AN: thanks again for the reviews, I'm glad you guys are liking the ride on this one! My grammar God is swamped but I promised I'd get this up fast so with my other two beta's having given it a go, and I've pored over it, I'm posting and will edit any ones missed when she gets back to me so don't whip me too hard LOL!
I'd been unconscious more than a couple times since we'd been ambushed, and each time I'd come 'round a lot less happy than the time before, but I was pretty sure this time was the worst. First problem was the darkness. I could make out some flickering light, sporadic flashes of brightness shifting back to dark from the shower of sparks coming from the consoles along the wall, but it wasn't enough to see reliably by.
I heard what sounded like a broken alarm, caterwauling like a wounded Skrat. My thoughts were about as jumbled as my body felt but I was starting to put some things together. There'd been an explosion, that was what had sent me flying through the air, and from the direction I'd been thrown, I suspected it'd come from…McKay!
Groaning, I forced my eyes open further and somehow managed to get to my knees. I remembered seeing Sheppard moving towards McKay, too slow, then Beckett shouting something.
Static hissed and crackled from somewhere in front of me, and new moans worked back towards me. "Doc?"
"I think so." It was voiced almost as a question.
I chuckled -- if Doc could joke, he wasn't dead. "Stay there, I'll come to you." I wasn't exactly steady, and I felt a wetness running down my thigh that had everything to do with how hard it was to keep that leg moving forward without it buckling underneath my weight.
I fumbled forward and to the right, at least that was where I remembered Beckett last being with Teyla. After more than a few hard won steps I hit something.
"My foot, Ronon!" Teyla's unexpected scolding made me flinch backwards and I almost fell.
She was breathing kind of hard to my ears but she was alive and awake. "Yes." There was a pause and I stared into the gloom, able to start making out the shadowy shapes in front of me. "I am here, and so is Carson. Where are Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay?"
"Doc?" I needed to know they were good enough for me to go looking for the other two.
"Go, I'm fine." It was strained but strong enough that I nodded at the shapes and started moving more towards the consoles. I still couldn't make out much in the darkness, but I was feeling a temperature change in the room. It was colder, and I hoped it was just my imagination that the air was getting thinner.
"Sheppard!" I called. I took another step forward and almost lost my footing. My leg bowed, and with a grimace, I paused long enough to force the knee to straighten and lock. A couple more painful awkward steps and my foot hit a wall. I looked down and could see the jutting waist high console. There hadn't been an answer to my call and that worried me. I started working my way now to the left, seeing how I'd had to go to the right to find Beckett. Another step, and I grunted as my leg completely gave, and the only thing that kept me upright was catching the console. I levered myself around to where I could follow the console with my hand and use it as a crutch.
Four more steps and I kicked into something soft. "McKay?" I tried again, and this time one of the shadowy forms moved. The console in front of me was gone, obliterated in the explosion.
"I'm here," he coughed. "Varak must've set a booby trap -- the overload," more coughing, "was probably remotely triggered." McKay's halting explanation was uttered on the backs of another long drawn out groan that wasn't his and I saw the form that had begun to move turn more. Sparks flew in front of me and in that moment I saw McKay's face, bloodied, and stark with the realization of what had happened. "Why did I think, even for a moment, that we'd have finally gotten the situation under control -- it's never that easy!" He struggled to move and I reached to help, only to find a shattered chair covered his lower half.
After I moved the debris, he got into a sitting position, and that's when I saw Sheppard. Looked like McKay had thrown himself at the other man and they'd gone down together. "Is he…" I didn't want to say it but I was sure thinking it.
"Alive," McKay supplied, but he looked worried. "I think the impact knocked him out, again, and if he survives this mission and can still qualify for Mensa, I'll be suitably impressed."
"Can you get lights?" Beckett called from behind us.
The showers of sparks weren't near enough light, and I was now pretty sure we were losing air. "I think --"
"I know." McKay cut me off. "We've lost life support." He grabbed onto my arm to pull himself up, but I hadn't expected it, and we almost went down together. I grunted from the effort of keeping my injured leg from failing and taking us both down. "Sorry, sorry – is anyone not losing blood or brain cells?"
"Is that another rhetorical question?" I asked.
"No…yes…just…help me to that panel producing the brilliant, if not dangerous, light show."
Things were a little chaotic after that. I got McKay to his panel, and he used some of those words that Sheppard insisted I not use, but he got lights. That's when we realized the explosion had taken out half of the controls. At that point, Doc had asked how big of a problem. McKay's response of 'get out and push' didn't inspire a lot of confidence in the outcome.
Teyla was favoring an arm, Doc told her it was broken but we were also minus anything to use as a splint. The torn metal wasn't straight and besides, there were enough sharp edges that it would've severed something. That was my conclusion even if Doc looked a little skeptical, but I did take off my shirt and let him fashion a sling for her.
Sheppard had woken shortly after the lights were restored and by the time Beckett got to him, was already demanding a report from McKay on what'd happened. He hadn't hit his head again, he'd passed out more from the impact of his body and McKay's, and the rapid descent they'd both done to the floor. He was still tracking funny, dizzy and sick to his stomach. He shook off Beckett's concern, stood up, and weaved a crooked line to stand -- more like lean heavily -- next to McKay. He was watching McKay work, but said something low enough that I couldn't hear it from where I stood. Whatever it was, they shared another look that was as indefinable to me as how two very different men had become friends like they were. Then again, there were a lot of things about Sheppard's people that surprised me.
Though we were more or less upright, Sheppard was in no condition to save anyone and Teyla's fighting ability had been reduced because of her arm. The surface injuries we'd gotten in the earlier interrogations had been painful but more along the lines of a nuisance, but even enough nuisances will add up into a problem, and Sheppard hadn't been right since he'd taken that hit to his head in our cell. His head injury was worrying Doc a lot, but he was still coherent enough to irritate McKay so I wasn't digging his grave yet.
"Why didn't you realize it was booby trapped?"
"Because the unusually long weapon was distracting me!"
"The lack of air is going to be a lot more distracting if you don't get it fixed," Sheppard ground out between clenched teeth.
"Perhaps less arguing would be more effective in finding a solution?" Teyla posed the question as if she were scolding them like two little boys.
McKay's face darkened. "Perhaps Wonder Woman wants to whistle for her invisible jet and rescue us all?"
"You have phase generators that work on space ships?" Why hadn't they told me?
Beckett shot me a look of pity. "Son, it's a fictional cartoon."
There they go with fiction again. What's the point? My way of thinking, an invisible jet would've been a handy thing to have right about now. I might have grunted something along the lines of 'stupid' but I finished up with something worthwhile. "We need to fix the life support and get to the planet." See, I could do strategizing.
"I agree." Teyla moved to stare over McKay's shoulder. "This is a secondary system?"
McKay nodded, distracted. "Ronon, give me your knife." He held his hand out to me, not looking away from the panel.
My knife was still buried in the heart of the green guard. I scanned the floor and found his feet. Limping as fast as I could, I shoved some loose shrapnel out of the way, found the knife and pulled it free, wiping the blood on my pants. I made it back only to find all eyes on me. With an easy smile, I flipped the knife so that the handle was towards McKay, and dropped it in his still extended palm.
He swallowed. "Thanks." He turned back to the panel and muttered, "I think."
"Lad, your leg." Doc pointed at my pants.
I looked down and saw the spreading stain. I'd taken shrapnel in my thigh, which explained the pain and wetness. Sheppard's shirt smacked into my chest and I caught it out of reflex. When I raised my eyes to meet his, he grimaced and pointed to my shirt holding Teyla's arm. "Doc's going to need another bandage."
McKay snorted. "By the time we're done the only one left in a shirt will be Teyla."
Sheppard's eyebrow went up and my grin deepened.
Doc took my arm and began to tug me towards a clear spot behind us. "Sit."
I wasn't sure it was a good idea. If I got down, I was worried I wouldn't be able to get back up.
"Now would be a good time." He cleared his throat purposefully and I caught Teyla's glare when I didn't do what he wanted quick enough -- I bet she never ignored her elders as a little girl. Sheppard turned his smirk towards McKay, leaving me at their mercy, but I held her glare long enough that she turned away first, blushing. I think she was remembering that time we'd both been strung out on the enzyme. There was some unresolved tension between us and I kind of liked it. Made life interesting. Now that she wasn't staring at me, I lowered myself carefully to the floor.
