Rodney brushed a shaking hand across his forehead and tried to make sense of the babble of voices and alarms that burst out from the radio and the cabin around him. The world around him was going into soft focus again, like the view from the bottom of a swimming pool.
It couldn't possibly have been Carson's voice he'd heard. Carson was high and dry back on the mainland, birthing babies and eating Rodney's share of the berry pies.
He winced as the jumper accelerated, feeling the movement in every aching joint in his body. It wasn't helping the pounding in his skull and neither was all that shouting from Radek and Sheppard. He should let them know the distress call was just another hallucination - albeit a peculiar one.
Honestly, if he was going to start hallucinating again, why couldn't Carter and her blue brassiere put in another appearance? Or Griffin could have stopped by. The dead pilot probably wanted to finish that conversation they'd been having, right before everything went pear-shaped. The one about the scientists who always get everything wrong.
With enormous effort, Rodney lifted his head out of his hands and looked around.
Sheppard was hunched over the controls, and even with his vision starting to double, Rodney could see the tension radiating off the man. As if sensing the scrutiny, Sheppard shot a worried frown his way. Rodney frowned back, wondering if the colonel had heard Carson too.
Something beige moved into his field of vision and he blinked, then blinked again until Radek Zelenka's features sharpened into something like focus. The Czech was bending over him, and Rodney caught a glimpse of himself in the reflective surface of the scientist's glasses. He stared, mesmerized by the tiny, bloody McKays goggling back at him.
Zelenka's mouth was moving, forming words that Rodney couldn't quite hear over the pounding in his skull. He reached out and patted Radek's cheek, testing to make sure someone was actually standing there. The gesture left Zelenka's face streaked with red, like Indian war paint or his last visit to the planet with the kids. McKay smiled crookedly at the memory.
"They weren't wrong about the tomato, you know," he confided to his reflections, oblivious to the worried looks being exchanged over his head.
There was a tug on his sleeve. Zelenka was trying to lead him away from the cockpit and back to those nice padded benches in the back. No, no, no, no, no. Rodney swatted at the hands until they gave up. He'd had quite enough of the rear compartment for one day, thank you very much.
His gaze tracked lazily back to the viewscreen, where in the distance, a silver cylinder was spiraling lifelessly toward the ocean floor.
Beckett's head hit the floor with a bonk that reverberated around the cockpit.
Around them, the jumper let out a groan as it powered down. The interior lights dimmed to a sullen emergency glow and the floorboards began to tilt.
For a moment, Teyla and Ronon simply stared incredulously at each other, Teyla gripping their unconscious pilot's collar, Ronon gripping the equally unresponsive jumper controls.
The view out the window was blameless and blue. No sea creatures, no weapons fire.
Ronon rolled his eyes skyward. "This is not happening," he muttered. He gave the control toggle an experimental yank. Nothing.
The interior lights had dimmed to a sullen emergency glow. Reaching through the gloom, Teyla traced the ghostly pale outline of Carson's head. A lump the size of one of Colonel Sheppard's golf balls was swelling above the doctor's temple. Teyla rested a hand against his neck, reassured by the steady beat of the pulse she found there.
She blew out a breath. "This presents a problem," she said.
Ronon huffed out a small, humorless laugh.
Without a pilot blessed with the genetic gift of the Ancestor, they were dead in the water. Perhaps quite literally. Teyla closed her eyes as she considered the problem, trying to imagine what John Sheppard would do - other than stroll up to the controls and save the day with one touch of his enhanced genes. She thought of Rodney. What had he done for all those hours, trapped and sinking in a ruined jumper?
"Do you have any idea how much damage the jumper has sustained?" she asked finally
Dex gave a shrug and poked aimlessly at a few buttons on the console. "The lights went out after whatever hit us, hit us. But I can't tell if it's because the systems are damaged, or because the pilot is."
He gave Beckett another not-so-gentle nudge with one foot. "Doc? Wake up, Doc. You gotta fly the ship."
The doctor's gave a small moan, twitched away from the prodding and subsided. Teyla sighed and tapped her earpiece.
