tomb (toom), noun, 1. A grave or other place of burial. 2. A vault or chamber for burial of the dead. 3. A monument commemorating the dead.
Part 2: …it's another.
Waiting for people to die. Not exactly my idea of a fun time. Especially when one of them was my best friend. The Victavans seemed to be taking it all in stride, though. They may not have been laughing and joking, but they weren't wailing and lamenting either. The friends and family of Mynorine moved into what appeared to be their assigned positions, lay on the floor with a loved one nearby and passed the time by chatting or singing softly or giving final advice before they too joined the dead king already covered with flowers above them… flowers that were wreaking havoc with my allergies.
"Okay, this is freakier than hell," Sheppard mumbled from where he stood between me and Ronon watching the deathwatch before us.
"I don't get it," Ronon admitted with a shake of dredded head. "I spent years doing everything I could to survive. On one world, I ate nothing but bugs and lizards for twenty-three days just to stay alive. And these people simply lie down and die because their leader did."
Sheppard raised questioning eyebrows in mock-surprise at the warrior. "That mean you aren't going to do the same for me if McKay and I don't make it out of this."
A smirk curved through the wiry hair of his beard. "I'll take good care of your skateboard, Sheppard."
"What about Rodney here?" Sheppard slapped my shoulder good-naturedly as I sneezed and flashed a grin of his own, but when he left his hand there and his weight increased I realized what he was doing…using me as a human crutch so Ronon wouldn't know how the poison was already affecting him. If Ronon thought he wasn't going to make it out of the tomb, he'd start shooting and pending skateboard ownership be damned.
With a shrug Ronon confessed, "McKay doesn't have anything worth taking. Not unless I want a picture of him or his pet animal."
"Fine, I bequeath you the science staff. Just make sure you feed and water them daily and groom them regularly or their coats get matted." Sniffing with a droll once-over of his person, I amended, "Then again, you would probably promote that."
"Easy, McKay, I don't want to escape only to have Ronon shoot you once we get out."
My stinging comeback withered on my lips when I noticed a line of sweat running down Sheppard's ashen face. The room was in the basement of the building and the air was cool and damp. Definitely not warm enough to be sweating when we were just standing around. "Well, if I'm gong to have to outrun Ronon, I better rest up," I grumped to cover my concern. "I'm going to sit. Anyone care to join me?"
At my invitation, Sheppard gave me a look with thank you written all over it. After asking Ronon to see what he could find out about the protocol after the tomb was sealed, he followed me to where I slid down the sidewall to sit. "I don't think rest is going to help you much, Rodney."
And if the others didn't hurry up and die, there wasn't going to be much to help John. He was living on borrowed time here and every minute these people lingered on was one less minute we could use to get out of the tomb and get back to Atlantis and have Carson come up with an antidote. Those were a hell of a lot of ands in that plan, each one eating up a little more of his remaining life.
"I agree. Resting is the last thing we need to be doing now. All respect for the dead and dying aside, let's get this show on the road."
"Thank you, Master Po, I'll take that under advisement. But unless you can go into a Zen trance that is going to slow that poison coursing through your system right now, we need to speed things along here."
Glancing over to make sure Ronon was occupied with Queba, I observed, "It's already affecting you, isn't it?"
He shrugged noncommittally, "I've felt better."
"Yeah, but have you felt worse?"
Closing his eyes and rolling his neck he admitted, "A few times."
Leaning my head back against the wall I closed my own eyes that were about to itch right out their sockets. "God, I hate this. I hate those miserable flowers, I hate being stuck here in this room with those miserable flowers, but more than that, I hate being in a room with a dead guy and I hate waiting for the others to die. When my grandfather died we did this… sat around waiting for him to take his last breath for three days. Doesn't that just strike you as ghoulishly morbid? To sit and know that at any moment the person is going to die and all you can do is wait for it to happen? After a while I stopped dreading it and started to wish it would just be done and over with. I mean it was inevitable, nothing we could do." Opening my eyes again, I saw my companion staring at the people in the back. "Sheppard?"
"At least it looks like it's a peaceful way to go. No screaming in anguish or pain or blood or your insides on the outside or withering to a husk or…" He swallowed and shook his head. "At least it's peaceful."
How many people had he seen die? From the way family members were placing flowers over two of the bodies, I'd say that number had just increased. The number we had witnessed since coming to Pegasus alone boggled my mind and given his time in the Air Force, his time in Afghanistan, what little he had told me…pieces that when put together formed such a grotesque image that it was no wonder he kept them scattered and the puzzle securely boxed away. And now to be watching people dying once more and know that unless the conditions changed quickly, he was next. But then again, how many times had he been in that situation, as well? Evidently quiet a few if he was finding comfort in the fact that at least it was a peaceful way to go.