As Beckett went to work on my leg after a brief warning about how much it was going to hurt, I remembered I still hadn't secured the guards that'd been merely stunned. One was dead, but the other four I hadn't checked on.
He glanced over his shoulder at me, coughed in an effort not to gag when he moved his head too quickly, and ended up leaning sideways, spitting out the little bit of bile that'd came up. "What?"
McKay and Teyla were bent over the console, heads almost touching. I gestured my head at the bodies scattered on the floor. "Balder, two of the greens and the yellow guard -- they might still be alive."
I watched as he considered our options. We didn't have any way of securing them. He weaved to the transporter and pushed on the panel. It opened. "Doc, you done with him?"
Beckett gave a final tie on the improvised bandage. "Aye, but be careful." He kept staring at me until I acknowledged him. "I mean it, lad. It took a bit to get the bleeding stopped."
"I'll keep it in mind." Not like I had a lot of choice. Every step I took kept it in my mind.
"Help us move the ones left alive into the transporter." Sheppard was already near one of the guards in green. "This one's breathing."
Sheppard went for his arms, I went for his legs, and Doc went for his head. He started checking the man's pulse and pupils and that's when Sheppard switched from easy going to the man I'd seen before, the one that'd do whatever it took to get his team home in one piece. "Let it go, Doc. He's the bad guy and we've got a limited supply of oxygen until McKay figures out how to fix this."
"I'm not going to let him die." Beckett kept working.
I met Sheppard's frank look and he nodded soberly to me. We lifted and moved, leaving Beckett no other choice than to move out of the way. He protested but didn't stop us. We had to haul three bodies to the transporter, Balder had died when one of the legs from a chair had pierced his side and he'd bled out.
The only regret I had when we were finished was that it wasn't a big enough space to add the dead bodies. We weren't willing to risk our lives in helping the ones that still lived, but we weren't going to make them lay side by side with the dead. We carried the two corpses to the farthest right corner.
Once we were finished, Sheppard pushed the panel on the transporter. The door slid shut, sealing the guards in, and it moved down a floor. He picked up one of the stunners from the floor and bracing his arm, turned his head away, and fired. "Problem solved," he said.
McKay called, "Got it!"
We walked over; me limping, Sheppard still walking as if he were drunk, and Beckett trailed behind. Since we'd refused to let him treat the guards, he'd grown quiet, and I had a momentary bout of regret. He'd come on this mission in case there were any side effects from the phase generator, and it wound up that he was patching us together from everything else, and facing death if we couldn't pull off a miracle.
I found myself staring at McKay's back. He had blood spotting through his shirt, matted in his hair, and I realized that he wasn't even feeling it. His body had been cut by debris during the explosion and he'd covered Sheppard, protecting him from all that he could. When he'd come to right after, he'd moved straight into trying to figure out a way to get the ship stable enough for us to get to the planet. I caught Beckett's eye and realized he was thinking along the same lines.
"The planet is less than two hours away," Teyla informed us over McKay's shoulder.
Sheppard digested the information, leaned casually against the upper bulkhead in a way that was supposed to look like he was doing it for comfort instead of necessity, but I wasn't fooled. "That's good." He caught that Teyla and McKay didn't have happy looks on their faces. "Isn't it?"
McKay pointed a finger at a display. "No. Life support is out, and we've got an hour, maybe a few minutes more, until there's nothing left to breathe." His hand lifted and fell in frustration. "The trap that Varak rigged was only meant to prevent someone from taking over the navigation systems, but the guard that was working with Balder short-circuited the trap unintentionally when he shut down the warning alarm earlier. Now, we can't change course and we're going to die if we can't get this fixed."
I'd learned a lot about the ways a person can die. Mostly, it was the Wraith doing the killing, but there were other causes, especially in the military. Training with live fire was dangerous, but necessary.
"There's worse ways to go." I wanted to add 'see, Sheppard, I can do positive' but no one seemed to share my view.
"Just in case anyone else wants to volunteer that dying of asphyxiation is a pleasant way to die, the temperature is falling rapidly, and hypothermia will fast become an issue." McKay pointed to another display where there were numbers changing.
Beckett pressed two hands on each side of his bruised temple. "If it's all the same, I'd prefer we avoid hypothermia and anoxia. Rodney, you said 'got it', which implies a solution?"
McKay shared a smug look with us. "Of course, the scientist once again saves the day. The Transporter Sheppard just blasted would've taken us down two floors to where the auxiliary station is located. All I would've had to do was change the --" He stared at me and I got the impression he was looking for something I could understand, "--power relay. Now, I can probably fix the transporter, but it might not work and even if it did, my Grandma always said 'don't put all your eggs in a basket'."
What I had a hard time understanding was why he was still looking so pleased with himself. Sheppard had just blasted our miracle. Apparently Sheppard was thinking the same thing. "McKay, I'm seeing two of you, and on a good day, one is enough to give me a headache. Just -- tell us what to do, and we'll do it."
"Why is it that I never get time to do the big, awe-inspiring explanations of my genius?" He didn't say anything else, though. He pointed sourly at the left side of the bridge and Teyla left his side, moving ahead of us. We followed behind, and I realized she had my knife in her hand and was now prying at the floor. After a few awkward minutes, she was working one-handed, a square of metal came up, about half a bravos in length and width. Sheppard had already moved to help, but Beckett beat him there first, intentionally stepping in front and taking the deck plating from her just in time, because her hand had started shaking from the effort of keeping it up. She stared down into the dark hole. McKay had come up from behind us and pointed. "Secondary access tube." He clapped his hands together. "Every good space ship has them."
The only problem now was that there were only three of us in any condition to go, and one of those had no business doing anything other than treating injuries. McKay was looking a little unsteady, which left me. "I'll go." I said it before anyone else could. "Is there a way for you to talk me through it?" We didn't have our radios -- they were wherever our bags were.
"Ronon, your leg." Teyla's worry was plain, but my leg was better than her arm.
"It's fine." I'd had worse before.
I could see McKay considering our options. "Maybe," he finally said. "The panel that exploded was the main navigation, which means one of these others is probably communications. There should be a matching panel in the auxiliary room, which means I'll be able to talk you through it."
"What if there is not?"
"Then he'll come back and I'll go." McKay answered Teyla's question with tired resignation. I recognized he was losing ground, fast. Doc needed to work on getting his wounds cleaned up and stop his bleeding.
"Tell me what to do."
I'd gotten a fast lesson on replacing a power relay, and now as I inched my way down and then to the side, creeping along horizontally, I wondered if McKay's assumption would prove true. I wasn't 'thinking positive' anymore. My leg hurt too much, and everything else had constantly gone the route of FUBAR. Lorne had taught me that one -- it'd been shortly after Sheppard had rescued them from a group of villagers on the verge of sacrificing them to an effigy of a Wraith and an Ancient, locked in eternal combat -- as if their death would end it. Lorne had almost lost his head on that mission and when he'd reported on the sequence of events, I'd been in Sheppard's office. He'd said, "Sir, it was a FUBAR from the time Doctor Weir gave us a go."
I'd followed Lorne out of Sheppard's office and asked him casually what it meant. I'd learned that if I was going to fit in, I needed to figure out their slang. A lot of it I liked, and FUBAR was one I saved for special occasions. It'd been a while since I'd felt we had a mission live up to the acronym. The last one had been when the 'gate had been swallowed up by the volcano.
Yeah, I think if anything fit this particular mission, it was FUBAR. Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. If we actually got out of this alive, I'd kiss a Mudsnap.
"How's it going, Ronon?"
The shout came from behind me and above. I moved my strong leg up to push myself forward and scooted again, making another few inches of painstaking progress. "Almost there!" I shouted over my shoulder. Luckily, sound traveled in this enclosed space, and it was even luckier that I didn't have a problem being in the small area. I'd trained with a boy that couldn't stand being closed up in tight places and it'd almost cost him his life when he'd broken and run during one of our live fire exercises. We were hiding in the ditches, three walls on each side with only air above. When we'd dragged the camouflage netting over the top, shutting out that air, it'd been too much, and he'd lost his ability to control his fear. If I hadn't run after him and tackled him to the ground, he would've lost his head to a blaster shot.
I pushed myself forward by bringing up a knee, rocking my body while bracing with my other foot, and then doing it all again with my other side. I passed the notch that indicated I'd made it to the second floor. I braced myself as best as I could, and kicked with my good leg to the right of the notch, relieved when it gave after only three hits. I had to twist myself into an L shape to back through the opening. It wasn't an easy or quick move, but I managed to get through the plating and into the room.