"This is jumper..." She glanced over at Ronon, who held up four fingers. "Four. Our ship is disabled and we require assistance."
Dead silence followed. Teyla tapped the earpiece a few more times and gave up. She shifted Carson's head until he was pillowed more comfortably in her lap and let her head thump back against the bulkhead. She heard an echoing thump as Ronon abandoned his chair and joined her on the floor.
They sat there in the darkness, staring up at the useless controls. The floor beneath them began to tilt as the jumper rotated lazily, sinking downward with each turn.
A flash of silver cut across the view and Teyla caught her breath, recognizing the fast-moving shape of another jumper. It crossed their bow again, circling.
Both of them winced as their headsets crackled to life.
"Carson? Carson, report!"
Two sets of hands flew toward their earpieces. Teyla was a beat faster.
"Carson is unconscious, John," she said fighting to keep her tone even.
Ronon made no such attempt. Surging off the floor, he planted both hands against the window.
"Why the hell did you fire at us, Sheppard?"
"I wasn't firing at you," Sheppard said, sounding apologetic and aggrieved all at once. "I was firing at the big honking sea monster that was trying to eat us. And what the hell are you three doing down here anyway?"
The teammates exchanged a look.
"Rescuing you," Ronon said.
And then something huge and scaly streaked above their ship, blotting out the weak sunlight and sending the powerless craft into a nauseating tailspin.
"I really don't have time for this," Sheppard snapped as the not-whale snaked sinuously between the downed jumper and his own.
He cued the targeting computer with a single, irritated thought. But there was something about the creature's movements that made him hesitate a beat. It didn't look like any attack pattern he'd ever seen.
The sea monster swooped and dove, weaving wild patterns through the water. It circled the jumpers once, twice and slowed to a halt, nose-to-nose with his ship.
Sheppard narrowed his eyes, studying the fishy snout pressed close to the glass. The creature bobbed its head, creating ripples that set the jumper bobbing gently as well. It rotated until its gigantic eyeball could peer directly inside the cabin.
A flash of light caught Sheppard's eye. He eased the jumper backward, trying to get a better view.
"Tell me that's not what I think it is," he said, jerking his chin in the general direction of the monster's maw.
Zelenka uncoiled from his rabbitlike crouch and took a closer look. He double-checked the instruments, and erupted into Czech.
Again, Sheppard reflected that a second language would really come in handy at times like this, because clearly there weren't enough words in English to describe this turn of events.
The sea monster's jaws yawned open...and a spent drone tumbled out, sputtering feebly.
The creature waited expectantly for a moment, then dove after the tumbling drone. A moment later, it was back, batting the thing back up to their level with its snout. It tossed its head again, sending the drone flipping end over end, until it smacked into the jumper's window - startling a squeak out of Zelenka - and ricocheted back. It snapped its teeth around its prize and whipsawed its head like a terrier with a particularly juicy bone.
Sheppard found his voice again. "Uh, doc? That thing's not about to explode on us, is it?
Zelenka tore his attention away from the creature, which had gone from worrying the drone like a chew toy to balancing it on its nose again.
"Apparently not," he said, with the air of a man whose Ancient technology has just deeply disappointed him.
The radio chirped. "Colonel?" Teyla said, sounding as befuddled as Sheppard felt.
"Yeah, we're seeing it too," he responded, glancing back into the rear compartment. If McKay found out about this, he was never going to hear the end of it. He switched his attention back to the not-whale, which gave a full body wriggle like an excited puppy.
"Okay, boy," he said, cuing the weapons again. "Go...fetch!"
A single drone streaked away. The sea monster executed a delighted backflip and sped off in pursuit.
It was a good thing McKay was too out of it to see this, because he'd never hear the end of it.
They waited for a beat, unable to believe what they'd just seen. Then Sheppard shook off his stupor and gave Zelenka a speculative look. "You know, the jumper shields worked so well, it'd be a shame to head home without trying out some of our other new toys."
Disbelief, horror and a gleam of speculative curiosity flitted across Zelenka's face in rapid succession. "The grapple? Oh no. You can't be serious."