Of course, I wasn't finding it reassuring at all, especially considering I was the reason he was contemplating a serene end in the first place. "Oh, fuck. I shouldn't have been talking about that whole thing with my grandfather. And if I hadn't been worried about the citrus in the first place…"
"Hey, if anyone is going to be out of commission in this situation, better me than you. This mission is now officially a brains operation, at least until we can get outside the room."
"Still, how ironic will it be if I was worried about dying of anaphylactic shock from the drink and instead you end up dy…" At his say-it-and-you-won't-have-to-worry-about-moving-walls look I amended what I was going to say. "Deeeeciding that I'm the best man for the job when it comes to saving your sorry ass."
"Tag, you're it," he grinned.
"I'll get us out of this," I promised.
"When have I ever doubted you, McKay?"
I started ticking off examples on my fingers. "Well, there was the time with the weapons system and then the…"
A slap to my shoulder stopped me. "This is a pep talk, Rodney, not a mission review."
"Right. Got it." I raised duplicate thumbs in agreement. "You're behind me one hundred percent."
Ronon came back and squatted before us. "It looks like things are wrapping up here. Queba says that once the bodies are prepared, everyone leaves and goes back up to the throne room to cleanse it. Then when the tomb is finished doing its thing she'll be crowned Supreme Leader. Evidently they only leave a few guards down here to monitor the tomb and let them know when it's finished. She's agreed to let me stay outside, too, in honor of our customs."
"Which customs are those?" I asked curiously.
"The ones I made up so I could stay."
"Oh, good thinking," I conceded to the Satedan.
"Keep that pistol of yours on stun," Sheppard admonished. "I don't want anyone killed if we can help it."
Ronon nodded his understanding then we all stood when Queba arrived. "It is done." She wiped a stray tear then straightened resolutely. "My family will now go to join the Supreme Leaders of our past. Are you sure you will not change your mind and drink and join them? We can wait if you like."
"No, no more waiting," I insisted. "The sooner the better, unless of course, you've changed your mind and will let us go back to our world."
She smiled, a little psychotically in my book. "You will thank me when I join you after my own journey in years to come."
"But we're not even Victavan," the Colonel reasoned. "Will they even let us into your afterlife?"
"All are welcome, just as all must go. And you are especially honored to be allowed to travel with my father. And I cannot believe someone that Teyla speaks of so highly would deny my family their rightful place by refusing the trip."
Raising my hand I volunteered, "I would." At Queba's frown, Sheppard elbowed me. "All I'm saying is that when the potential exists that your guests could be expected to die just because their host does, the responsible thing to do would be to explain that, not offer snacks."
Queba chin rose defensively. "Very well, if you do not wish for the drink we will leave you now to crossover. Good journey," she offered tightly before departing the room in a huff followed by the others.
Ronon was the last to go. "I'll be waiting outside," he told us then exited through the door, as well, leaving us alone with the dead bodies. The door slid shut and it was suddenly very quiet, hence the saying quiet as a tomb I supposed. Of course that didn't last long.
Sheppard backhanded my shoulder. "Why do you feel the need to piss off every single person you come in contact with?"
"Oh, gee, I'm sorry. Did I hurt the feelings of the pretty woman that condemned us to death? Wherever are my manners?" And then I sneezed on him.
"And cut it the hell out with the sneezing." He looked down at his vest in disgust.
"You cut it the hell out with the sweating and swaying and dying before my eyes."
"I'm doing my best!"
"Well, so am I!"
There was a mechanical whirring and we forgot the argument as both sets of our eyes turned to the wall behind us. With the distinct sound of gears locking into place the wall started moving just as Ronon called quietly across the radio. "Queba just activated the wall."
"Yeah, we know," Sheppard told him.
"She and the others are leaving now. I'll take out the guards when they're out of earshot."
"Copy that," the Colonel acknowledged even as he came up behind where I already stood trying to open the rusted access panel. "Time to get to work, Rodney."
But by then I had my Leatherman out trying to pry the panel open and I was already thinking to myself, how the hell did we end up in these situations?
"I'm not getting in there with those!"
At my declaration, Sheppard just shook his head as he leaned heavily against the ash and bone-filled altar. "Well, they're not coming out and you're not staying out here."
"Those are human remains!" My finger jabbed insistently in the container. "For all intents and purposes, this is an oversized coffin."
"Technically, Rodney, it's more like an urn, but I'm willing to skip the specifics if you are."