It wasn't as big as the bridge -- smaller even than my quarters on Atlantis, and it was completely empty, except for one wall, and just like the bridge, a row of consoles stuck out, the panels blinking with lights.
I moved to the middle of the row and stared for something that I recognized. McKay had found the communications panel and showed me the switch to flip. Only problem was, I couldn't find one down here that looked like the one up there.
Frustration made me want to punch something. I wasn't going to stick my head through the hole and try to shout back and forth -- I'd gone too far to be able to hear clearly. We had less than an hour, and I could feel the cold now to a point where it was uncomfortable. We were in a race whether the lack of oxygen or the cold would finish us off because I could see my breath coming out in misty puffs in front of my face.
Forgetting communications, I searched the middle panel for a lever. There'd been a small black knob, and McKay had shown me the dual connectors. Move the lever, the panel opens to controls, and the relay was on the drop down console. The connectors performed the same job, he'd said, all I had to do was switch the wire from the main to the secondary, and the secondary to the main, because it was the main that had failed. But I didn't have communications to him, and none of these panels had the lever, either. No switch, no lever, just a lot of blinking annoying lights.
I wasn't going to sit back and let those people die, because now they were the ones trusting me. They were counting on me to figure this out and get it done because none of them were in a condition to do it.
Delwin had said not to trust in anything other than my weapon, but I was finding you can't live that way for long. Not if you wanted to stay alive. I wondered at the reasons that had driven Delwin to believe so strongly, but all I could dredge from my memories was a teacher with a long scar on his arm, and an intense belief that he'd been right.
It was while I thought about trust and scars and all the generalized reasons why I had to find the power relay, that I stumbled on my bad leg and fell forward. My hand hit a series of buttons, and suddenly the metal panel directly below the console whined, and dropped open, revealing the relay.
I stared at it, dumbfounded. Like Sheppard said…
After that, it took seconds. I heard the shouts filter down the access tube and knew it'd worked. Here alone, without anyone looking, I let myself drop to the floor. I felt the gusts of air begin flowing in the room and knew we'd come close to losing. My leg throbbed and I could tell it was bleeding again. Up above, Sheppard was worse off than any of us, McKay probably not much better now. Teyla, Beckett…Varak had a lot to answer for, and knowing he was somewhere a couple levels over made me want to keeping working my way to the back of the ship instead of returning to the front.
The problem with that was, at least for now, revenge took too much energy that I didn't have, and the people in the front needed me. We still had to land this ship and find the 'gate while trying to avoid the slave markets, and the implants weren't going to make it easy. Even if the tracking device wasn't activated until ownership was transferred, the scar itself was a give away.
The urge to stay like this was growing stronger, so I knew it was time to go. I didn't get to my feet on the first try, not even the second, but like Sheppard's people liked to say, third time was the charm, whatever that meant. I limped to the hole and steeled myself for the trek back. I hadn't felt this tired in a while, not since right after I'd been set loose by the Wraith with the tracker rubbing along the bone in my spine.
I was halfway up when Beckett's worried face came into focus. When he saw me nearing, he pulled back, and I moved faster. His hands grabbed my arms when I got to the top, and he helped me through and onto solid floor. "Thanks," I panted.
They were sitting near the console McKay had been working at before I'd gone down the hole. Teyla's head was tilted back, her eyes closed, and I could see the lines of pain tight around her eyes and mouth. McKay's shirt was gone, or, not so much gone, as he'd taken it off and Doc had ripped it into bandages. He had a couple on his arm, and a big one wrapped around his middle. He was talking quietly with Sheppard.
Seeing me, they looked up curious, probably wondering why I'd been a while in coming back, but they didn't ask. Or, maybe I should say, McKay was about to, I think, when Sheppard shoved him with an elbow.
"So that's it?" I was having a hard time believing that we'd been close to death and one flip of a switch made things all better. I leaned on Beckett and we walked over to join the others. "The ship lands itself?"
McKay looked irritated as he reminded me, "Like I said, better than the Enterprise -- she might not look it, but she's amazing." His eyes got that fanatic look again. "This isn't anything like what we've seen before -- it's not Ancient technology."
I suppose that was supposed to mean something to me. My blank look seemed to annoy McKay.
Exasperated, he shook his head. "It's an incredible find." Seeing me for the lost cause that I was, he swept an excited look on the others. "Don't you get it -- it means, there are other races out there with spaceflight technology, and in some ways, better than the Ancients. The systems on the Caritas are, I wouldn't say more advanced, but think of two spaceships – the first has luxury package A and the second, luxury package B. The Caritas has package A, and the Jumpers have package B. Combining the two would be the spaceship equivalent of 'all you can eat buffet'…if I could reverse engineer the flight controls and integrate the unmanned capabilities straight into the Jumpers, we could bypass using the chair as a remote…"
"Not touching my Jumpers." Sheppard said it flatly, humor evaporating.
I shook my head, finding a comfortable spot to rest and thinking Teyla had the right idea. "How soon?" I asked. Because when it did land, things were going to get tricky again. We had to find our gear, set the prisoners free and deal with the remaining guards below.
Teyla didn't move but she was the one that answered. "Forty-five minutes. Rest, Ronon, while you can."
I rolled my head to see McKay waving his hand in the argument on why the Jumpers could stand upgrades, but all I caught was something about stubborn pilots and ten thousand year old ships. The Caritas wasn't pretty, but she'd taken a beating and was still flying. Seemed to me it held up better than the Jumpers did. I hadn't been with Sheppard long and we'd already crashed a couple of times.
"When we get back to Atlantis, I'm taking a hot shower, eating double helpings of mashed potatoes, gravy and corn – all mixed up, then, I'm telling Elaine she's pulling another shift, and I'm going to sleep." Beckett sighed at the thought of it and smiled at me. "And I'm going to hold this over Elizabeth's head for every future mission she tries to send me on. By the grace of God we're alive, and nothing else but, and the phase generator was the least deadly problem." He considered for a minute before looking at McKay. "Rodney, you didn't feel any nasty side effects, did you?"
"How would I tell?" he demanded. He looked at Sheppard. "Do I look any different?"
Sheppard's amused smirk was only half its normal level, but he still tried. "I don't know, McKay, I think you might be a little see-through."
"Funny, very funny." When Sheppard raised an eyebrow, McKay's eyes widened and he stared down at his chest, worried. "No, really -- it's not, right? Because, seriously, I only read the first couple of pages."
That's about the time when Sheppard shouted "What!" Beckett added, "You could've been killed, you bloody idiot", and I took Teyla's advice.
Landfall was as smooth as a Nubbi's bottom. We weren't steady, but we stood. We armed ourselves with stunners and McKay rigged the transporter to work despite the short Sheppard had caused by blasting it earlier -- it'd taken some rewiring, but he'd done it, saving us the hard work of crawling through the access tubes. The guards that we'd shoved in the transporter were starting to come around and that earned them another round of being stunned. I didn't much feel sorry for them, especially not as we had to drag them back out of the transporter and onto the bridge. I was getting kind of tired of dragging their dead weight around.
After that was finished, we got in the now empty transporter, all five of us, and McKay set it to take us to the level we needed. There were six levels on Caritas, with the fourth, fifth and sixth back in a horizontal tier of cells.
The ship had landed on a docking pad in the middle of the slave markets. We all knew it'd be a job to get out of here alive and without being recaptured, but Varak was going to get us there or he'd find his fortunes significantly changed. We'd spotted the 'gate flying in, and it rested just outside the northern perimeter of the city. The computer core had identified the planet as Manta Prime.
It was on the periphery of the galaxy, far enough away that the Wraith didn't seem to get out here all that often, and when they did, the slave markets probably made for easy payment in lives.
We found our gear along with other prisoner's things in a room on level four. Looked like Varak sold more than just people because everything had been laid out in a pattern related to estimated value. Weapons were grouped with other weapons, clothes and personal belongings in a different area. After we'd found our clothes and hurriedly dressed, Sheppard and Teyla headed for the weapons while McKay headed for the technology.
Beckett and I just kind of hung back, nothing else to do. I'd gotten my blaster rifle and was good. I'd thought about searching through the weapons to see if I could find a replacement sword, but walking was getting hard and every extra step I could avoid was one step more I'd have towards the 'gate.