"Why not? We've got a disabled jumper and we've got a grapple. Chocolate and peanut butter. It's not even waterlogged, so we can probably lift it clean out of the water."
Zelenka closed his eyes like a man lost in deep prayer, then started punching in a series of commands without further comment.
Sheppard maneuvered close to the stricken craft again. Through the window, he could just make out Ronon and Teyla trying to manipulate an unconscious Carson Beckett back into the pilot's chair.
"What the hell?"
Ronon gave a guilty start and nearly dropped the doctor. "It was Teyla's idea," he said quickly.
Teyla tossed her hair and shot Ronon a sour look that Sheppard could read all the way from his side. "It was actually you, Colonel, who gave me the idea. Your tale of the Wraith who threatened to cut off your hands and use them to pilot the puddle jumper off the desert moon?"
The two of them positioned Carson carefully, fighting for balance on the slanting floor of the jumper. Clearly, the inertial dampeners were out along with the other major systems.
Sheppard cocked an eyebrow. It wasn't a terrible plan, as plans go. It was no jumper-with-a-grapple, but still, not a bad piece of spot improvisation.
But if this were a game of rock-paper-scissors, everyone would agree that grapple beats Beckett puppet. "Cut it out, you two. And hold on to something. I've got a better plan."
Zelena gave him the all-clear nod, and Sheppard whipped the jumper around to hover over the downed ship.
"Deploying grapple..." Zelenka said slowly, squinting at the heads-up display that was now displaying an image of the grapple slowly unspooling from the underbelly of the ship. It swung in the current and...missed. Cursing under his breath, he reeled the grapple back and tried again. And missed again.
Sheppard bit his lip against the claw-game jokes that were trying to spill out.
There movement beside him. McKay was pulling himself awkwardly into the chair again. Damp jackets sloughed off him and he shivered even in the saunalike heat of the cockpit. Arms crossed, he took in the scene before him.
"A grapple?" He squinted. "Suddenly the jumpers have shields and grapples? What other little engineering projects were you working on while I was doing the backstroke in freezing seawater? Do the jumpers transform into killer robots now, too?"
Zelenka ignored him, all his attention focused on the controls he was manipulating. Sheppard let himself wonder just how long it would take Rodney to invent a jumper that transformed into a killer robot. Three weeks, max.
The grapple swung out again, and this time it connected with a satisfying clang.
"Hold tight," Sheppard warned over the radio. "This is going to be a... Aw, hell."
The sea monster was back, proudly brandishing another depleted drone. It looped around the twined jumpers and shook the drone until it snapped in half between the rows of razor teeth.
"You want another go, boy?" Sheppard said, finger hovering over the trigger. "On your mark, get set..."
"GAH! Nessie!" Carson's bleary brogue blared over the radio just as every system in Jumper Four flared to life. The jumper gave a lurch forward, dragging Sheppard's ship with it.
The sea monster let out a honking call and trailed after them.
"Carson? Carson! Lay off the controls!" Sheppard snapped, throwing his ship into reverse. The grapple line snapped taught between the two ships, thrumming like a guitar string as Beckett continued his panicky attempt to flee.
The sea creature caught up to them and circled the ships gleefully; a cyclone of scales and teeth.
Carson let out another yell and fired off a volley of drones. The missiles sailed harmlessly past their target and vanished into the blue - with the not-whale in hot pursuit.
"That'll work," Sheppard said. "Carson? I'm going to need you to sit back and let me drive. We're only a few hundred feet from the surface and I'm not a hundred percent sure how long this grapple-thing is going to hold, okay?"
There was a silence, then a shaky sigh. "Aye."
Sheppard immediately punched in a new course heading, upward and in the opposite direction of the monster's path. Five hundred feet, 490...450... The water was definitely lightening now. High above, he could make out the circling shadows of the rescue jumpers.
He hit the radio. "Atlantis, can you read me?
"John." How Elizabeth managed to put entire paragraphs of meaning - relief, worry, amazement, amusement - into a single word, he would never know. "What in heaven's name-?"
"We'll fill you in on everything once we're back home and everyone's had a chance to decompress. Literally."
"Of course," she said immediately. "How are our patients doing?"
