Last part! This was an interesting journey. I still wish I could have extended the ending a bit, but it's one of the restrictions of writing from only one point of view that you can only describe what your character sees. It was a nifty exercise and I have really, sincerely appreciated everyone's response. Now I will retreat back into my cave and await the next plot bunny.
It took some pushing to open the doors on the other side. The rockfalls had been worse here, and what appeared to be a control console had been partially obliterated by a pile that was almost my height.
"It worked," McKay muttered.
"What?" asked Lorne.
"I wasn't certain powering one side of the system would power the other, but the drain on the generator seemed double what I would have expected, so obviously there is some sort of mechanism tying the two as far as that goes."
Sheppard stepped closer. "And if it hadn't?" he asked quietly, and the tone was almost dangerous.
"Then we just wouldn't have gone anywhere, of course." McKay read between the lines. "What, you think I'd experiment like that? With a chance we'd disintegrate? You insult me, Colonel."
And it seemed as if he were, indeed, insulted. He stalked away, bags in hand, muttering to himself. To his credit, Sheppard looked a bit sheepish, but I kept him from going after the miffed scientist.
"He won't even remember it in a few minutes," I told him, waving around at the room. The one main console was mostly crushed, but there were others around, several dark hallways leading off, a number of large pillars and a wide curving ramp led up to what had to be the ocean shore. "Let's see what we can find."
With Teyla and Lorne remaining behind with McKay, we headed for the ramp. I glanced back, and Teyla looked up at me, an odd expression on her face that I couldn't read at that distance. Sheppard was ahead of me, though, and "Hey, slowpoke!" floated back, so I turned and followed him up.
It climbed in a lazy spiral for about thirty feet, then our way was blocked by a pile of debris that filled in the area almost completely. Sheppard handed his weapon to me and scaled to the top, flashlight in hand. He all but disappeared, then I heard a sharp exclamation. Sheppard slid back down, grabbing his gun.
"It's a crashed dart. Back down, now!"
We took off at a dead run.
"Colonel!" It was Teyla calling, distressed. "The Wraith…" her voice was cut off as the sound of a stunner snapped in the air. We made it to the bottom in time to see Lorne make a lunge for her and fall, stunned.
The Wraith was well hidden, but he didn't have an angle on us or we'd have already been taken down. We stood back, tight against the wall, and saw two more shots hit the panel McKay had taken refuge behind.
Sheppard tapped his com. "McKay, where is he?"
"Can't tell," I heard in my own earpiece. "Teyla shoved me back here and tried to warn Lorne. You see what happened."
He sounded slightly breathless, but not panicked.
Sheppard nodded to himself, then glanced my way for a second and pointed at Lorne. I nodded back, and he angled himself for Teyla, counting down on his fingers, three, two, one, now. Before we'd taken more than a few steps, though, I heard the whisper of movement behind and to the side of us as the Wraith changed position. I took two running steps and dove sideways, pushing Sheppard down as another bolt splattered overhead. McKay crouched behind the main console, weapon at the ready.
"Cover us!" Sheppard hollered, and McKay laid down a stream of fire as we pulled ourselves up and ran for cover.
Then the world tipped over.
It had to have been a near miss.
I lay on my side, unable to move but still conscious. It had to have just skimmed me, I knew, or I'd be out for the count. The tipped world began to move past me and I realized I was being pulled behind the rock pile. Sheppard rolled me over and I could feel fingers at my neck. I tried to blink, managed. Tried to move my mouth. A finger. Anything.
"He's alive, but he's paralyzed," I heard Sheppard say to McKay, who was out of my line of vision.
"Damn. But that means it's on stun, so Teyla and Lorne are ok. Teyla had said something about Wraith nearby, just before you showed up, but then it started firing. You saw what happened." He sounded miserable, but Sheppard shook his head.
"It had to have been waiting in one of the hallways, saw the lights come on. The dart is fairly recent. I think it might even have crashed during the siege."
"How come the beacon didn't go off?"
"Maybe it was damaged? Who knows. It's been here a while."
It can't leave, I wanted to say. I managed a grunt, and McKay leaned forward.
