Sheppard's plummet towards the bottom of the shaft halted, but not with the abrupt and messy end that he was expecting. Instead, it was more like sinking into honey -- a sudden sensation of something dragging at his body, slowing him until he came to a complete stop. He opened his eyes and wished he hadn't -- he was still in midair, head down, staring at the bottom of the shaft and McKay's tiny, frantic figure several hundred feet below him.
McKay's voice was babbling in his earpiece. "Major, I'll catch you -- no, no, 9.8 meters per second, very bad idea, uh, can you catch hold of anything, maybe grab the side of the shaft -- good God, how high up are you, from down here it doesn't look like you're moving at all --"
Very cautiously, afraid of breaking whatever tenuous spell was keeping him from his death, Sheppard reached around to his radio. "I'm not."
"--find a trampoline or something, as if they're just going to have a door that says 'In case of fatal fall, break glass' -- uh, did you just say something?"
"I'm not falling, McKay. I'm floating."
Rodney shut up. Then there came a small voice, "Floating?"
"Yeah, in midair, head down. It's kind of uncomfortable, but you'll excuse me if I'm a little nervous about moving right now, since I don't know what's holding me up. Any ideas?"
After a pause, Rodney's loud finger-snap came through the earpiece. "The gene! Major, I think you just found their elevator. Concentrate on having it turn you rightside up."
"I'm a little leery of doing anything that might cause me to start falling again, McKay."
"Oh for -- don't be a child. If it doesn't respond to your mental commands, then you haven't lost anything, and if it does, you should be fine as long as you don't think about falling."
"Which is harder at the moment than you might think," Sheppard remarked, staring down the shaft.
"Major, if you'd rather hang up there until we call Elizabeth and have her send some Marines with ropes --"
"All right, fine, I'm concentrating." He closed his eyes -- it was easier without having to stare at the drop underneath him -- and thought, Turn me the right way up, and put me on one of those catwalks. Any one will do.
The strange sensation of hanging in midair without falling became even stranger when he started moving, because there was nothing moving him -- nothing pushing, nothing pressing against him, not even wind or any other sensation that he was moving at all. The blood rushed out of his head and he opened his eyes to find himself rightside up and gliding smoothly across the shaft to a catwalk -- in fact, the very one he'd just fallen from. With a gasp of relief, he caught hold of the edge and hoisted himself onto it.
"Major? It worked?"
Sheppard took a few deep breaths, pressed against the wall, before answering. "Yeah. It worked. And I think I even know how it works."
"Oh, sure you do," came back the scientist's voice, laden with scorn. "Why don't you leave the thinking to the people with advanced science degrees, Major."
"I think it's like the intertial dampeners on the puddlejumpers," Sheppard continued, unperturbed. "I couldn't even tell I was moving. And if they can stop you from getting squashed by a hundred gees, then I don't see why they can't stop somebody from falling down an elevator shaft."
There was a long silence. Finally McKay said, "It's possible."
Sheppard grinned against the wall. "You mean I'm right."
"I said it's possible. How in the world am I supposed to know? I'm stuck down here. Maybe if I was up there I could figure out what just happened to -- GAH!"
"McKay? What?" The only answer through the radio was small whimpering noises of terror. Sheppard turned around, keeping one white-knuckled hand clamped to the wall, to try to figure out just what exactly had happened -- and nearly collided with McKay, who crumpled against him and seized hold of the front of Sheppard's uniform in a death grip.
"McKay? Rodney?" Sheppard pried the scientist off him, trying to do so without sending them both off the catwalk. McKay's face was white. "How did you get up ..." He trailed off; there was only one possible answer.
McKay opened and closed his mouth a few times before he managed to say, in something resembling a normal tone of voice, "Flew. I flew. Just sort of ... flew up here."
"It must've heard you say, or think, that you wanted to be up here." Sheppard cast a glance over the edge, and this time he really wished he hadn't done that. It was too easy to remember how it felt to be suspended over that lethal drop. "Why didn't it do that before, I wonder?"
Rodney drew some shaky breaths, the color starting to come back to his face. "Because you have the gene, Major, I'd guess. It must be one of those systems that works for anybody once it's active. Or maybe falling was the trigger and it kicked in automatically, so now it's on for good."
"Getting down's gonna be fun," Sheppard remarked with another look at the edge of the precipice.