I'd asked Sheppard if he was going to be able to make it before we'd gotten into the transporter and he'd said that there wasn't a lot of choice. He was partly right and partly wrong. There wasn't a lot of choice involved when your body gave up.
We released the prisoners on the fourth level. Each deck had an exit off the ship which made one part of our job easier. The people were shown where to get their things and how to leave the ship, but beyond that, they were on their own. We couldn't escort them to safety, or give them any promises that they'd make it through the slave markets out there without someone knowing what they were or had been.
The electronic chips implanted under the skin made it a risky chance they took but it all came back to choices. They didn't have a lot. Beckett didn't have the equipment to remove them, and even if he did, there were too many people on this ship for us to help and still get ourselves out of danger. I was all for helping the helpless, but not at the expense of my own life.
On the fifth level we found four cells of guards, mostly yellow but there were a couple green. I looked to Sheppard and he said, "Stunners."
I think I was the only one really disappointed in not being able to do something worse to them, but it was still satisfying. I knew first hand how much waking up from them hurt. I thought maybe a second stun was deserved, give them a taste of what it felt like, but Beckett was looking upset. "Remember, they did worse to us," I reminded him as the last guard fell.
"Aye," Beckett responded. "But we're not them."
Maybe he wasn't, but I didn't have any problems knowing who I was, and I was the guy that'd stun twice.
The rest was filled with prisoners and we repeated what we'd done before. That left the sixth to go. We moved in carefully, knowing Varak should be somewhere on this level. Balder hadn't been all that smart, but so far, he'd done us the favor of having secured all of Varak's men.
We set the prisoners free as we came to them, checked the common room and found it empty, and continued on, stunning any guards we came to. It wasn't till we got to the end that we found Varak.
He was in a cell with three other guards and when he saw us standing outside the cell when the door slid open, the look on his face was almost worth it.
"So the slaves want revenge."
I'd promised Varak more than once that he'd regret capturing us, and now that I had him on the flip side of where he wanted to be, I smiled violently. "Not them," I said. "But I do." I pulled the trigger and had everyone but Varak down in seconds.
Sheppard pushed the barrel of my blaster down, and turned to the slaver. "He's kind of hard to control when he gets mad so listen up. We're chipped, courtesy of you, and you're going to see us through the slave markets and safely out of the city. If you do, you'll live. If not, my friend here is going to find the opportunity to finish what he wants to do."
Varak sneered. "You think you'll have the time? I say one word, and there'll be herders all over you."
"Perhaps we should thank you for letting us know to kill you now." Teyla had pulled up her P90, and staring at her battered face, I believed she'd do it.
"If he wants to keep his ship, he'll do what we want." McKay pulled the phase generator out of his pocket. "See this, you miserable excuse for a human being -- this is a trigger device for the bomb I built on your bridge. One push and your entire ship will be reduced to subatomic particles and dust."
"What?" Varak didn't quite follow what McKay had said, though from the look on his face, I guessed he had an idea.
McKay's eyes rolled and he sighed. "Space ship go boom. Got it?"
Judging from the sour expression, he got it. McKay's bluff was working -- Varak's jaw was set and scared anger radiated off him. To a slaver, his ship was everything. Without it, he couldn't get new cargo and without new cargo, he was out of a job. Didn't break my heart -- on principle, I was having a hard time with the thought of letting him go after we got out of the city.
I limped into the cell, and with the others keeping their weapons trained on Varak, I manhandled him forward and into the corridor. I shoved him ahead of Sheppard. Teyla got alongside Beckett to keep the Doc out of reach of the slaver, while McKay and Sheppard let Varak know one wrong move and he was dead.
We took the closest exit, and stepped out into the sunshine, all of us doing our best to make sure the thin red scar was hidden.
"We're going to stand out." I pointed to Teyla's sling as I said it.
Changing into our clothes had helped -- we weren't dressed like slaves anymore -- and we'd wiped off as much blood as we could, but bruises and visible cuts would make people ask questions we couldn't afford.
I could see McKay and Sheppard sizing us up, Beckett and Teyla, too. Varak though, he gave us an indifferent look. "Hardly. Half the people out there are slaves, and they're too lost in their own misery to notice anyone else's -- the other half know the way to stay alive is to mind their own business."
I could see Sheppard was judging the truth in Varak's statement. If Manta Prime was like other seedier worlds I'd been to, he wasn't lying -- though, simplifying I'd say. There were always those looking out for anything and anyone they could use to their advantage.
Beckett pulled up the collar on his uniform. "I don't see that we have much choice." He might've said it, but he didn't look any less worried.
"I agree," Teyla seconded. "We risk bringing unwanted attention by lingering." She steadied herself, looking frankly at Sheppard. "We should leave."
Sheppard didn't look happy with it, and McKay less so, but he gave us a cursory look, pausing on our weapons. "Hide your guns, but keep them ready." He turned to look past the long gangway that led out into the markets from the docking pad. "Try not to look like the escaped chain gang that we are."
With nothing left to say, he waited till we'd done our best with hiding our weapons. I'd slid my blaster into the holster on my thigh and figured that was good enough. A little visual encouragement to remind people to keep their questions to themselves couldn't hurt. Sheppard's eyes paused on it. I adjusted the setting from stun to kill. The look he gave me after was one I read well enough. Have it your way, but don't do something stupid. Only mistake he kept making was that my idea of stupid and his was different.
Satisfied that we'd done enough, Sheppard led the way into the market. It was hot and humid, and the cacophony of sounds hit us like a physical bullet. Slaves sat dejected in stalls, their neck, wrist and ankles chained and shackled to pegs. Refuse lined the mud streets.
Animals had their place, too, in nearby stalls. Different kinds were being sold for meat and breeding, and they added their own pungent smells and bleating sounds.
As we ambled from the ship, or tried too in light of all the injuries we were dealing with, people turned our way. I could see Varak scanning the crowd, probably looking for some way out of it, but when he looked back, McKay lifted the device and smiled threateningly. Varak got the message, and turned forward, dejected.
Beckett leaned in to me and whispered, "I'm not missing the fact that Rodney's used the phase generator as a bluff?"
"Nope." I kept my eyes trained on Varak's back.
"That's what I thought." Beckett's voice wasn't afraid, more like resigned. "I think the lad enjoys this more than he's let on."
I think Doc was right.
We trudged our way to the northern perimeter, winding through streets that grew less populated the further we went. We did get a few looks that probed deeper than the casual glance. Whenever someone stared too long, I'd let my hand drop purposefully to rest on my blaster. It worked well enough, and for the rest, there were enough shifty faces around that we blended in and we were able to keep walking towards our goal without being stopped. We could ignore looks -- we couldn't ignore guns.
Teyla's face had grown colder as we looked upon the depths of misery, while Sheppard's grew grim. I didn't like it, but I also knew people did terrible things to other people -- in a twist of fate, I was staring at the product of Delwin's belief.
This was an example of what he'd believed in. The utter ability of people to do terrible things to others with no more thought to it than what you would give any routine chore. Looking into some of the slaves dead eyes, I wondered how many of them had known their captors, had trusted them. I'd heard rumors on Sateda about traveling men going to other worlds and promising a life free of the Wraith, a world where food and drink were as easy to get as waking up each day, and the people never wanted for anything. I wondered how many people had believed and wound up here.
The call came from a tall, skinny man walking quickly towards us. I tensed, along with everyone else. I forced myself to relax. It was easy to pretend we had business when the glances were from a distance. Up close, we might not pass inspection. I sidled closer to Varak, and shook my knife free from the wrist holster I'd gotten back from our stolen gear, and pretended to be standing close out of friendship. The tip poked into Varak's side and I felt him tense. "Smile for your friend," I ordered him quietly.
He waved, and smiled. "Hosh! What brings you to the markets this time of year? Thought you'd be home working on your next bastard!" The two men were close enough now to clasp hands, and I had to work harder at keeping the knife out of sight but close enough to remind Varak what the cost of a wrong word would be.
"Business, my friend -- always business!"
Hosh had returned the full arm clasp, and then raked his gaze over us. I pressed the knife in a little closer and smiled casually. Sheppard moved up and held his hand out. "John Crichton," he introduced himself.
"Crichton, is it? You and your friends need a doctor?"
"We're fine -- just ran into a difference of opinion at our last stop." Sheppard's explanation wasn't a lie. We'd had a big difference in opinion with Varak -- the one in which he wanted to sell us for money and we'd prefer he didn't.
