A/N: I'm truly surprised that no one has used this idea yet in SGA fanfic. Or maybe they have, and I just haven't run across the story yet. In any case, I couldn't help myself. Poor, poor John and Rodney. Brace yourselves.
As always, many thanks to Tazmy for doing beta duty -- remaining mistakes are mine, not hers. And thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed my other stories. Thank you so much! I hope you will enjoy this one.
Running on Empty
by Sholio (a.k.a. Layla)
Season/spoilers: Late season 2, probably before Michael. The biggest spoilers are for Runner, but there are passing references to various episodes including Childhood's End, Instinct, Conversion, Hive, Epiphany, Grace Under Pressure, and undoubtedly others I'm forgetting.
Rating: T for language and violence
Archive: Anywhere, no need to ask
Disclaimer: Property of MGM. I own nothing and gain no profit from writing this story.
Chapter One: Wilderness Survival 101
When you become isolated or separated in a hostile area ...
your evasion and survival skills will determine whether or not you
return to friendly lines. ...
You can do without food for several days; water, however, is essential.
--U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
Cold, thirst, and an itch he couldn't scratch drove him out of darkness, to the sharp bite of a rock digging into his arm, to the rich smell of earth and growing things and the chill of a wind tugging at his hair. Wrong, all wrong. There shouldn't have been grass and dirt and sunlight stabbing into his eyes as he peeled them slowly open. There should have been soft fluorescent lights, the smell of metal and plastic, the murmur of the ocean on the edge of hearing.
Wrong. But he didn't know why he expected plastic rather than grass, any more than he knew his name.
He blinked his eyes, staring up at the pinpricks of two small suns -- one with hints of gold, the other pure white -- in a washed-out, pale blue sky. Thin wisps of clouds trailed their fingers across his field of vision -- his mind supplied the word contrails and something in him twisted in a sudden fierce joy and pain, a sudden urge to rise up and touch the sky. He tried to catch at that strange sensation, but it was gone.
He was still thirsty and cold, and as he tried to move, suddenly hurting as well: a sharp pain like a pitchfork stabbed him between the shoulder blades. He sucked in his breath, clenching his teeth, and closed his eyes until the pain subsided. Then he continued to roll slowly over, expecting it this time, bracing himself for it. A part of him insisted that he should lie still until he could determine what had hurt him and how badly. A more insistent part, however, demanded that he find out where he was and whether anything else was about to hurt him more.
The first rush of pain had been the worst, and though it still hurt abominably, he could sit up and look around. He was in an overgrown, apparently abandoned field, sloping gently down to a row of evergreen trees about a hundred yards away. The broken line of a wooden fence, moss-covered and falling down from neglect, wound through the tall grass and weeds to vanish at the edge of the woods. There was no other sign of human habitation. Tall mountains rose on the far side of the trees, and, turning his head with a grimace of pain, he found them on all sides -- a fence of soaring, snow-capped cliffs, some so near that he could see the silver threads of waterfalls down their sides, others blue and hazy with distance.
The only sign of life he could see was a wide-winged bird soaring against the distant peaks of the mountains. It resembled some sort of eagle, but it had to be huge, bigger even than the condors in the mountains of his childhood.
He tried to grab at that memory, but again, frustratingly, it skittered away. In its place, though, came a sense of desperate urgency. There was something he had to do. Someone he had to find. And he wasn't doing it by laying here in the grass.
With the urgent feeling came a rush of fear. He knew he wasn't safe. Someone had hurt him, and he knew deep down that they'd be back to hurt him again. He had to get out of the open, get to the shelter of the trees. And find water; his dry throat ached enough to give some serious competition to the stabbing pain at the top of his spine.
Shakily he got to his feet, wincing, trying not to pull at the wounded muscles in his back. He could tell from the feeling that it was a healing injury rather than a new one ... maybe a few days old? He didn't know why, but he realized that he was a man who knew wounds, knew what they felt like and how to deal them to others. If he met the people who had done this to him -- a flush of hatred ran through him, startling with its intensity. They had done more than just hurt him. He would kill them if he found them, with his bare hands if necessary.
His hand had gone instinctively to his leg at the thought, touching only the bare cloth of his pants leg. There should have been a gun strapped there. He felt naked without it, defenseless. All the more reason to get to the woods.
As he started to walk, he realized that the only tracks in the long grass were the ones he was making as he left the little nest where he'd awakened. Startled, he looked around. The grass should have shown a trail easily, but there was none. It was as if he'd fallen from the sky.
Limping at first, he found that it got easier to move as he warmed up and shook the bloodflow back into his cold, stiff extremities. His shirt caught on the wound on his back as he walked, making him flinch. It wasn't going to be easy, since he couldn't see it, but he had to figure out how badly he was hurt. First, though, he needed to get out of the open, and he needed to find water.