"I'd really rather not think about that right now. I'd rather look at the -- Oh God ..." In looking around for the access panel, he'd accidentally looked over the edge; the returning color vanished from his face, and Sheppard moved a hasty hand close to his chest in case he pitched over the side. Whether or not the "elevator" would work for an unconscious scientist without the gene was not something that he wanted to find out the hard way. Rodney, however, swallowed hard and managed to recover on his own. "Right," he mumbled, and began to shuffle sideways towards the access panel, keeping as much as possible of his body in contact with the wall. Sheppard shuffled along after him, keeping a hand ready to catch him in case he slipped. After a moment, Rodney noticed this and raised his head to deliver an exasperated look.
"I don't need you holding my hand, Major. We both know ..." He swallowed convulsively and managed, barely, to keep his eyes from going to the edge. "We both know I'll be perfectly fine if I do slip off."
"No, McKay, we don't know that. For one thing, I have the gene and you don't, and for all we know, the safety mechanism that caught me will just completely ignore you."
"It worked for me just fine a minute ago, and when will you quit bringing up the gene thing!" McKay resumed his slow forward progress towards the access panel. "Did you know," he inquired in an almost-normal conversational tone, "that Beckett has been developing an injectable form of the gene? And guess who's volunteered for a human trial once the thing is safe? You're about to be a lot less special than you once were."
"An injectable gene?" Sheppard considered this as they shuffled around the side of the shaft. "Is that even possible?"
"Ha, feeling threatened, Major?"
Sheppard snorted a laugh. "Yeah, because I love these midnight expeditions to the bowels of the city. I'll miss them so."
Rodney started to give a sarcastic reply, but just then he reached the access panel and was distracted in mid-snark. "Dammit, Major! Did a nice number on this thing, didn't you? Could you possibly be any more clumsy?"
"You mean while I was flailing for a handhold while plummeting to my death, McKay?"
"There's nothing in the access panel that could possibly support your weight, Major."
"Well, I'm sorry if I had other things on my mind than a logical analysis of the situation, Rodney, such as my own impending death!"
McKay reached out an impatient hand and snapped his fingers. "Well, give me the crystal."
The scientist spared a look in Sheppard's direction and rolled his eyes. "The one you were taking out when you fell, Major. Am I being unclear?"
Sheppard stared at him in disbelief. "You think I still have it?"
"You mean you don't?"
"McKay! I was falling!"
"Well, it certainly didn't fall; I was under it! I think I would have noticed."
The same thought occurred to them both at once, and they looked over the edge, Sheppard steadying McKay with a hand on his chest. The crystal, being mostly transparent, was difficult to see in the dim light of the shaft, but now that they were looking for it, Sheppard eventually picked it out -- hanging in midair, a couple feet down from their present location. It was actually within reach. He knelt cautiously on the catwalk, leaned out and got it by a corner. He experienced no resistance as he brought it back to him, and held it up triumphantly in front of McKay's stunned face.
The scientist managed to close his gaping mouth, and took the crystal from Sheppard's hand without saying a word.
"That," Sheppard said, "is cool." He looked over the edge; as he adjusted to the idea that the fall couldn't hurt him, he was starting to really enjoy being up here. "Imagine -- no dropped nails or sandwiches, just kick back on the air anytime you need a break ..."
"If only I shared your idiot confidence," McKay muttered from above him. He heard small clicking sounds and McKay cursed softly, then said, "There. Luckily the damage from your thrashing about was worse than it looked. I think I've got it bypassed nicely."
Sheppard straightened up and looked at the glowing crystals. Couldn't prove it by him. "So it should work now?"
"Well, that's the sixty-thousand-dollar question, isn't it?" McKay switched his radio to the standard, public Atlantis channel. "Zelen-- Oh, damn. I sent him home." He smacked his forehead with his palm. "There's nobody in the waste control facility to test this."
Sheppard shrugged. "We could walk back."
"And then come back down here again if it doesn't work? I'd really rather not." With a sigh, he keyed the radio. "Grodin, are you there?"
Listening in on the open channel, Sheppard heard the reply come immediately. "Here. How's it going down there?"
"We're ready to test. Problem is, there's nobody available to turn it on." McKay started, automatically, to pace on the narrow catwalk, took a look down, and stopped with a swallow.
Into the silence, Grodin said, "I can't go myself, but you want me to send somebody?"
"That would be great, Peter, thanks. It's very simple; I can walk anybody through it. All you have to do is hit a button."
"I'll keep you posted, then. Grodin out."
"Now what?" Sheppard wanted to know.
"Now we wait."
The pilot sat down on the edge of the catwalk, dangling his long legs over the edge. He looked up to see McKay staring at him in disbelief.