Hosh took his hand and that's when I saw the exposed scar. I couldn't say anything aloud and Sheppard wasn't looking my way for me to give him a hand signal. Besides, Hosh was studying our faces in turn and he would've seen anything obvious.
The man released his hand, and when Sheppard pulled it back, the sleeve dropped down enough to cover it again. "What brings you to Manta Prime?" The question was voiced neutrally. If Hosh had seen it, he wasn't letting it show. There wasn't anything to do now but see what happened.
Teyla, Beckett and McKay tensed, but Sheppard grinned affably. "Varak offered to help me find some workers for a new section of land I bought." He kept his gaze steady, which was saying a lot in light of his head injury. "We're not staying long."
I prodded the knife against Varak's side to tell him to get rid of Hosh, now. He laughed boisterously and patted Sheppard on the back…hard. I saw Sheppard jerk forward and almost fall, but he caught himself and covered it well.
"And with that said, I suppose we better get back to it!" he boomed, a little too loudly. He held out his hand for a parting shake. "Meet me at the Northern Wraith later and we'll have drinks, I'll buy. Nothing more refreshing than a strong cup of Bana's ale after a long day of bargaining."
Hosh nodded with a friendly smile, if something had passed between the two, he was hiding it well. "I'll be there." He swept us with another last look and told Sheppard, "Nice meeting you." Then he melted away into the crowd.
I jabbed the point in a little before pulling it back. "Good job."
Teyla's eyes lingered on my wrist and I shrugged. If Hosh had seen Sheppard's scar and figured out what was happening, it still didn't change our strategy. We had one way out of here and that was up ahead.
A cart pulled by slaves came rolling up, and I steered Varak out of the way. McKay and Teyla moved to the side, while Sheppard and Beckett wound up having to move to the opposite side of the street to avoid getting ran down. Once it was gone, we joined up on the left side of the street and kept walking towards the looming wall in the distance. Some times we had to go crossways to our goal because of buildings and people, but as the day moved along, we did, too. The crowds grew even scarcer and the buildings more so. As we turned another corner, I could see the road leading to the 'gate ahead, but what I saw, made me pissed.
I closed the distance between me and Varak, grabbed his shirt, and slammed him into the wall of the nearest building. The street was mostly deserted here, and if it were anything like other holes of desperate humanity, I guessed not a lot of people would pay much notice to a fight.
"When were you going to tell us about the security gate?" I snarled, pulling him back a little just so I could slam him again against the brown brick.
"Ronon!" Sheppard tried to grab my arm, but I shook him off. It wasn't hard to do seeing how he could hardly stand.
Varak's attention was shifting to the others, trying to find someone that would help, but McKay had seen it, too. "You were going to screw us over, again."
"I'm a slave trader. What'd you expect?" He tried to pull free but I wasn't letting him move. "You let my entire cargo go free, it took me four months to capture that big of a load!"
I don't know who was more surprised, me or Varak, when Beckett strode up and punched him square in the face. I let him go, and he slumped to the ground. Doc wasn't doing a good job of containing his rage. "Humanity, you bloody bastard, but I should've known better than to expect it from the likes of you."
Varak got his hands up to his nose, cupping it protectively, but I was glad to see the blood beginning to snake around the edges of his fingers.
"You boke my nobe!" Varak accused as best as he could with his hands muffling his mouth.
"Shut up or I'll break your neck." Sheppard delivered his warning without any sympathy. "A broken nose is the least you deserve."
Varak still looked shocked that Beckett had hit him. We all kind of did. I gave Doc an approving look. Maybe he wasn't so timid after all. I wanted to let Beckett have at Varak more, but we still had the business of the outer security gate to get through.
"McKay, show me how to use the phase generator." Sheppard was already checking the magazine of his P90.
"Colonel, you're in no condition to go."
Beckett's assessment was true, but we didn't have a lot of choice. McKay had done well on the ship, but taking out an armed contingent guarding a city gate was a lot different than ambushing a handful of guards on a space ship. Beckett was the only other one of us with the ATA gene, and he didn't have the training to even begin to know how to take down a cadre of trained men.
McKay didn't argue. He pulled it out and handed it over. "Push this button here." He pointed to a slight depression in the middle of the small gray device. "From what I've been able to tell, there's only one setting. It's as easy as a light switch. Push in, it's on, push out, it's off."
Varak had watched confused, but now his face erupted in outrage. "You tricked me!"
"Sod off," Beckett snapped at the slaver without taking his attention from Sheppard. "If you're determined to do this, we should do a test run first, to make sure it doesn't interact with your head injury in some way. We know the technology has strong mental components, and no offense, Colonel, but your mental abilities aren't what they normally are."
"Doctor Beckett is right, Colonel."
Teyla didn't look any happier about Sheppard having to do this, but a test run was a smart choice. It'd suck to find out the phase generator wouldn't work for him once he was already out in the street in plain sight. I could read her frustration in being unable to be the one to go.
Sheppard took the device from McKay and stared at it uncertainly for a minute, then pressed the middle button. Nothing happened. He looked at us and asked, "Can you see me?"
"Unfortunately, yes." McKay snapped his fingers at Sheppard and held his hand out for the device.
"Why didn't it work?" Sheppard demanded even as he dropped it back in McKay's hand.
"Like I said, I didn't read everything -- it might be a matter of imprinting on the first user, which means I get to be Rambo, but it could also be the power source is on empty." He looked up at us and pushed in the same spot.
"Can you see me now?" Sheppard cracked.
Beckett shot him an annoyed look before he told McKay, "This was a bad time to find out the batteries aren't rechargeable."
"I'm sorry!" McKay pushed on it a few more times, as if it'd make the phase generator do what he wanted. "Do you realize how much information the Ancients have in their database for even something simple like their toilet systems? I can only read so many warnings about operating under the influence before I begin to make assumptions!"
"We'll have to make a run for it," I said to Sheppard. Without the device, it'd make our escape more dangerous, but you make do with what you have. I pointed my knife at Varak. "We can't trust him to not say something to the guards, and I'm not getting caught."
What I was trying to say was that I wasn't going to let any of us fall into the hands of these slavers again, and anyone manning that gate was probably going to become a casualty. I didn't need anyone hesitating if it came down to taking out any guards standing between us and freedom, though truthfully, I didn't think they would at this point. Maybe before, Beckett, possibly Teyla, would've objected, but not now. Not when Sheppard was near to passing out again, and all of us looked like we had nothing left. If we were caught this time, there wouldn't be any escape. We had too many wounds and we couldn't afford to take any chances.
Sheppard agreed and grudgingly ordered McKay and Teyla to keep a watch on Varak, waving at me to walk out of hearing range for the slaver. When we were far enough ahead, but still in the shadow of the last building leading down the street towards the gate, he jerked his head back towards Varak. "You think it's another ambush?" I knew his mind was turning back to the exchange with Varak's friend.
I considered the run-in with Hosh and nodded thoughtfully. "Probably. Northern gate, Northern Wraith -- he tipped him off to where we were going. And if Hosh caught a look at your scar, he'll know."
"That's what I was thinking." He didn't sound happy.
He spared a look along the wall that stretched around the city. We could see the Stargate rising beyond. "We can't double back through the city and find a different exit. He's probably got them watching anyway, just in case we suspected anything." He shifted the P90 more forward. "This is probably going to get ugly."
I knew he was hurting, and I knew he wasn't looking forward to it, but I still couldn't keep the slight grin off my face. "Yeah," I agreed.
He chuckled mirthlessly. "Don't look so happy."
I fought the grin down to as straight of a line as I could. The prospect of shooting up guards made me expectant. I had a lot of pent up frustration right now.
All of this – from the time we'd been ambushed, to seeing the stalls full of people who'd probably done nothing other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I might not agree with people who didn't stick up for themselves, but they didn't deserve to be sold into slavery. The loss of a few of Manta Prime's guards was the least we could do on our way out.
Sheppard was struggling to work out a plan, and I knew his concussion wasn't helping much. "We can use Varak as a shield, approach with our weapons hidden. When we get close enough, we bring up our guns and shoot anyone in our way." I offered him the straightforward approach. Not a lot of strategy, but I didn't see that it mattered much this time. It didn't have to be clean and precise, it just had to do the job.
He finished surveying the gate and turned to squint at me. It wasn't bright where we were standing, but the light was enough to keep adding to his headache. "Can you keep him quiet until we're near?"