"Sheppard, this is every claustrophobe's nightmare."
Now it was his turn to point adamantly. "Do you see that wall? In about thirty seconds it's going to stop moving and we both know what's going to happen then. Get your ass in the goddamn box, McKay!"
With a frustrated growl I pushed at his shoulder, urging him into the receptacle and helping him when he had trouble swinging a leg in. "The next time you want to flirt with a space bimbo, make sure I'm nowhere in the vicinity." He rolled to the far side and I did my damnedest to ignore the sound of cracking bones before climbing in myself.
"The next time you're worried about an allergic reaction, make sure there's not something worse than lemon juice in the drink."
There was just enough room for the two of us to lay side by side, his head at my feet. Reaching a hand out, I activated the controls and the lid started to close, just as the wall locked into place with an echoing kathunk. "Believe me, this is worse than lemon juice," I assured him as the flammable liquid resumed its flow seconds before the lid sealed shut and we were swallowed in total blackness. The shower of fuel pounded loudly on our metal refuge, filling the small space with sound and making it even more suffocating. I could barely hear Sheppard filling Ronon in on what we were doing through the din.
You're outside, I repeated mentally. You're outside laying in a wide-open meadow…a wide-open meadow…cool breeze, fluffy clouds, bright sun… a wide-open meadow… that just happens to have large sticks and twigs that are remarkably femur-shaped eating into your back.
"How're you doing, Rodney?"
I lifted my head slightly to respond to the voice at my feet. "Just fucking peachy, how about you?"
Ignoring my outburst, he patted my shin. "Doing your visualization exercises?"
"Yes, I'm visualizing myself in a wide-open field, a cool breeze blowing across soft green grass, and I'm beating the living shit out of you with one of the sticks I'm laying on!"
"Sticks, huh?" The hand on my leg squeezed reassuringly. "Is it helping?"
"What do you think?" I snapped then drew a stuttering breath when the pounding of the liquid fuel on the lid stopped and was quickly replaced by the pounding of blood in my ears. We both knew what was coming next and the reassurance of Sheppard's grip on my leg tightened into desperation.
"Here we go," he informed me needlessly and I realized I was fisting the material of his pant leg, as well.
There was a whoosh as the initial ignition took place, the sound echoing up and over us before settling into a dull but steady roar as the blaze caught hold. By the sudden pressure in my ears brought on by the immediate expansion of superheated air outside the box, I knew we were surrounded by flames. We were trapped in a box…with dead people… in a fucking inferno. Suddenly my wide-open field was engulfed in a wildfire and that's when visualization exercises went right out the proverbial window… because a real one didn't exist and we were trapped waiting to die in a burial urn while an all-consuming firestorm raged just outside. And just what the fuck was up with that?
I couldn't breathe. The fire was expending all the oxygen and as much as the tiny rational part of my brain was saying it couldn't happen this fast, the full blown panic mode of the irrational part said the hell with what should be happening you're running out of air. What miniscule amount we had in this goddamned coffin to begin with. I couldn't fucking breathe!
"Rodney!" Sheppard's repeated calling of my name finally cut through my thoughts but didn't stop them.
"John, we have to get out! We're going to die in here if we don't get out!" Sheppard called my name again but I ignored him, opting instead to start pushing at the top. The lid was warm to the touch but didn't budging. And that's when I realized something else. "We can't get out! The…the…the control! It's outside! Oh, fuck me, we're locked inside!" I started banging even harder.
"Rodney! Goddamn it, listen to me! I have something important that I need to ask you, so you need to listen."
Returning my hand to gripping his leg I sucked in a few quick and shallow breaths of what I was convinced was our dwindling air supply. "What is it?" Maybe he would have an idea, something I could use to come up with a way to get us out of here.
"How many physicists does it take to change a light bulb?"
"What?" We were going to burn to death in a box and he was telling jokes? Banging uselessly against the lid was more productive than that. "You're certifiable, you know that?" But before my fist could return to its futile efforts, his own hand trapped my wrist.
"How many physicists does it take to change a light bulb?" he reiterated calmly.
Panting miserably, I whimpered, "Christ, Sheppard, I don't know."
"Eleven. One to do it and ten to co-author the paper." I could almost picture the smirk on his face. "Kavanagh told me that," he informed me smugly.
Kavanagh… probably the most overrated addition to the scientific field ever to travel from one galaxy to the next, and evidently a waste to the world of humor, as well. "Oh, yeah, well, how many Air Force pilots does it take to change a light bulb?" I challenged hysterically. "Just one. He holds the bulb, and the world revolves around him. Lorne told me that."