"That can't be safe," McKay said flatly.
"Of course it's safe. You've already seen what happens if I fall off."
"And you trust that it'll happen every time, do you? What if there's a power failure? What if it only catches you the first time because they figure that nobody would be dumb enough to fall off twice?"
Sheppard laughed. "Ever heard of tempting fate, McKay?"
"Ever heard of foresight and planning, Major?"
Sheppard just shrugged and leaned back against the wall, arms folded behind his head. "Well, you can stand there if you like, but I intend to be comfortable." He smirked up at McKay, who looked highly peeved.
"Fine, don't expect me to catch you when you fall." Carefully and keeping a hand on the wall at all times, McKay turned around to look into the glowing circuitry in the access panel. "I'll simply use the time to expand my mind and gain much-needed knowledge about Ancient wiring systems, while you goof off."
Sheppard's smirk faded somewhat as he noticed that Rodney's hands on the access panel were trembling slightly. "If you feel anything like I do, you're probably so tired that you won't remember half of what you're seeing anyway. Sit down, McKay. The more tired you get, the more likely that you will fall."
"I don't need to be lectured by you," was the peevish reply.
Sheppard wiggled into a more comfortable position on the ledge. "Your loss."
There were a few moments of silence. Sheppard was actually starting to drowse; he could feel his body relaxing. Suddenly something jostled him and he turned his head to discover Rodney very nervously settling himself on the edge of the catwalk.
"Learned all you can about Ancient technology already?"
"Believe me, if I had any choice I'd be sitting as far away from you as possible, but it's too difficult to move on this thing." He waved a hand at the narrow catwalk. "Given the choice between you and a fatal fall, I guess I'll take you. But by a very narrow margin."
"You wouldn't die if you fell. You know that. You're just choosing to disbelieve it."
"Aren't you the one who tried to convince me that it might kill me earlier?"
"If it caught the crystal, I can't imagine that it wouldn't catch you. Like I said, you're choosing not to trust it."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I'm choosing not to blindly trust my life to ten-thousand-year-old technology. That makes me what ... oh yeah, SANE!"
"Isn't that what we're doing every time we go through the Stargate?"
"Speak for yourself. I've only been through it once."
Sheppard raised a finger. "Ah, yes, but all that is about to change, remember?"
"At the moment, I'm trying to forget." Rodney tried to settle himself on the ledge, clinging to the edge of it with both hands. Sheppard noticed a light sheen of sweat on his skin. Their precarious position was clearly still bothering him badly.
"C'mon, McKay, relax. You're not going to fall and you're not going to die. Think about something else."
"Something else, huh?" McKay waved his hand at the drop-off beneath them. "Like what, pray tell?"
"I spy, with my little eye ..."
"Shoot me now," Rodney groaned.
"... something that starts with the letter S."
"Damn. Okay, your turn."
Rodney heaved a long-suffering sigh. "This is ridiculous, I can't believe I'm actually having this conversation. I spy, et cetera, something that starts with ..." His expression turned gleeful. "Something that starts with C."
"Catwalk. Come on, Rodney, pick a hard one."
McKay was grinning cheerfully. "It's not catwalk."
"Good one, but no."
"Oh. Um. What else in here starts with C? Ceiling?"
Rodney pointed upwards, into the darkness. "We don't even know if there is one."
"Okay, fine, so it's not ceiling. I give up, what?"
"Carbon? As in copies?"
"As in one of the elements composing your body and mine. Not to mention carbon dioxide in the air. There's a ton of carbon in this shaft."
"That's a molecule. That's cheating."
"Carbon is an atom, Major. Are you seriously telling me you don't know the difference?" McKay pointed at him. "Your turn."
"I still say you cheated." Sheppard looked around. "Okay, um, I spy, with my little eye ... something that starts with the letter W."
"You could at least try to make it challenging, Major."
"There's nothing in here, McKay. It's a shaft."
"Yet somehow I'm having no trouble," McKay replied cheekily.
"Yeah ... because you're cheating."
"What are you complaining about? This stupid game was your idea. I spy something starting with G."
Sheppard grinned. "Geek."
"Oh har. No."
"Um ... guardrail? Except there isn't one."
"I give up. I'm really not going to like the answer to this one, am I?"
"Gravity," McKay said triumphantly.
"You can't see gravity!"
"I don't have to see it to know it's there. The fact that we're not floating off this catwalk is proof of that."
Sheppard tried to squirm into a more comfortable position on the ledge. "I think you're having trouble getting into the spirit of this game."