"I can keep him quiet." Varak wasn't stupid. He was betting on a lot of possibilities to keep him alive. Hosh and a rescue by ambush, but he had to know by now that we suspected, the way we were hanging back and looking. He also figured he could count on the others keeping me from killing him. If he thought he was out of options, he'd go along with what we said, because Varak wasn't the kind of man to die for anything. The mistake he'd made when he captured us was that I was the kind of guy that would kill for just about everything. Threaten my life, my friends, my freedom -- it was enough in my mind.
I followed Sheppard back to our group, limping but staying close in case he started to fall. He was getting progressively worse, stumbling more often and having a hard time recovering after each one.
While Sheppard explained the plan, and McKay protested that it wasn't much of one, I latched on to Varak's shoulder and hauled him to his feet. "Time to prove you're worth more to us alive than dead," I told him ruthlessly.
In case the words didn't convince him, I shook my knife down from my wrist again, and pulled him in close, letting the point dimple his skin. "One wrong word, and your ribs get a new brother."
Varak nodded, for once wordless.
"Ready?" Sheppard addressed it to everyone but his eyes met mine.
Teyla nodded, but Beckett protested, "Not bloody likely, but I imagine this isn't a multiple choice question."
McKay's reply was to simply check the magazine in his pistol. I raked my eyes over him with a shrewd look. He might not be the most capable of us, but he was learning.
It was a straight walk to the gate once we left the cover of the buildings -- my guess was it'd be ten minutes out in the open. Sheppard led our scraggly group, Teyla and McKay took our flanks and I marched Varak up the middle, followed by Beckett. The buildings on Manta Prime were dirty and big, most over three levels high, so the shadow cast by the final one stayed with us for a few bravos. The mud in the streets dried up out here and turned to dust, away from the constant traffic and refuse that had kept it damp and mucky in the market center.
My limp grew more pronounced and I had to start gritting my teeth with the effort to keep hiding it enough so that Varak wouldn't sense my weakness. The distance shortened, and Sheppard muttered over his shoulder, "Get ready…"
The city wall was made out of blocks of yellow brick, and at least six bravos high. The ends met in a wooden gate buttressed against a building made from the same brick. It'd be hard to put our bullets through that, and anyone hiding behind it could find cover we wouldn't be able to penetrate. We got near enough that we could see the guard's faces watching us over the viewing balcony. Looked like the guard building was multiple levels and I could make out the stairs rising onto the wall. This city was built to withstand attack, which made me wonder what was on the other side of that gate, aside from the Stargate.
Suddenly Varak dropped, and grabbed something on his ankle. At first I thought he was going for a weapon, and I cursed myself for not searching him better than the brief check I'd given him before we left the Caritas, but then the tingle in my wrist clued me in that it wasn't the kind of weapon I'd been thinking about.
"You won't get away now!" Varak crowed.
Sheppard and the others had stopped and were staring at their wrists, feeling the same thing I was. The guard stepped onto the balcony, and I caught sight of Hosh standing behind. I started to shout to Sheppard to look out, when the guard brought a weapon up in the same maneuver we'd planned on using, and fired.
It was when Sheppard spun to the side and collapsed without a sound, and I saw the spray of blood, that I knew they didn't care if they captured us dead or alive. I jogged forward and shoved Varak to the side. I already had my blaster in hand, and without pausing, I fired at the slaver's back. When he slumped to the ground dead, my only regret was that I hadn't been able to make him suffer more.
Teyla had a hold on her P90 with her free arm, clumsily spraying bullets at the guards. It was enough to keep them from picking us off one by one. I got off two clear shots and saw one of the guards fall back, a smoking hole right below his neck. I fired again and saw Hosh's head practically disintegrate. The balustrade of brick was blocking anything but head shots, and they were just stupid enough to keep sticking their heads up for me to hit.
"Any friend of Varak's, is a dead friend," I vowed, as I moved as fast as my leg would take me towards the others. "Run!" I pushed McKay and waved roughly with my gun at Beckett to keep going towards the gate, while I leaned down and lifted Sheppard over my shoulder, swearing as the pressure almost collapsed my leg.
McKay and Teyla spread cover fire into the guard building. We ran for the wooden gate, firing and ducking. Blood ran down my shoulder from Sheppard and down my leg from my earlier injury. I breathed through clenched teeth and promised myself that regardless of what it took, I was getting us back.
We made it to the wooden part of the wall and I aimed my gun, thanking Delwin for the foresight of gifting me with the rare weapon that could blast through most materials. I quickly created a hole that we could duck through in less then ten shots.
Beckett took Sheppard from me, and he and McKay went through while Teyla and I kept firing at the guards. I think she got one, but they were doing their best to stay out of my line of sight after seeing Hosh decapitated. "How's your arm?" I shouted to her above the racket of gunfire.
"Fine!" I didn't think it was, because she was gritting her teeth together so hard I thought she might break a tooth, but seeing how we didn't have much of a choice, I probably shouldn't have wasted our time in asking.
I pushed Teyla through, and followed, firing a couple more rounds behind me as I went.
I didn't need Teyla's urging, I'd already seen how far we had to go. I didn't know the range of their weapons, so I ran, turning often to shoot. There were two men on the wall, and they were aiming at us. I saw McKay go down, Beckett and Sheppard falling in succession as the support from his side disappeared.
Spinning around, I aimed carefully and took out the one that I was pretty sure had gotten McKay.
"Ronon, look out!" I ducked when I heard Teyla's shout, and rolled to the side. The dirt kicked up from the round impacting where I'd been.
When I got to my feet, I saw Beckett's faced twisted in fury, as he reached for McKay's pistol, stood and aimed. The pistol kicked in his hands and time stopped as I turned to watch the wall and saw the last man fall backwards, off beyond our line of sight. I wanted to cheer Doc, but as I turned back, I saw the look on his face. The utter devastation, and at first I thought it was because he'd gotten the guard, but then it was with dread that I limped forward, suspecting what I didn't want to see. Rodney was motionless, but for the small weak rise of his chest. Sheppard's chest wasn't moving.
I swallowed back the bile that rose and looked desperately at Doc, needing him to save Sheppard. It wasn't just the Wraith that he'd saved me from. He'd taught me the other lessons of life that Delwin hadn't been able to, and in only a few months of being a member of his team. I'd given him a silent promise to always watch his back that day that he'd brought Beckett to me and gave me back my life, and I wasn't going to fail.
Teyla touched my arm and pointed ahead. "Dial Atlantis," she ordered softly. We only had moments before more men would arrive to start firing at us. I wasn't going to let him die.
There was also the increased tingling in my wrist and I was beginning to feel flushed and slow. I wondered stupidly if the devices released drugs -- it'd be easy to catch runaways. All you'd have to do is set it to release, then go retrieve the unconscious bodies. No danger, no loss of a valuable slave.
Right now though, I had a life to save, and this drug wasn't going to keep me from it when nothing else so far had. Reaching down, I slung Sheppard over my shoulder again, and ran to the DHD. My leg burned and my world narrowed as I pounded in the glyphs. I heard Beckett and Teyla dragging McKay behind. When the wormhole splashed out and settled back, I felt the zing of a projectile buzz near my arm and fly past me into the event horizon. More guards had arrived.
I watched as Teyla entered the IDC into the GDO, and hoped that no one was standing on the lower levels of the gateroom, or they might get hit by the weapon's fire that'd be chasing us all the way into the wormhole.
She didn't have to tell me twice. I turned and ran, and when the cold swallowed me up, I hoped some more that the other three were right behind me.
I stumbled out the other side and fell forward. The best I could do was shout for a medical team, and try to cushion the fall with Sheppard. He still wasn't breathing. Teyla, Beckett and McKay came flying through, and they all fell in a heap much the same way I had, and none of them got up.
Weir came running down the stairs and a medical team came running in the side entrance, carrying their medical kit. I was pushed out of the way. "He's not breathing -- he was hit right before we got to the 'gate."
Even though they didn't stop to talk, I knew they'd heard me. I didn't stand up because I didn't think my leg would hold me anymore, and the truth of it was, I was feeling more than a little dizzy. I looked down and noticed my leather pants were wet almost the entire length of my right leg. I wanted to explain about the devices in our wrist, the possible drugs, but my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth.
I wondered why Beckett wasn't getting up to help with Sheppard, then I realized more of the medical personnel had arrived and now converged around the other three, and none of them were moving, still. As my head began to spin even more, I thought of another one of Sheppard's sayings. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." And with that, I gave up on trying to stay awake.