"Leave it to a jar head," he snorted, "Pilots don't change light bulbs; that's what the flight crew's for."
"I'll be sure to tell Radek that one." I took a breath of warm air and swallowed around my barely contained fear. "It's getting warmer in here."
"How many general relativists does it take to change a light bulb?" It was definitely getting warmer, no doubt about it. When I ignored the question, he provided the answer anyway. "Two. One holds the bulb while the other rotates the universe." A wide-open ice field, I thought frantically. I'm on a wide-open ice field like the ones in Antarctica and I'm wearing an asbestos-lined parka. "Rodney?" Sheppard called when I still didn't respond, squeezing my wrist to regain my attention.
"Uhm…" We were in this together. We were in this together on a wide-open ice field. And as long as I clung to that as tightly as I did the fabric of his pants, I might be okay. "What do Air Force pilots use for birth control?"
"They try to pick up women while their physicist best friend… is standing next to them?" A boot toe knocked lightly into my temple.
"Asshole. You just proved my punch line; it's their personalities."
"Oh, so physicists and pilots… have something in common… after all."
"You mean besides roasting alive in a corpse-filled toaster oven?" Outside, the sound of the fire only grew and so did the temperature. Sheppard wasn't the only one sweating now and I wasn't the only one fighting to regulate my breathing. He was struggling, dragging in the breaths with audible effort. "Sheppard, what's going on?"
He didn't answer, just proceeded on to his next joke. "How many… astronomers… does it take… to change… a light bulb?" I shook my head in amazement that he was still doing this even though he could barely breathe. We were going to die and his last words were going to be a bad insult joke.
"None," an accented voice answered him across the radio. "Astronomers, they prefer the dark. Or at least they prefer to remain in dark about latest scientific advancements. Rodney is living proof of this."
"Radek," I exhaled in relief, "what the hell took you so long?"
"Only pilot we could find for Jumper drives like little old Baba behind wheel of huge Cadillac."
"I got us all here in one piece, didn't I?" Carson defended.
"Yes, year older but in one piece."
"Can we… discuss this later?" Sheppard cut into their argument. "It's getting hot in here… and I'm running out of… stand-up material."
"Colonel, are you all right?" And based on Carson's question, I wasn't the only one that heard the laboring in his speech.
"It's the poison, Carson." I explained shortly. "It's starting to impact his breathing."
"Not now, Carson, we have to get out of here first. Radek, you need to activate the fire suppression system."
"Oh, you think that is best idea, Rodney?" The sarcasm in his voice was tightly wound and I could tell he was working intently on doing just that. "How many engineers does it take to put out fire? One. But he must wear earplugs to block out incessant chattering of physicist while he does so."
"I want to know about this poison," Carson interjected again.
"Well…it doesn't have… citrus in it."
I frowned at Sheppard, even though he couldn't see me. "What's the difference between an Air Force pilot and a jet engine? The jet engine stops whining when the plane shuts down. Ronon, will you please fill in Carson before he starts birthing lambs in the corridor."
"And…viola! One fire to be extinguished, if you please." Along with Radek's boast came the sound of fire retardant dousing the flames with a satisfying hiss.
For once I was more than happy to allow him his gloating. "Radek, I am personally going to sign you up for the porn-of-the-month club as soon as we get back to Atlantis."
"Tsk. And I just renewed myself." Another sound of gears engaging muffled by the box and I knew the wall was moving again. "Give me one moment, Rodney, and I will have you out."
And then there was silence. The radio, the fire, and John. "Sheppard?" His hand still rested on mine but it was slack. Oh, fuck. "Sheppard!" I elbowed him hard in the leg.
At my jarring, he dragged in another breath. "Sorry. Was just… peaceful."
"Oh, no, no, no, no, no, Sheppard." I gripped his hand in the dark; shaking it hard as if that would keep him awake, keep him breathing. "You don't want peaceful, okay? Peaceful's dull. Peaceful isn't Atlantis, it isn't what you do, it isn't what we do."
I wasn't sure if I found the weak snort reassuring or not. "That's for sure… never a moment's peace…around you…McKay."
"But that's the way you like it, right? What's the point of saving the universe day in and day out if you had to do it with someone that was calm and tranquil? Might as well have stayed and meditated in the time dilation field with the Ancient wannabes if that was the case."
The snort was even weaker this time. "They ascended."
"But you didn't. Didn't want to leave all this fun and excitement behind."
"Don't want to leave it now, either, do you?" My throat constricted with the pause before his answer.