McKay crossed his arms and grinned smugly. "You're just jealous because I keep winning."
Sheppard seriously contemplated pushing McKay off the ledge -- on the assumption that it wouldn't hurt him and might shut him up for a while -- when the radio crackled. "Dr. McKay? This is Grodin. Are you there?"
Sheppard mouthed "Grodin starts with G" at Rodney, who tried to ignore him. "This is McKay. Go ahead."
"We're ready to start. Carol is down in the waste disposal facility, and she's ready to follow your instructions."
Carol. Sheppard tried to put a face to the name, could not. He was still learning all his own people, let alone the civilians. He listened as McKay impatiently instructed the woman in which buttons to push -- it was more complicated than just pushing one button, but not much more so. And then there was a silence.
"Well?" McKay pressed.
"I'm not seeing red lights anywhere," Grodin said. "Carol?"
"Everything looks good down here."
McKay looked over at Sheppard with slowly dawning relief and joy. "Carol, Peter, go flush a toilet. Doesn't matter where or which one."
Sheppard leaned forward eagerly, seeing McKay also quivering with impatience. Swinging aside the mouthpiece of his radio for a moment, he said with a grin, "You think we're getting a little too worked up about this?"
"Is that even possible? Major, you can go three days without water, and weeks without food, but without a bathroom --" He broke off at Grodin's cry.
McKay's body sagged in visible relief. "Thank God. Thank God. Peter, it's going to be an hour or so before I can get back to the main part of the city. Do you have anyone available who can spot-test the plumbing in various areas before we make a city-wide announcement?"
"Carol can do it on her way back up to the gate room."
"Great. Wonderful. McKay out."
He turned off his radio and closed his eyes, leaning back against the wall with a long sigh. All the exhaustion that he'd been holding at bay was suddenly clearly visible in the lines of his face and body.
"Nice work," Sheppard said quietly, and meant it.
For a moment, he didn't know if McKay had heard him, but then one of the eyes cracked upen to reveal a weary hint of blue. The corners of McKay's mouth curved up. And that was all; words didn't need to be spoken. Again silence settled on them, a silence borne partly of exhaustion and partly of unexpected comfort in each other's company.
They both looked up when Grodin's lightly accented voice echoed from the citywide PA. "Attention, residents of Atlantis. The plumbing is cleared for use. Please resume your normal activities. Thank you."
"... and the ensuing rush will probably shut down the system again," Rodney sighed.
Sheppard grinned, stretched and climbed to his feet. "Well, McKay, it's been fun, but I'm taking a detachment of Marines through the gate at seven hundred hours and I'd like to catch at least a couple hours' sleep before then." He offered a hand and helped the scientist to his feet.
"Where are you going? Tomorrow, I mean."
Sheppard lifted a shoulder. "We're spending a couple of hours on a planet Teyla knows about, to talk about trading for food. Have you met Teyla, by the way? Athosian? Swings a mean club?"
"That's the redhead you were hitting on at the party the other night?"
"We're friends," Sheppard snapped.
"Yes, I always stare down my friends' cleavage. Of course I can't blame you, considering that her cleavage is so ..." Rodney gestured in front of himself, wordlessly demonstrating what he was talking about.
Sheppard stifled a laugh. "Better watch it, McKay. She hits people with sticks. Hard. I have the bruises to prove it." At Rodney's amused look, he hastily qualified: "Training. We were training. She was showing me some tricks with those sticks of hers."
"Whose stick, again?"
"You have a surprisingly dirty mind, McKay."
"So says the guy who spends, what, six hours in the Pegasus Galaxy before showing up with a hot alien babe?" McKay's look turned faintly hopeful. "This planet where you're going tomorrow ... does it have any hot alien women on it?"
Sheppard smirked at him. "Well ... Teyla will be, obviously. And what do you mean, 'where you're going'? Don't you mean WE?"
There was an odd mix of nervousness, annoyance and hope on Rodney's face. "When you said -- I mean, I thought you meant someday, obviously, but --"
"Too busy tomorrow?"
"Well, insanely busy, obviously, Major." The grin that tugged at the corners of McKay's mouth was shy and eager, a little kid's grin. "But I think I could make some time. For just a couple of hours. Seven hundred hours, you said?"
"Seven hundred," Sheppard confirmed, and then glanced down over the edge of the catwalk. "And in order to have any time at all to sleep, I guess we'd better get out of here."
McKay looked over the edge, and paled. "Suppose I'd better start climbing, then."