When I woke up next, it was a lot different than the other times. I felt lethargic and fuzzy, and nothing hurt more than I could handle. My leg was propped up with a pillow, and normally I would've refused the coddling, but right now I was too tired to argue. The infirmary was dimly lit which made me think it was nighttime. Assuming we'd arrived back during the day, some time had passed since we'd made it home. Home. That revelation meant something, but right now I was too drugged and tired to think about it.
There were a lot more people than I realized working around me, and that was about when my mind finished remembering…Sheppard! As my heart beat faster, I heard the beeping of their machines match the rhythm inside my chest.
The soft voice was familiar, and I opened my eyes to find Doctor Weir leaning worriedly over me. My mouth felt dryer than the drought seasons on Sateda. "Sheppard?" I asked. "The others?"
She straightened, her face inscrutable. "They're alive. Doctor Biro was able to revive Sheppard." She paused and studied me, maybe trying to see how much I could handle. I guess I didn't pass inspection because she said, "Get some more rest, you've been through a lot. We'll talk more next time."
I wanted to tell her I hadn't been through that much, that I'd been through worse, but I figured saying that wouldn't make her feel any better, probably would've been the opposite. To my people, hardships were what they were, they just happened, Sheppard's people though, felt everyone's pain. I both admired them for it, and thought they were fools because of it.
A nurse whispered something to Elizabeth, and I watched as the color drained from her face. She was a diplomat, that I knew, and I could tell because of how quickly she covered any readable emotion on her face. She touched my shoulder lightly. "Rest, I'll be back later, I promise." Then she was gone before I could ask what was going on. I started to get up, but before I could make any progress I felt a cold flush in my hand. My eyes met the nurse's and she held the syringe up.
"Rest," she repeated firmly.
My eyes closed in small increments until I was doing what they'd wanted me to.
I'm not sure how long I slept for, but when I woke later, and I think it was the next day judging by the increase of people and light, I found Beckett sitting in the chair next to me. I was worried by the ones I didn't see.
"Doc?" I rasped.
He smiled warmly, his eyes crinkling, but he seemed to be wearing a pall of sadness that scared me, and I remember Weir's leaving my side last night after getting a message from a nurse. I fought against a sudden lump in my throat, "Sheppard, is he…"
Beckett's face scrunched in confusion, then cleared. "I'm sorry, lad -- I thought you'd remembered being told he was going to be okay."
I exhaled, and tried to hide my relief. "McKay, Teyla?" There had to be a reason why he looked like he'd lost someone.
Doc shook his head with a weary grin. "I should've known you were too out of it last night to listen." Now I was the one looking confused. He climbed to his feet and that's when I saw he was favoring his leg. "They're going to be fine. Rodney took one of those bullets to his belly and though I won't lie it's been a mess to clean, I wasn't the one doing the work. Elaine got him settled right enough. Teyla's arm has been put in a cast and I can tell you she's not happy with it, but she's resting comfortably. She's got some other injuries that are going to make her uncomfortable for a while but she'll heal. Sheppard's holding his own. I think he'll make it, but he has a recovery ahead." He waited for me to think about it before he added, "We've all had the data chips removed without any complications -- the drug it released was only a mild sedative so there'll be no lasting effects."
I looked down at my wrist, surprised to see the white gauze around it. I hadn't even felt it.
Still didn't explain why he looked depressed, but I didn't really know how to ask him. I owed Beckett almost as much as I owed Sheppard, seeing how he'd been the one that'd come to that jungle planet and cut the tracker from me, the recent parallels making me feel a little too uncomfortable.
Knowing now just how badly he hated going through the wormhole made me realize what that'd taken him to do. It's not that I didn't want to try and offer him whatever support I could, I just didn't know how.
It was another thing McKay and I had in common. Even though he came from the same world as Beckett, he was more like me in dealing with other people's fears and insecurities. If he noticed, he was more likely to tell them to get over it than anything else. I still hadn't figured out why he was intolerant of the same faults he suffered from, but everyone could be blind to their own shortcomings, like Delwin.
"Ronon, I…ah," he fumbled right about the time when I realized what this might be about. Beckett had killed a man. He was a doctor, and doctors didn't take lives -- they saved them. That was the same on my world as it was on theirs.
"The first one is always the worst." I tried to offer him consolation.
His face took on a puzzled expression. "What?"
"Killing," I explained. "Now that you've done it, it gets easier after that." I didn't think I needed to add that the men we'd killed wouldn't have had the same second thoughts over shooting us down.
I saw him repeating my words to himself, then his mouth opened in surprise. "You thought I was upset over -- no, not that, I mean, I'm not happy about it…" he babbled. "Taking a life is not something I'd ever really thought about doing, but he'd have killed me and damn near killed us at it was, so no…that's not what I'm…" He stopped talking and pursed his lips together as if preparing himself for the worst. "Son, you've got to stay off your leg, and the infirmary has a limited supply of crutches…Rodney told me about your, ah, difficulty on Nokomis…"
Crutches? His worry had been about crutches? "You don't have to worry, Doc," I assured him.
His face cleared, relieved. "Oh, good, because with the rate of injury around here I wouldn't want to be without any, and the Daedalus between trips --"
"I'm not using them."
"The hell you won't!" Now he was turning a little red. "They spent over two hours fixing that leg and I'll be damned if you're going to rip up the fine stitching. You want to walk again and keep full use of that leg you'll do what you're told."
I wasn't using them. Doc could bluster at me all day, but it'd been bad enough trying to get around with just my team watching. I wasn't going to provide entertainment for all of Atlantis. I stared at Beckett, not budging, and I saw him dig in equally deep, but a nurse arrived and staved off a battle that I was afraid I probably would've lost, at least for now, seeing how I was the one in the bed.
Whatever the nurse said, it wasn't good. Beckett's face turned from stubbornness to worry, and he retrieved a pair of crutches from the floor and started hobbling after her, turning just long enough to tell me, "This isn't finished."
It was as far as I was concerned.
Without company, I grew bored fast. I wanted to know how everyone else was doing, and all I managed to get from a nurse was that my three teammates were in what they called Critical Care. I wasn't the 'hang around the bedside' type but I made exceptions. I'd sat with McKay and Teyla while Sheppard recovered from the retrovirus, and then I'd sat with Teyla and Sheppard while McKay recovered from -- in Sheppard's words -- his Captain Nemo adventure.
When the nurses weren't looking, I got out of bed, and hopped towards the Critical Care room. It wasn't far, but by the time I got in there, I was breathing hard and even grudgingly wished for one of those crutches. I took Beckett's warning serious enough that I didn't try to put weight on my bandaged leg. I did have the IV pole to hang onto but it wasn't exactly strong and it wobbled underneath my weight.
I found Doc hovering over Sheppard, snapping orders to the nurses. I didn't like the looks of it but I was also smart enough to know I needed to stay out of the way and wait until Beckett could tell me what was going on.
I found Teyla and McKay across from Sheppard, and both were awake and watching. Kind of pissed me off knowing they got the benefit of being in here together while I laid out there alone. And that was something new. I wasn't used to caring much about anyone after seven years on the run, and having lost my entire world and everyone I cared about.
Using my IV pole still, I wheeled and hopped over to the spare bed next to McKay. I sat down and stretched my leg out, fluffed the pillows and growled, "What's wrong with him now?"
"Pressure on his brain." McKay cast a look my way and pointed to a pile of pillows next to my new bed, because I wasn't going to let them move me back, and said, "Put one of those under your leg, the elevation will help with the pain."
I reached for the pillow, debated the fact that I was now letting McKay coddle me, shrugged and shoved it under, then looked at Sheppard and thought back to on the ship when Doc had been explaining possible complications. "Brain goes mush." I didn't like the sounds of it now anymore than I had then.
McKay snorted. "Yes, brain goes mush. Unless Carson can relieve the pressure."
"Colonel Sheppard will be fine." Teyla stated it as a fact for as much of a reason as anyone would. They wanted to believe it.
I was surprised at just how much I wanted to believe it.
They wheeled Sheppard out of there minutes later and Beckett only paused long enough to notice me and say I might as well stay. I didn't tell him I hadn't planned on moving back. When McKay asked where they were taking Sheppard, he called, "To surgery."
Less than an hour later, Weir joined us. I think Beckett asked her to come keep us from storming the operating room. It was then that I learned Teyla had suffered a fracture of the bones around her eyes and nose. She looked even more swollen two days later (or was it three), but she didn't complain.
