The jumper door closed, cutting off his view of Sam Carter and the wreckage that had nearly been his coffin.
"Huh," said Rodney McKay, blinking away the afterimages of Carter's lovely smile. That was it? No hallucinatory post-rescue cuddle? He gave the hatch one last hopeful look, then turned away, hissing in surprise when his knees bucked under him and he nearly fell.
"Rodney." Sheppard was using the same tone of gentle urgencyhe'd used to convince McKay to release the hatch on the downed jumper. "Sit your ass down before you fall down."
"Huh?" McKay stood there, listing slightly to the left as he considered the suggestion. The colonel always had a surprising number of good ideas, and this really was one of his better ones. "Right. Yes. Why don't I just..." With some effort, he willed his numb legs to carry him three more steps so he could collapse onto a bench.
"Head hurts," he mumbled dolefully, reaching up to prod at the soggy, useless bandage on his temple. His head felt swollen, hot and heavy, ready to melt off his frozen, shivering body. He licked his lips and tasted sea salt.
"No!" he gasped, staggering back up to his feet. Concussion. Hypothermia. Decompression sickness. He shot a wild look around the cabin, searching for something that might save him, eventually zeroing in on the equipment stored overhead. He gave an uncoordinated yank on the webbing that held the crates and storage bins secure, setting off a small avalanche that nearly brained him.
"Damnit!" Sheppard had twisted as far around in the pilot's seat as he could without releasing the controls. "Radek, can you--?" Zelenka shook his head frantically, without looking up from the screen that displayed the jumper's energy readings.
Sheppard looked back down at the jumper controls and swore again. "Look, Rodney, we're going to take care of you, okay? I just need to get us above crush depth and Radek here needs to keep the shield going until I do. Just hang in there for a minute."
"Three minutes, thirty-six seconds," Zelenka corrected, eyes fixed on the readouts scrolling across his computer.
McKay grunted, still fumbling through the emergency gear. Someone had been screwing with the jumper's inventory. The bright yellow bin that was supposed to hold the first aid kit and emergency blankets now held...welding equipment? He slumped dejectedly beside the pile of useless junk, using the bench seat as a back rest.
The adrenaline surge that had carried him this far was starting to fade, giving way to other sensations, none of them pleasant. McKay tilted his aching head back against the wall and tried to relax. His friends could take things from here, right? He could just kick back, conserve body heat and try to will the nitrogen bubbles that were probably forming in his bloodstream this very moment not to migrate to his brain.
He swiped a heavy hand across his eyes. Right now, he wanted nothing more in the world than to stretch out on one of the jumper's soft padded benches and sleep until they reached Atlantis, the infirmary and the good drugs.
"Shield?" His head came up with a snap that made him wince. "Puddle jumpers don't have shields!" He pushed himself up and tottered toward the cabin, his waterlogged shoes squelching with each step.
"They do now," Sheppard said, cocking an eyebrow at him. It was the first good look he'd gotten at the man since they hauled him out of the downed jumper, and he didn't like what he saw. "I thought I told you to sit down."
"And I thought I told you that puddle jumpers don't have shields," he shot back, lowering himself gingerly into the co-pilot's seat.
McKay peered out at the pulsing pastel energy field like it was some sort of bad joke. "That." He pointed. "That's a shield." Still pointing, he swiveled the chair toward Zelenka. "How did this jumper get a shield?"
Zelenka waved him off. "The question is how long will this jumper have a shield." He leaned back to make eye contact with Sheppard. "Two minutes, thirty seconds."
"Crap," Sheppard muttered, checking the depth gauge and trying to squeeze just a little more speed out of the laboring drive pods.
"No-no-no-no-no." McKay reached over to smack Sheppard on the shoulder and missed by a mile. He lurched toward the pilot. "Too fast! We're going up too fast! Decompression, remember? Horrible, painful death?"
"Not a problem." Sheppard jerked his chin toward the heads-up display, where the environmental readings were shifting in response to his unvoiced command. Everyone winced as the increase in pressure made their ears pop. "We've got our own floating hyperbaric chamber right here."