Squeezing his hand, I gave it another shake. "Lazy piece of shit. Leave it to the scientists to do all the work around here while you lay around on a bed of skeletal remains. What the hell kind of thing is that to put on a tombstone? Here lies John Sheppard… and a bunch of other corpses he used as a mattress. Not exactly stirring and patriotic if you ask me."
"Thought we… were in… a field."
"No, we're in a box, John." I swallowed around the quake in my voice. "And don't you dare leave me alone in a fucking box with one more dead guy than I climbed in with."
He exhaled a long breath…aggrieved, exhausted, frustrated, resigned… and for a heart-stopping moment I feared it was his last. "I'm trying," he assured me.
"Try harder." Because there was no way in hell I could climb out of this coffin and leave him behind.
"Rodney, we are in the room," Radek informed us across the radio.
"Then get us out of here so Carson can fix Colonel Sheppard." A minute later after telling them where the controls were located, the lid started to rise and three concerned faces peered into the box.
"Carson, over here," I directed so he could get to Sheppard on the other side.
He moved quickly, pulling away with a hiss when he touched the still superheated metal. Ronon shed his leather coat and draped it over the side so Carson could get closer. "Colonel Sheppard, can you hear me, lad?"
"Hey…Doc," he slurred weakly when the physician took his wrist to measure his pulse then pulled the ever present penlight and checked his pupils.
"Rodney, you are okay?" Radek's question of me drew my attention away from the examination I was watching and I nodded my response.
"Just get Sheppard out." I winced against the lingering smell of lighter fluid mixed with burning flesh that wafted in now that the lid was open.
Carson's mouth tightened as he finished his cursory exam. "Aye, we need to get the Colonel back to Atlantis immediately."
Between the four of us, we were able to work Sheppard out then I climbed out behind him, stepping gingerly around the partially burned remains on the floor. Ronon already had Sheppard over his shoulder and I didn't even look back into the room as we walked purposefully out into the hall and past the unconscious guards on the floor. I barely noticed them, my attention instead on the now nonresponsive man being carried before me.
"Rodney, tell me about the symptoms of the others that drank the poison."
I jumped at Carson's request before shaking my head to concentrate and tell him, "They, uh, they appeared to be drunk…staggering, slurring their speech… then they started acting like Sheppard… trouble breathing, sweating, then they just seemed to go to sleep and…" I shook my head again then asked, "Can you fix this?"
His hand rested on my shoulder as we walked. "I'm hoping it's not so much poisoning per se as an overdose of a drug. Perhaps a narcotic or barbiturate, but I'll need to run some blood tests to make sure."
"But can you fix it?" I asked once again.
"God willing. I'm going to do everything in my power. But the sooner we know exactly what we're up against here, the better his chances."
Nodding silently in understanding we rounded a corner and moved into the transporter to the surface level. When we exited, we were met by Teyla, Elizabeth, and Queba followed by the same entourage that had escorted her from the room when her father had died and several of the royal guard.
"Just what is happening here?" the new Supreme Leader of Victav demanded when she saw me and Sheppard still very much in the present world.
"Queba, you must understand that we cannot allow our people…" Elizabeth started but was cut off by the infuriated young woman glowering at me.
"Your people have just condemned the spirits of my family. They will wander the in between world until Lt. Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay join them."
"Perhaps there is something that can be done," Teyla offered, "a ceremony of some sort."
"There is no ceremony. There is nothing but damnation and a curse on my reign as Supreme Leader if they do not return to the tomb immediately."
The two women on my team continued to try to reason with the irrational one who was growing angrier by the second. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Carson's brow furrow deeply as he checked Sheppard once again. And that's when I decided diplomacy wasn't going to get us anywhere.
"They didn't want us," I interjected loudly. "Told us to get the hell out and sent us back."
"What?" Queba blinked in surprise. "What do you mean they didn't want you? All are welcome and all must…"
"Yes, yes, so I heard. But evidently we're not allowed. We crossed-over, saw the place, very nice as you said, we were just getting settled in when they booted us out. Evidently they just didn't like us."
"But that has never happened before. All are welcome," she insisted once again.
"I'm often the exception to any rule," I assured her then added. "Besides, how did we come out of the tomb alive if there was any other explanation? You told us yourself that the tomb would kill us even if we didn't drink the poison." Without waiting for an answer, I motioned the others forward only to be stopped by the guards.
"Colonel Sheppard does not appear to be alive," she countered bluntly.
I bit back my retort that he wasn't dead but would be soon enough if she kept up this ridiculous babbling. Instead I expanded on my lie. "Actually, they liked him. They offered to let him stay. The Ancients always have been fond of him for some reason. But seeing as he refused to stay if I couldn't, they kicked him out, as well. This is just a little bit of the residual…deadness hanging on. It should wear off soon."