Wish the same could be said for McKay. He complained a lot.
The time moved slow and all of us seemed to be empty of any real effort to talk. Weir prodded us on what had happened.
"I let us get caught," I said flatly. It'd be a while till I forgot the cost of losing my edge. I never should've been taken off guard like that.
"Shut up," McKay berated. "Elizabeth, these guys were first rate slavers -- they had a ship with a cloaking device. There was a weapon that could mass stun people -- think Wraith culling beam, and there was nothing any of us could've done to prevent it once they realized we were there."
I shot McKay a dark look. "You didn't tell me that."
He put on an innocent expression. "I didn't say that they used it on us -- in fact, I recall clearly bad guys with guns. I just said they had the ability to take us without a fight."
"Rodney." Weir's tone was like Teyla's when we started bickering and I wondered if it was a female thing no matter where you went in the universe. Wasn't like I was going to hop beds and start wrestling McKay over it.
For once though, Teyla appeared equally ruffled. "You should have explained this, Rodney."
That's when I realized I wasn't the only one blaming themselves for the disaster our mission had turned into. Funny, when I was beating myself up over it, everything seemed right, but when it was Teyla, suddenly it wasn't. I had to think about things too much since joining Sheppard's people. "Doesn't matter," I said gruffly. "We're here now."
Weir smiled tightly but she wasn't fooling any of us. She was the leader, and she bore the weight of every mission gone wrong and every life lost. I recognized the far-away look in her eyes. "That's right." The false confidence wasn't fooling any of us. She breathed in, and pushed her hands down her legs, trying to wipe away the worry, fear and guilt. "Colonel Sheppard will be fine and Atlantis will get to enjoy his team driving everyone crazy while you four recuperate."
McKay wasn't up to his normal biting retorts, and conversation dwindled after. In light of my bed change, the nurse showed up with pain medication a little later than I needed, but she didn't lecture. I drifted asleep with Weir watching over us and not knowing if Sheppard was going to be okay or not.
I dreamed that night about Delwin. He accused me of forgetting my training and told me I'd be the reason for my squad's deaths. For a time, I was the little boy, doing what he was taught and listening, taking his Teacher's words as truths because that's what you did in training. But Delwin walked up to Sheppard and pointed a pistol at his head, staring at me the entire time. "You can't keep anything that makes you weak."
I stood deathly still, waiting. If I moved, he'd shoot; I knew it. If I did anything, he'd shoot, and Sheppard would be dead.
He waited, the gun never moving, while Sheppard tried to act like he wasn't afraid. That's okay, I was afraid for both of us.
When the shot came, it wasn't Delwin's, it was Beckett. He stood behind Sheppard and dropped the gun. His hands came up and he rotated them as if they were covered in the blood of the man's life he'd just taken. His eyes met mine and I felt the sting of his grief.
I roared at a ceiling that didn't exist, up into a misty grey fog, because I'd failed to protect them.
The nightmare ended abruptly with Beckett shaking me, and for a second, I thought it'd really happened, but then I realized where I was and saw Beckett dressed now in surgical scrubs. Sheppard's bed was back across the room and he was in it, tubes everywhere, but the steady beeping and rise and fall of the machine that breathed for him assured me he was still alive.
I wanted to tell Beckett I was sorry, that he'd had to take a life and lose that little bit more of his soul, but I couldn't force the words to come. Partly because I'd grown up being taught that every man was responsible for himself, but also because I knew all I'd do is make Beckett feel worse.
A year ago it wouldn't have even occurred to me to feel guilt over something like this and I wondered if the change was a good one. Emotions got in the way, they left you vulnerable, and maybe that'd been the lesson Delwin had tried to teach, and I'd just never gotten it. It wasn't about trust, it was about caring and letting someone in to that depth. He'd used Avon as an example because as a boy, it'd been all I'd had to relate to, but he'd been the one that pushed me in the river and threw a rock at my head. And I hadn't trusted him after that.
I'd respected Kell, but I had never fully trusted or allowed myself to care about him and I guess that's why killing him for what he'd done was easy. I hadn't even thought twice, and the only thing I regretted was using Teyla to get to him. I had a hard time imagining doing the same thing if it'd been Sheppard instead of Kell.
"Must've been quite a dream." Beckett sat gingerly in the chair between my bed and McKay's. I looked around, trying to get my bearings. Weir was asleep in the chair between Teyla and me, who was also sleeping. McKay was awake and looking at me. He'd probably been the one to call for Beckett.
I couldn't help the rueful smile as I found myself repeating previous words. "I've had worse." I had, when I'd been on the run from the Wraith, and even after I'd joined Sheppard's team. The Wraith sucking the life out of you was probably the worst as far as terror goes.
"Aye, I'm sure you have," agreed Beckett.
"He's been the Wraith's boy toy." McKay never was one to think before he talked. "I think that'd give even Freddy Krueger nightmares."
It wasn't that I didn't appreciate what they were trying to do. Well, maybe I didn't, but I was trying. Even before the Wraith had changed me into a person on the run, I'd grown up in a world that encouraged strength over weakness, and emotions fell into the category of the latter. It wasn't an easy thing adjusting to being around people again, let alone learning how to interact with them like they'd grown up doing all along. Using a fork had been hard enough.
"Go to sleep, Rodney." Doc seemed to sense my uneasiness, though I wasn't sure how. I was usually pretty good at hiding those things. I could blame it on the pain medication. There was a reason I'd told him no that first time I'd met him. Pain medication dulled your senses and weakened your mind.
I expected to hear a protest, and when one didn't come, I looked over and realized McKay had already fallen asleep. He was still pale himself and facing his own battle of recovery. He had two new bags running fluid into him now that he'd become feverish. Beckett hadn't been surprised, he'd been expecting complications considering all we'd been through. But the one complication he'd expected and wanted the least lay comatose across from me.
"Doc -- you know that guard," I started finally, needing to talk about it even though I didn't know how.
"I know." Beckett sighed, shaking his head slightly. He was hunched over, and he suddenly ran his hands over his face, wincing when he'd hit a bruise harder than he meant to. "I'm trained to save lives, Ronon, and that's what I did."
I thought about what he said, and nodded. Yeah, it was what he'd done. Good enough for me. Something I still wanted to know though… "What's haggis?"
The next couple of days we spent watching over Sheppard. Even if we'd been in a condition to leave the infirmary, Beckett knew it was useless.
I was surprised to find just how much courage it took to stick around and hover. The other times, we'd had the benefit of knowing that he'd get better. There hadn't even been a question, but this time, each hour he kept living, was one more hour closer to him making it. Doc said it was a matter of his will now, if his body would begin to heal, or get worse, and there wasn't anything else he could do.
I watched each hour pass, and then the next. We broke our vigil to eat and sleep. When he finally started waking up, Teyla turned quickly away, hiding her face from us and McKay did a lot of blinking and swallowing. I just kept watching.
Doc came running, and they started checking him over to the point where we got the cold shoulder. That was okay by us, we were just across the room, and simply moved back to our beds and resumed staring.
That was until Beckett drew the curtain around after giving us a grumpy look.
It wasn't till the day after that Doc gave us the okay to visit with him. I was using the crutches, but every time he looked away, I put them in one hand and hopped. I hadn't managed to figure them out in the eight weeks we'd spent on Nokomis and I wasn't thinking this time was going to be any different. I couldn't figure out how Sheppard's people could build space ships but this wooden stick configuration was the best they could do. On Sateda, our doc's had used a surgical splinting and we'd never needed anything else. I'd thought about telling Beckett, but then I remembered my experience with McKay and explaining what a bravos was, and decided I was better off keeping my mouth shut.
Sheppard was sleepy, and kind of out of it, least I hope that's why he called me Teyla the first time. She took it more in stride than I did.
But he was Sheppard. He told McKay it looked like the bullet had given him a tummy tuck -- I'd figure out what that meant later -- and told Teyla she looked like a raccoon. Feeling like I should probably stick up for them, I was the one who told Sheppard he wouldn't need a hairbrush for a while.
I almost felt guilty when his heart monitor went crazy.
I still don't know why Doc chased us out of there after that, but like I said before, wasn't like we got chased far.
That night Weir arrived and went to talk to Sheppard. I listened to their quiet voices, and thought about the mission and what I was doing here. Like it or not, I'd agreed to stay and be a part of their world and their fight -- my fight.
I just hoped we'd win.