"You can't climb down all that way, Rodney. I don't even think I can do it right now. My arms feel like rubber. Come on, you floated up -- you can float back down. I'll hold onto you, just in case it only reacts to me." He reached out a hand.
McKay attempted to back away from the edge, and from Sheppard, but the ledge was so narrow that all he managed to do was flatten himself against the wall. "No. No way. I am not stepping off this thing in the hopes that an invisible energy field will catch me. My brains are too important to end up splattered all over an Atlantean floor."
Sheppard struggled to suppress his amusement -- it clearly wasn't a laughing matter to Rodney. The scientist was obviously terrified. "It's a leap of faith, McKay."
Rodney snorted. The sarcasm did not manage to hide his fear. "Well, if you knew me at all, Major -- which, I might add, the last couple of days notwithstanding, you do not -- you'd know that I'm not prone to those."
"I'm not -- not so good at that, either, Major."
"Maybe it's time to try." And Sheppard just stood there, holding out his hand.
McKay took a long, shuddering breath, and inched a step closer, allowing Sheppard to take hold of his arm. "Are you sure you have a grip on me?" he demanded. "Is that going to hold if I fall? It feels like you're just holding my jacket. My arm could slip out. I'm heavy, you know --"
"McKay. Rodney. Relax. Just step forward when I do, and think about going down, slowly, sinking to the floor like ... like ..." Sheppard's metaphor deserted him. He couldn't think, off the top of his head, of anything that sank slowly and delicately. All the flying things he was familiar with were forceful, fast and loud.
"Dandelion fluff?" McKay inquired, the fear in his voice now overlaid with a heavy veneer of scorn. "Butterflies? Kitten whiskers?"
"A skydiver in a parachute," Sheppard finished, pleased to have actually thought of something that drifted in the air without being hopelessly feminine. "Okay, on three. One, two ..."
"Wait, I'm not ready!" Rodney squeaked. But despite his protests, he stepped forward when Sheppard did -- and the air held them. When their other feet left the catwalk in tandem, they began to sink slowly.
It wasn't like dandelion fluff or even skydivers -- more, Sheppard thought, like two men sinking into mud. Again, there was no sensation at all, either from the movement or from wind on their skin. But smoothly, gradually, they sank down the shaft, and he felt Rodney's stiff arm beginning to relax under his hand.
"See?" he said, turning to grin at the scientist. "Isn't this cool?"
McKay hesitantly returned a smile that was at once exhilarated, and unexpectedly shy. "Yeah," he said, looking around him in wonder at the walls of the shaft with their glittering lights. "It's cool as all hell, Major."
They touched down on the floor of the shaft as lightly as ... some light thing other than dandelion fluff, thought Sheppard. He released Rodney's arm -- he hadn't even realized he was still holding it -- and tipped his head back to look up the shaft one final time. He couldn't pick out the catwalk where they had been sitting just a few moments ago. All was lost to distance.
"I'm going to have to come back here and figure out how this works," Rodney said thoughtfully.
"I told you -- inertial dampeners."
The scientist gave him a sharp look, then stared back up the shaft again, and rather than the antagonistic response that Sheppard was expecting, he just said, "Could be." Which probably meant "you're right" in McKay-ese -- a language, Sheppard realized, in which he was rapidly becoming fluent.
Grinning to himself, Sheppard started walking; after a moment, Rodney followed him.
"So," Rodney said after walking in silence for a little while. He sounded diffident, uncertain. "If we're leaving at seven, then we should eat something first, like maybe ... six?"
"Sounds good. See you in the cafeteria at six, McKay."
Out of the corner of his eye, Sheppard caught Rodney's grin.
"I'll be there, Major."
Thank you so much for all the reviews! I'm sorry for not responding to everyone, but I do read and appreciate each review. Though I realize this isn't the only SGA story that I have right now, it was the first that I started writing, and I feel as if I've come a long way, in my ability to accurately get inside the characters' heads, from the first chapter to this one. And I'm sure I still have a long way yet to go ...
It was pointed out to me (politely, don't get me wrong, and I'm glad to know!) that I messed up canon as far as the number of days that elapse between "Rising" and "Hide & Seek" ... so ... I've kinda just decided to go with it. Think of this story as slightly AU if you like.
Now that this one is done, I have another long story in the works, which I will begin posting fairly soon. (By "soon" I mean in the next couple of weeks, most likely.) Expect Sheppard and McKay, angst, blood, violence, Wraith ... all the good stuff.