Her face softened in awe. "You saw the Ancestors?"
"Oh, yes, they were there." I did my best to look her in the eye and maintain a straight face. When she looked to me expectantly to continue, I wracked my brain for a description of Victavan paradise. "They were all glowy and there was… hugging and flowers and… cake. Lots of food. LOTS of food. Couldn't get you dad away from the spinach dip."
"Rodney," Elizabeth warned with a meaningful lift of her eyebrows.
Clearing my throat I concluded, "Yes, the Ancestors were there and your family was very happy."
Dark eyes darted between me and Sheppard as Queba bit her lower lip in consideration. Evidently the thought that John was welcome and I wasn't was a little more believable and I couldn't have cared less about the insult in that. If it got us the heck out of Dodge and back to the infirmary on Atlantis, then she could think anything she wanted about me. "And my family was allowed to remain on the other side? They did not have to return, as well?"
"They were allowed to stay," I assured her.
She wavered then shook her head. "This is highly unusual. Never have I heard of such a thing. I should consult my advisors."
"Look, do you really think it's a good idea to have us hang around if we weren't welcome in the land of the dead? I can't imagine it would bode well with your living subjects." I hitched my head to the growing number of people milling around behind her, murmuring and pointing at us.
One of the older men standing behind her whispered something in her ear and her eyes widened in realization. Straightening, she proclaimed loudly. "The Supreme Leaders of our past have spoken. You have been banned from the journey and now you shall be banished from our world, as well. You must leave Victav and never return."
"Thank you," I rose my eyes to the heavens above with an exaggerated expression of relief. "It's about fucking time." Then without waiting for anything more I led the others as the Victavan people melted away before us to reveal a path to the front door.
We had originally traveled from the gate to the village by foot, Teyla indicating that the walk was not far…evidently that assessment was relative to the Boston marathon…and that the people of the village might be startled by the Jumper and fear a Wraith attack. Fortunately, she had decided that the need for haste outweighed any of her previous concerns when she brought the others back from Atlantis so that we had a Jumper parked just on the outskirts of the settlement.
"Rodney, fly," Carson ordered tensely as we enter the craft.
I nodded my understanding, moving quickly to the pilot's seat even as he started barking commands at the others. Of course, for Carson, barking meant giving instructions in a clipped, quiet voice followed by an endearment. "Ronon, set him down here, lad. Radek, fetch my field kit for me, please. I need an intubation tube. Teyla, love, I need you to operate the ambu-bag while I get an I.V. started. Elizabeth, be a dear and hold this saline bag. No, a little higher. Aye, that's a good lass."
And me, I did as directed and flew the Jumper, casting furtive glances over my shoulder to see what was happening even though that really wasn't necessary based on what I was hearing. He wasn't breathing on his own, his pulse was thready and he was exhibiting symptoms of shock. All and all a pretty shitty way to be. He was dying on the floor of the goddamn Jumper and the fact that given a choice between here and an Ancient trash incinerator he would choose his beloved spacecraft hands down really wasn't much of a comfort right then.
Flying the Jumper was… well, it was pretty much the most amazing thing I have ever experienced. It wasn't like flying an airplane. Not that I had ever done that, but there were laws of physics that applied in that case. Aerodynamics, lift, rudder and flap controls, I could explain all those with a series of mathematical equations and an engineering line diagram. But the Jumpers defied most everything I had learned in mechanical engineering. Metal boxes don't fly. They don't lift straight up off the ground as though gravity were nothing more than an old wives' tale and they sure as hell don't do it because you told it to do so with nothing more than a thought and a touch.
But as much as I loved flying them, it was work for me. Not that I would ever admit that out loud, but it was. Maybe it was because there was some part of my subconscious that was telling the ship it shouldn't be doing what it was doing. Maybe it was because my mind usually did twenty things and once. Maybe it was because of my artificial gene. Whatever the reason, it took concentration. It took effort. It took work. But Sheppard did it as if it were a passing thought for him. From the moment I showed him the hangar that first week on Atlantis, the ships seemed to know exactly what he wanted from them and eager to give it. No one could fly like Sheppard. No one could do a lot of things like Sheppard. And looking back at the small band of people huddled around him on the floor, I wasn't the only one that thought so. There were very few people that could convince me that there was more to life than science, that Ancient devices could be fun as well as enlightening, that a city on the far side of the universe could feel more like home than my hometown ever had, and that blood had very little to do with brotherhood and kinship. And every one of them was in the craft I was piloting at that very moment and we were all doing everything in our power to make sure that the number of members in our little family didn't diminish by one. And that, that was…
I take it back; flying the Jumper is the second most amazing thing I've ever experienced.