At least that last part, he figured, should be easy in this high country -- mountains, especially green mountains with trees, always had streams. And sure enough, he could hear the sound of rushing water as soon as he entered the trees. Stumbling occasionally, supporting himself on the craggy trunks of the evergreens, he found his way to a small brook twisting between moss-covered banks. Careful of his back, he lowered himself to his knees and dipped up water with his hands. It was so cold it numbed his fingers, and he closed his eyes, luxuriating briefly in the cool wetness that soothed away the burn in his dry throat.
Thirst slaked, he turned his attention to taking an inventory of himself -- his injuries, weapons and so forth. No gun, but he already knew that. He discovered himself to be wearing a set of gray military fatigues and a flak vest with pockets, somewhat dirty and bloodstained but basically intact. The pockets were mostly empty, but he did come up with a few things of varying degrees of usefulness: a clip of ammo for the gun he didn't have; a waterproof case of matches; an object similar to a fat laundry marker, naggingly familiar though he couldn't immediately figure out what it was; a compass; string; a simple first-aid kit; a peppermint candy; two powerbars. The sight of the sugar-rich food made his mouth water; now that he wasn't so desperately thirsty, he found that he was very hungry as well. He forced himself to put the nutrition bars away. No telling how long he'd have to survive on them.
He was pleased to discover that he had a boot sheath containing a knife -- a large, wicked-looking one. Another sudden flash of memory: someone with knives, someone with a LOT of knives, telling him always to have knives hidden on his body. His unknown enemies, whoever they were, had taken his gun and they'd taken the knife he always wore at his belt, but they had left the one in his boot. Whoever that person with the knives was, he might owe him his life in the days to come.
Feeling tenderly between his shoulder blades, he found that the material of his jacket and vest were intact on top of the injury. It had been made when he wasn't wearing these clothes. Now he was even more confused, as he was forced to rearrange his guesswork about the chain of events leading up to his awakening in the field. He'd assumed that he had escaped from someone and been injured while trying to get away. Apparently, the situation was a little more complicated than that.
The movements hurt like hell, but he managed to shrug out of his vest and then his jacket. Even the black T-shirt beneath was not slit in the back. He'd been stripped to the waist and -- what? Tortured?
He was lying on a table. Cold. Face pressed to a hard metal surface. Screaming, he was screaming, and someone else screamed his name, and he was --
... He was still in the forest, having nearly fallen, catching himself at the last minute with arms that shook from more than just cold and hunger.
The voice that had yelled his name ... what had it said?
His first reaction was nothing more than relief -- because he knew who he was now. Or, at any rate, he knew his name, which was a vast improvement over having a hole where his name should go. Strange how it could mess a guy up, not knowing his own name.
But now, rather than a hole where his own name should be, there was a hole where that other person's name should be -- the person who has shouted "Sheppard!" in a voice laced through with terror and rage. The memory of that voice brought up a roiling mass of conflicted emotions: affection, exasperation, fear, anger, worry, and a pain so deep he didn't dare touch it. Something had happened to them both, something he needed very badly to sort out, but he knew that this was not the place to do it. Later, when he wasn't lost in a strange forest, starving and injured and armed only with a knife, he could sort through the tangled threads of memory and emotion to understand his past. Right now, the important thing was to figure out how badly he was hurt and then get himself somewhere safe and warm.
He skimmed out of the T-shirt, trembling with pain, with residual anger and fear, and, not inconsequentially, with cold. It wasn't freezing in the forest, but it wasn't warm either -- maybe somewhere in the fifties despite the bright sunlight slanting through the trees. As soon as he figured out that he wasn't going to keel over from shock and blood loss, he needed to get moving and warm up.
And it did not seem that imminent death was a danger. He ran his fingers lightly over the ragged edges of the injury between his shoulders. It felt as if it had been stitched up crudely, and he touched clotted blood, wincing. But it wasn't actively bleeding, and didn't seem to be terribly large or deep. He could feel tenderness and puffiness around the edges; most of the pain, presumably, was tenderness resulting from a mild infection, not at all surprising in an open wound that probably had not been well treated. This bothered him, since he had no antibiotics or any way to clean it, but the human body was perfectly capable of throwing off infections -- it did it all the time -- and he didn't feel feverish or lightheaded. He thought about splashing some water from the stream onto it, decided to leave well enough alone, and got dressed.
Okay. Plan and prioritize. Now that he had water, his remaining priorities were shelter, food, safety, and perhaps sending a message for help, not necessarily in that order. He tilted his head back, and looked up the twisting course of the stream. Since he was already on a hill, it made sense to try to get high and look down over the landscape. Clearly there had been people living here at one point; perhaps they still did. And even if those people were responsible for his current condition, they would still have food and blankets. He could steal something.
At the very least, he needed to get a feel for the lay of the land before he did anything else.
His decision made, the man called Sheppard climbed stiffly to his feet and began to follow the stream, ever upward.
The first few chapters will be posted at the rate of about one a day ... after that, the pace will be slower.