He glanced back at Rodney, who was shuffling back toward the rear benches, apparently satisfied that it was safe to lay down and let someone else take over. Nitrogen bubbles, Sheppard reminded himself, watching the erratic path Rodney was taking. He held off messing with the atmospheric controls this time. Once they were back home, the doctors could figure out how to keep everyone's heads from exploding.
"Griffin didn't make it," he said at last. "But Rodney will. Somebody's probably going to need to take a look at Beckett, too."
The jumper broke the surface, back into the sky where it belonged, the other ship dangling beneath it like the prize catch of the day.
It took some doing for the other rescue crews to ungrapple the ships and get someone aboard Jumper Four to fly it safely home. Back in Atlantis, the decision was made that the jumper was probably the closest and safest thing they would find to a hyperbaric chamber. They opened up long enough to admit a medical team, a stack of warming blankets and supplies and one very woozy Carson Beckett, accompanied by Teyla and Ronon.
"We need to decompress too and we may as well do it here where I can keep an eye on things," Beckett said, looking decidedly cockeyed, with a bruise blooming spectacularly across his forehead.
He stayed upright just long enough to satisfy himself that Rodney was breathing and being tended properly. Then he dropped onto the neighboring bench, flopped sideways and was snoring in five minutes flat. One of the medics checked his vitals and tossed a blanket over him.
Teyla and Ronon gave McKay and Beckett their own once-over, then retreated to the cockpit, arguing in hushed tones.
Even from here, Sheppard could tell they were still debating whether Teyla's puppet-pilot plan would have worked. They had a wager riding on it now. Sheppard really didn't like the speculative looks Ronon was casting toward the snoring doctor.
It was ridiculously cramped in the jumper with so many people milling around, but he held his place near Rodney's bench, unwilling to give up his line of sight on the man.
Finally, the clot of medical personnel cleared away, leaving Rodney hooked to tubes and IVs and swaddled in blankets and heating pads like some sort of space burrito. Sheppard filed that image away for later reference and crouched down beside him.
"Anybody in there?"
McKay's gaze tracked lazily toward him. "They weren't wrong about the tomato," he said, like a man resuming an argument.
Sheppard blinked. "I'm sure they weren't. Wrong. About the tomato."
"Do you know that every part of the tomato plant is poisonous? Root to tip. Every part of the tomato plant can kill you." McKay made a vague helpless gesture that was cut short by his blanket cocoon. "Except the tomato."
"Which is delicious," Sheppard agreed, trying to hold up his end of the surreal conversation.
McKay's head snapped up, pinning the colonel with hurt look. "Potatoes too," he continued grimly. "You have to cook them to break down the toxic alkaloids in their skins. So it was no wonder, right? That the scientists got it wrong?"
"Got what wrong? Tomato science?"
"I mean, yes, technically, Griffin was right. If we'd listened to the scientists instead of Christopher Columbus, there would be no spaghetti sauce or Heinz 57 in the world. But you can't expect the scientists to get it right every time, can you?"
This could be a symptom of a skull fracture or the bends or something, Sheppard supposed. But it seemed more likely to be a symptom of Rodney being Rodney. He settled more comfortably on the floor, with his back resting against Carson's bunk.
"I guess even the scientists are allowed to get one wrong every once in a while."
That seemed to satisfy McKay. People agreeing with him usually did. Slowly, his eyes drifted closed.
"I should have saved him." It came out in a bare whisper.
"You couldn't save him." He didn't know what happened to Griffin yet, but he knew that much. "You can't save everyone, every time, McKay."
He gave the sick man's shoulder a little shake until McKay's eyes opened again and glared groggily at the world again.
"Besides," Sheppard grinned. "You weren't wrong about the whale."
A dreamy smile spread across McKay's face. "Go fetch, Lassie."
This time when his eyes closed, they stayed closed.
"We can name it later," Sheppard whispered.
Hoo! That was a ridiculously long wait for a faily meager payoff. But there you go. Closure! Poor McKay. I left him sitting around, sopping wet, for years. My fingers get pruney just typing about it. Sorry, McKay! Sorry, gentle readers!