"Atlantis, this is Jumper One, requesting permission to return to base and emergency medical support upon docking."
The gate tech on duty cleared us through and Carson was on the radio to his staff before we had settled into the hangar. They had John on a gurney and moving down the hall in mere minutes, those of us not medically trained trailing along in their wake and left like so much flotsam and jetsam to drift into chairs in the waiting area and…wait. And wait. And wait some more.
Waiting for a person to die. Not exactly my idea of a fun time. Especially when it was my best friend. And no matter how much I tried to convince myself that wasn't what he was doing, it was damn hard not to believe it. Carson confirmed his suspicions through blood tests; it was a drug, not one he could identify but very close to the barbiturate family. And after babbling on about lipid solubility and protein binding and medicinal half-lives, he summed it up as being in the equivalent of a medically induced coma, similar to the one he himself had put Sheppard in when the Colonel was going Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Wraith on us. The drug was depressing every system in his body and the course of treatment consisted of symptomatic support until his body flushed it out completely, which is a hell of feat when the drug it's trying to purge is slowing everything down. So the medical team was doing everything they could to help it along. There was gastric lavage and alkinization and one I.V. after another to help move the drug out and talk of hemodialysis when Carson became worried about kidney failure. Then there were the treatments just to keep him alive until his body woke up. Warming blankets to hold off the hypothermia, a ventilator to keep him breathing, fluid therapy for the shock…and monitors beeping slowly and sluggishly and a horrendously flat EEG. But there was no magic antidote, nothing to be injected and he would wake up good as new. And nothing the rest of us could do but sit and wait….and try to believe Carson when he reassured us that he was doing remarkably well, considering.
Considering. We were doing that a lot… considering that Teyla had brought us to the planet in the first place, considering that Ronon hadn't shot our way out as soon as they locked the door to the throne room, considering that I had asked him to drink the damn poison in the first place. Considering that we were all considering what we had done wrong, we were doing remarkably well, too.
Given how close they were watching Sheppard, Carson was reluctant to let any of us stay with him. But when we all refused to leave the waiting area, he relented and let one of us sit by his bed at a time, under the condition that the others left the infirmary all together. It was during Teyla's shift that his EEG finally showed some activity. It was during Ronon's shift that he started responding to pain stimulus.
And almost a day after we had brought him back to Atlantis, it was my turn to sit. But anyone who knows me knows I can't do that, at least not quietly.
"I hope you like yellow, Xiao Ming in geology says you need more of that in your room. It evidently represents health or longevity or he was just yanking my chain so he could get back to his Gameboy, but either way, I was willing to take a chance. And seeing as the only yellow I could find was a giant fuzzy daisy pillow I swiped from Cadman's room… seriously, how does a Marine get to be so girly? I had to improvise and spray paint a couple of chairs from the cafeteria with some Day-Glo survey paint I took from supply. So you might want to invest in something a little less…garish when you wake up.
"Speaking of which, you should probably do that before Carson comes back and pokes your foot with a pin again. I honestly think he enjoys it considering how often he's been doing it. That's probably what he did to his inflatable sheep doll I gave him for Christmas. Sprung a spontaneous leak, my ass. You would think a man that can say 'turn your head and cough' with a straight face would have a sense of humor, not look like he needed to eat some prunes for breakfast every time I mention a gag gift. I'm really starting to wonder if he needs to do all the things that are supposedly necessary to save you or he's just a sadistic son of a bitch as I've always expected.
"Seriously, you've got more tubes and wires and accoutrements attached to you than those monkeys they sent into space back in the fifties. I mean sure, given your brain activity the past day and a half, the astrochimps could probably give you a run for your money on the MENSA test, but I don't think you want to be compared to one of them forever. Do you?"
I sighed at the lack of response and reached over to where his hand rested limply on the bed and took it in mine. Being careful of the I.V. port, I squeezed gently. "I know it looked peaceful with those others, Sheppard, and maybe it's peaceful where you are right now, but it doesn't look peaceful from here. It's stressful and worrisome and scary and everything but peaceful. So if you would just wake up so we could get back to going through the gate and running for our lives and fighting Wraith, that would be better than all the peace and quiet in the world."