"We can't let it get past us. The transporter's been initiated; it'd go back to the cavern. All the rest are there."
"And it would have gone up and out if it could. I'm betting the ramp's collapsed even more farther up."
There was a pause. I concentrated on moving.
"I have an idea." McKay's voice was tinged with dread.
"I'm not gonna like this, am I?"
"You'll like it a lot better than I will. Listen, the wraith blast is like a lightening strike. If it wings you or hits you, you're down. But what if you're insulated from it? By, say, another body?"
Sheppard frowned. "What?"
And my ears began to roar, and I wondered whether maybe it was more than a graze after all.
I roused again at hands fumbling around my waist. I managed a grunt of protest, but it was Sheppard who leaned over, grabbing my vest, not a Wraith. With McKay on the other side, they hoisted me to a sitting position, which immediately improved my field of vision. McKay put the handgun he normally carried into my hand, curling my limp fingers around it.
"We need your gun," Sheppard said. "Just for a bit."
He sat down, then laid full length on the ground, on his side, as if he'd been hit. He took my weapon in his right hand, and then let it drop behind artistically, hiding it from whoever might see him from the front. McKay pulled the nylon straps on Sheppard's vest out a bit more, grasping them firmly. I realized that he wasn't actually touching Sheppard at all, and the plan became a bit clearer.
"Ready?" Sheppard asked.
"Hell, no," replied McKay.
Taking a deep breath, McKay backed out of cover, pulling Sheppard as if heading for the transporter. And as we'd all known would happen, the blast hit him squarely, dropping him like a rock.
I couldn't see either of them moving. I worked at closing my hand, needing to have some protection, some way to take it down if the plan hadn't worked, but I was still numb. In my mind, I leapt over the rocks and throttled the Wraith by hand. In practice, I couldn't scratch my nose.
Sheppard lay still. I couldn't tell if he was really unconscious or just playing dead. Footsteps sounded, echoing in the stone cave. They paced cautiously, stopping at Lorne and Teyla first, pausing only for a few seconds, and then continuing towards Sheppard. It stopped just at the edge of my vision, toed the Colonel, then crouched as if to feed.
Sheppard's eyes snapped open. He swung my gun up, shot twice. The Wraith collapsed, and Sheppard stood, wavering, and shot it twice more. Then, for good measure, he shot it again.
I could track his movements as he knelt by McKay, checking for a pulse, which was there. He checked Teyla and Lorne, then grunted in a contented way. Kind of like what I did after a good dinner. Evidently this meshing thing went both ways.
He knelt in front of me, rubbing his arms.
"Tingles. But it worked. Five shots enough?" he asked. "Blink once for yes and twice for no."
I blinked twice.
"Ok," he said agreeably, and shot the dead Wraith three more times. "Better?"
"Careful!" McKay yelled. "There's seven life signs in that buffer, don't bash it too hard!"
The Atlantis scientists had excavated the dart and managed to remove the culling device from the crashed ship, discovering in the process that the beacon had, in fact, been too badly damaged in the crash to function. The culler, though, was intact - but the re-materializer had been unpowered. The whole unit had been shipped back to the city.
"That must have been one pissed Wraith. Seven four-course meals on the other side of a mere battery," Lorne said unsympathetically.
"Poor guy," Sheppard replied, sounding incredibly insincere.
We were standing in one of the larger labs, and the science contingent was swarming over the equipment, preparing to restore the seven in the buffer. Weir was to one side, arms folded, watching. Next to her, Beckett and part of his crew waited.
"OK! Powering up!"
There was a flash, and the first person appeared, wavered, collapsed. It was one of the adult Athosians. Teyla was at his side in a moment, and then Beckett was there, a gurney ready at hand.
"So there's a happy ending for some folks," I observed. I looked over at Sheppard, who was watching with a tight, strained expression.
"Yep." Sheppard straightened. "A happy ending. Till next time."
"Doesn't make it worth it?"
Sheppard's eyes were drawn to McKay, and the tension deepened. He shook his head. "Nope. Doesn't make it worth it. Nothing would make it worth it."
Another man, this time in uniform, appeared and collapsed. One of the Daedelus crew.
"Families will be pleased."