A sensor alarm went off with a shriek, distracting McKay before his sluggish brain could dredge up the right Michael Jackson joke.
Zelenka let out an answering shriek as the power levels dropped like a rock. The protective shield flickered and the little craft let out a groan as it felt the full weight of the ocean pressing down upon it.
"Problem," Sheppard conceded, hastily dialing down the atmospheric controls. McKay clutched his head at the sudden drop in pressure, muttering something about nitrogen bubbles. The shield brightened again.
Sheppard clung grimly to the controls, fighting the deepwater currents. The colder, denser water of the depths tugged at the little craft, trying to draw it back down. The currents had tugged McKay's jumper to the edge of an ocean trench that made the Mariana look like the moat around a kid's sand castle. It was just blind good luck that his ship came to rest on a ledge a few thousand feet down. Even now, the jagged trench wall rose up on his left, stretching for miles below, and hundreds of feet above.
Sheppard peered up, hoping it wasn't a trick of his eyes that the water around them seemed to be lightening toward blue, instead of the unrelieved black of the ocean depths.
McKay kept a deathgrip on the back of his chair, swaying drunkenly but staring out at the shield with wide, amazed eyes.
The water on the other side of the shield was blue. It wasn't his imagination. Sheppard grinned ferociously and angled the jumper into a tight upward corkscrew, taking advantage of the upwelling currents surging up to meet the warmer surface water.
The jumper let out a cheerful chirp.
"One-thousand feet!" Zelenka lunged for his laptop and keyed in a command. The shield wavered and vanished and the view through the window was once again an empty, tranquil dark blue.
Sheppard blew out a breath, then turned to scowl at McKay again. "Now will you sit down?"
McKay crossed his arms, a shivering, bloody shadow of his usual huffy self. "Now will you tell me where that shield came from?"
Another monitor chirped. "Uh-oh," Zelenka muttered.
Sheppard gave him a pained look. "Uh-oh, what?"
"The whale?" McKay asked, jittering over to the display screen to see for himself. He leaned over Zelenka's shoulder, dripping. The Czech shuddered as ice-cold drops hit his neck and dribbled down his collar.
"The sea monster!" Sheppard contradicted, grinning wide.
"--is following us," Zelenka finished, shrugging out of his jacket and shoving it irritably at Rodney. The injured man stared at it blankly for a moment, then tentatively accepted the dry material, draping it on top of his sodden jacket.
A moment later, the blue ocean view was blotted out by something enormous that passed them, then turned, cutting across the jumper's path. Sheppard nosed the little submersible upward, and they all watched the creatures enormous back -- covered in iridescent scales that glinted faintly in the filtered light -- glided slowly beneath them for the length of a football field.
McKay jerked nervously as the creature's eerie song vibrated through the cabin again.
"Thanks," he called out to it. "But I think we can take it from here. Go home, Lassie!"
Sheppardeyed the sea creature, which was circling around for another lazy pass at the jumper. "We can name it later."
McKay dropped back into the co-pilot's seat and tugged Zelenka's jacket more tightly around himself. It wasn't helping. Peering up, he could see the faint glow of sunlight on the waves a thousand feet up. Soon. They'd be home soon. He slumped back in the chair, letting the relief wash over him. His eyelids flutterered shut as the voices in the cabin around him grew muffled and slowly faded out.
"Rodney?" Sheppard's worried call came to him across a great distance. He felt himself sliding sideways, into hands that reached out to catch him and lower him gently to the floor.
He probably would have let himself drift away then -- if Zelenka's sudden cry of alarm hadn't penetrated the haze.
McKay's eyes flew open in time to catch a glimpse of enormous teeth flashing past the window.
"It's coming around again," Zelenka called out without moving from his protective crouch beside Rodney. Sheppard threw himself back into the pilot's seat and yanked on the controls, banking the ship sharply to the left. Too late.
"Brace for impact," Sheppard yelled. It was the last thing Rodney heard before Zelenka threw himself over him and a monstrous jolt threw the jumper sideways.