Nothing. No response from Sheppard and only the whoosh of the ventilator and the beep of the cardiac monitor. Shifting in my seat I grumbled, "Fine, be that way. See if I care, you lazy bastard. As I always say, if life gives you lemons, use it as an excuse to flirt with the nurses in the ER. Because the comfort card works both ways, you know. And that cute blonde nurse that just came over on the last Daedalus run smiles and squeezes my shoulder every time she comes in. Keep this up and I may have named my first born in your memory by the time you finally wake up."
I froze when I thought I felt a twitch of fingers against mine. When nothing happened again, I continued on cautiously. "John Tiberius McKay. It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Or maybe John Euclid McKay…" I sucked in a breath when his hand definitely moved against mine. "Carson!" I stood with my yell and squeezed a little harder on the hand in mine. "Sheppard? Can you hear me? Squeeze my hand back if you can." And he did, barely, but he did. "Carson!"
Beckett ran into the room followed by two nurses, his mouth tight with worry until he saw the smile on my face. "Rodney, what's happened?"
"He can hear me. He can hear me and he's squeezing my hand," I told him in quick excitement.
Carson moved to the other side and took Sheppard's other hand. "Colonel, if you can understand me, squeeze my hand."
The pressure increased slightly on my own again and by Carson's smile I knew it had done the same with his. "This is good, right?" I demanded, desperately needing the reassurance. "This is a good sign?"
"Aye, Rodney, 'tis a very good sign," he beamed back before launching into a frenzy of activity with his team.
And he was right, it was a good sign. Sheppard made steady progress after that. He was breathing on his own by nightfall. Opening glazed eyes before midnight and putting together a few words by morning. Granted, the conversations weren't exactly going down in the annals of great intellectual conversations of the twenty-first century. In fact, I'd had more intelligent dialogues in a hotel lobby with drunken computer programmers fresh from a Star Trek convention who kept telling me I would be assimilated every time I rang the service bell at the concierge desk. But they were coming from Sheppard's mouth under his own power and who cares if they made about as much sense as a Trekkie proclaiming 'he's dead, Jim' after scanning me with a television remote control in the elevator of a Hilton Hotel.
They sure as hell sounded a lot better than the words that were coming out of his mouth two weeks later on yet another alien world.
"Rodney, just hold on, we're going to get you down."
Clinging desperately to the vine that held me suspended halfway down a pit of what appeared to be piranhas crossbred with beavers, I screamed back up at him, "Down? Down is the absolute last direction I want to go right now!" I gripped tighter and whimpered at the boil of fuzzy bodies in the dark water below me. "Any time now, Sheppard."
"Having flashbacks to Junior High phys ed?" Looking up I could see the flash of a smirk.
"My parents paid good money to have those traumas psychoanalyzed into repressed memories, thank you very much." One of the furry fish leaped up, nipping the toe of my boot. With a yelp I lifted my foot and shook it off, causing me to yelp again when I slid a few inches down the vine.
"McKay! For God's sake, hold on!"
"Oh, great advice, Colonel. Did you come up with that on your own or is this something you learned in flight school? Suspension in mid-air good. Falling bad."
"This from the man that wants to name his child Euclid." He stepped into the straps of the harness with a shake of his head. "You might as well just beat him up each morning before he goes to school and save the other kids the effort. Teyla, how's that line coming?" he demanded as he cinched his harness tight, checking the bindings as our Athosian teammate appeared beside him in the opening.
"It is secure," she assured, "but Ronon is not sure how much longer he can hold off the local natives."
"They're three foot tall," I pointed out in frustration as another gilled beaver surfaced. "They'd have to stand on each other's shoulders just to punch him in the nose. I'm surprised they haven't declared him a god by now."
"A poison dart in the knee cap is just as deadly," Sheppard reminded me as he eased his way over the edge of the pit. "Coming down."
He repelled down until he was even with me, pulling the second harness from his shoulder to help me work into it. "When we get back to Atlantis, Rodney, the daisy pillow is going in your room."
"You would blame this on me, wouldn't you?" I held tight to the vine as he clipped the links into place.
"I wasn't the one that fell in a hole of fanged muppet fish, now was I?"
Ignoring his comment because, well, I really didn't have a good argument, I backtracked. "And just why are you so concerned with what I name my children?"
He tugged on my harness to check his work. "Well, with that name and your rope climbing skills that he's sure to inherit, Uncle John's going to have his work cut out for him."
I tried to frown but found I couldn't stop the small smile that crept on my face. With a grin of his own he called back to Teyla. "Okay, throw down the second rope." But no rope appeared. "Teyla? Ronon?" The only answer was the ululations of an army of pygmy warriors. Sheppard grimaced. "Well, looks like things just got interesting." I just shook my head with an aggrieved sigh.
How the hell did we end up in these situations?