usual. Zelenka trailed me.
"He's conscious," Beckett said, satisfied. "His temperature is coming back to normal, and there is no evidence of internal bleeding caused by the impact at the head wound. I'll give him a thorough scan once we're back in the infirmary, but it looks good."
"How long before we are decompressed?" Zelenka asked.
"I'll find out. We don't have a lot of choice about speed, this hanger wasn't designed as a hyperbaric chamber. And the one we have is small. I didn't want to have Rodney decompress and then have to take him down to five atmospheres again. Not to mention the fact I'd have left you two sitting in the jumper, decompressing on your own, and without much to occupy your time."
"Appreciate it, Doc," I drawled, eyeing that darn panel again.
I took a couple steps, but Zelenka didn't follow immediately. I turned, raised my eyebrows. He shrugged slightly, as if he didn't feel he'd be welcome.
McKay and I - what we are, goes beyond friends...though not as far as some people think. A lot of that comes from being on an off-world team, and from learning how completely we can depend on each other, even after Doranda – that bent the trust, but it didn't break.
It's shown him a side of himself he can like, and I'd had him pegged as someone who didn't like himself very much when I first met him. All that time in Psych 101 finally counted for something.
And as he'd learned to like himself, others learned to like him, which was still a bit of a feat - his personality didn't change that much, and not overnight, but he was somewhat easier to work with, and he'd actually inspired loyalty in a few of the scientists who worked for him.
Zelenka had known him longer than most, and he'd come up with the means to save him. Damn right he was welcome.
I gestured. He looked surprised, but joined me as we stepped around the edge.
The head of the gurney was propped up, and McKay was pretty much mummified; the blankets were tucked over his head - the wound closed and neatly bandaged - and an IV led somewhere into the sea of wool and polyester at about where his arm would be. His eyes were closed, but his nose was wrinkling, and a hand appeared, rubbing it.
His face wasn't dead white any more. It was approaching pink. Itch scratched, he opened his eyes, and the expression was pure McKay, running from 'oh am I glad to see you' to 'what the heck took you so long' in a matter of a nanosecond. Then his eyes turned grim, and I knew what he was thinking.
"Griffin..." he started.
"It would have been instantaneous," I said, moving up to his side. "Griffin knew what he was doing. He'd have been proud to know you survived."
He blinked at that. "He did it like he'd planned it," he said quietly. "The door wouldn't close from the back, so he stepped into the cockpit, sat down, gave me a look, and then the damn door closed…" He closed his eyes, face twisted.
"It was his choice." I leaned one hand on the head of the gurney, the other on the side. "He would have seen it as proof of his honour as a soldier."
He didn't say anything, but where my hand rested on the bar near his hip I felt movement, a blanket wrapped wrist pressing against my hand as if to confirm my reality. I didn't think twice, just grabbed the hand, fleece blanket and all. Zelenka was still at the gap, looking ready to leave, but I tilted my head at him and he came closer.
"Zelenka came up with the method to convert the cloak." As I'd hoped, it twigged his curiosity, and he opened his eyes again.
"How'd you deal with the power issues?" he asked the Czech, who grinned quickly, and launched into an explanation that left me floundering, but seemed to suit McKay down to the ground. I released his hand and made for the gap.
"Colonel?" McKay asked.
"I'll be back." I waved behind me. "Just need to talk to Carson for a sec. Carry on with your geek speak."
I stepped outside, but I didn't go over to the benches right away. The conversation was growing animated behind me, and I knew sooner rather than later Beckett would call a stop to it, but in the meantime, I was just standing there, and listening.
Yep, just listening.
"Sir?" Lorne again, the guy moved like a cat, and I tried not to grin too widely.
"Is there something wrong?"
"No, why would there be?" He nodded slightly and left, and I wondered for a second why he was there in the first place, except that it was the kind of thing I would have done.
"It was a crazy thing to do, Radek!" McKay said loudly, and Beckett sighed, stood, and headed back. "What if the field had failed down there? Do you know how much pressure that much water can exert?"
"In exact numbers!" Zelenka stated emphatically. "But the ratio of pressure outside to power inside - it was done. Manually, carefully, like…like making love to a porcupine."
There was a pause, and then a snort of laughter. McKay. It was joined by another, Zelenka, and I couldn't restrain my own chuckles as I headed back behind the panel. McKay grinned at me as I entered, Beckett hard on my heels, and I latched onto Zelenka's shoulder and towed him out as Beckett began giving McKay hell for overdoing it.
I couldn't help the enormous smirk. Life was so much more interesting with a soundtrack.