"Yep. They will be. I'm glad for them," Sheppard stated. "They were damned lucky, and it was because we were there recovering that we had the time to scout someplace we wouldn't have taken time to normally. But what those bastards did to us was unforgivable. I still want to go back and blow the place up, but Elizabeth's locked them out of the dialing computer."
A third person, a woman, in a Daedelus uniform.
"They don't make it worth it," Sheppard turned away. "But they give it some kind of meaning."
"Sometimes that's all you can ask," I replied.
"But sometimes there's more."
It was Caldwell, and he was watching from behind us. He looked – not happy, the man never did – but pleased. Satisfied.
Sheppard nodded politely – he and Caldwell had a truce, of sorts, as much as two strong leaders who butted heads could. There was mutual respect. What Sheppard didn't know was that Caldwell had actually joined us for some time while he and McKay were unconscious, spelling Teyla and I.
Caldwell inclined his head by way of acknowledgement. "We've just come off a very satisfactory training exercise," he said. "And it looks like you've found some missing personnel."
We watched as the next two people appeared in rapid succession. One of them had an Atlantis uniform on, and another was Athosian.
"Well, Sir, you know the proverb about clouds and silver linings," Sheppard drawled.
Caldwell didn't respond. Instead, he stood beside me, watching the progress as the final two were materialized. McKay had been in the middle of the whole process, alternately yelling and encouraging, and now he leaned on the table for a moment. He glanced up again and saw us, pushed off the table and headed in our direction.
"Not bad, huh?" he said, satisfied.
"Not bad at all," Sheppard replied. "Right, Colonel?"
"Absolutely," Caldwell agreed. "Doctor McKay, I think you may have some work to do on one of the jumpers."
"They're all fine."
"We were loaned three for an exercise and one of them sustained some damage." Caldwell didn't sound sorry, far from it. He was having fun with this.
I eyed Sheppard as McKay began to protest, and the pilot held up a restraining hand.
"I think we need to hear the whole story," he said.
"Well, it is a good one." Smug. That was it. Caldwell was smug. "Our mission was to extract an unknown number of hostages from a fortified building and destroy it, then to render aid to those rescued and return them home. Which we accomplished, with no losses, and the incidental advantage of making peaceful contact with several races we hadn't run into before."
Sheppard got it right away. I was only a second behind him, but McKay was still puzzled. "It was an exercise? Then how'd it get damaged?"
Sheppard shook his head. "It was an 'exercise'," he said, wiggling his fingers in what Beckett had told me were called air quotes. "There were real bullets flying, though."
"Bullets? Sounds dangerous. Who authorized that? Did anyone get hit?"
Caldwell sighed. Sheppard smirked at me. McKay still wasn't getting it. I took pity on him – which is really unlike me. Earthers were rubbing off on me.
"McKay, they attacked the prison you and Sheppard were held in. They got the others out and blew the place up."
That stopped him. There was silence for a moment. "Oh," he said finally, glancing at Sheppard. "Um. Good."
I wasn't certain what Caldwell expected the reaction to be, but I was pretty certain it wasn't 'oh'.
"Problem?" I asked.
"You got the other prisoners out? What about the…the guards?" His attitude had turned intense, and Caldwell was cautious.
"We weren't that concerned about them, Doctor." I liked Caldwell. Easy guy to understand.
"Oh," he said again. There was another pause. "I'm sorry, Colonel. I mean – thank you. But I'm surprised that you did it. What will Elizabeth say?"
Caldwell sighed, and I could see he understood McKay's reaction. The Doctor was pleased to hear that justice had been served, but Earthers had a real reluctance when it came to imposing their own sense of justice on others – even where doing it would be a distinct improvement. Doctor Weir had been the champion of that particular concept recently. But somehow, I wasn't that surprised by Caldwell's reply.
"Doctor. Do you believe we would have been able to obtain permission from Doctor Weir to borrow those jumpers if she didn't know exactly what we would be doing with them?"
McKay blinked. It wasn't like him to be this slow, but then it hit me. He wanted to hear the words.
Caldwell realized it too. "McKay, not only did she know about the mission, she helped plan it."
And there wasn't much more to say.