This was written for the Sensory Loss challenge at the sheppardhc Livejournal community. The basic idea for the plot comes from an episode of "MacGyver" ... just the inspiration mostly; it took off in a totally different direction. Enjoy!
Title: Candle in the Dark

Rating: T

Genre/Spoilers: Gen, h/c; Season 2

Characters: Sheppard and McKay, mostly


As far as Sheppard was concerned, a man really couldn't complain about scientist babysitting duty, most of the time. Not that this stopped the Marines from complaining -- loudly -- but it was light, generally clean duty, and usually involved nothing more than, at worst, standing around looking intimidating or helping them move a few dusty artifacts from one place to another. A lot of the time, you just got to kick back in a sunny place and listen to them argue, which was monumentally entertaining.

And then you had days like today.

"It was a left."

"I think I would have remembered that, Colonel, and I'd like to remind you that I'm not the one who managed to get lost going in a straight line."

"You're never going to let me live that down, are you? And in this particular case, if you'd forgotten, you're the one who got the locals pissed off at us."

"It wasn't my fault," Rodney snapped automatically. This had been his defense for the last half hour, and Sheppard was getting tired of it ... much as Rome had gotten tired of Julius Caesar shortly before stabbing him forty or so times on the Senate floor.

"Wasn't your fault, huh?" He paused at a fork in the corridor, shone the flashlight of his P90 in both directions and then picked one at random before resuming. "Which one of us knew, but completely failed to mention, that we're trespassing in a sacred temple and that the penalty for said trespassing is death?"

"It's not my job to tippytoe around the local superstitions. That's why we have anthropologists."

"Those would be the same anthropologists, Rodney, who came back and made the recommendation that we avoid this world for the time being, until we're able to establish more solid diplomatic connections with the local people? The recommendation that you conveniently failed to mention in the briefing this morning?"

"I did mention it!" Rodney's voice went up several octaves of indignation, emerging as a girlish squeal. "Weren't you listening?"

They picked their way down a flight of stone steps with a drop-off into absolute blackness to their left. Absently Sheppard made a mental note that going down was probably bad, from the perspective of ever getting out of this dungeon. On the other hand, going back up to the surface wasn't that good, either, considering the circumstances. "Of course I remember. And if I remember correctly, what you said was something along the lines of 'a simple, friendly people with some primitive superstitions regarding the temple, bring lots of trade beads' or some such thing."

"It is not a temple, Colonel, it is an Ancient satellite control facility. I think," he added under his breath.

"It's a temple to them, Rodney."

"That's because they are ignorant, Colonel."

"Well, what about the 'friendly' part? They didn't look so friendly when they were trying to skewer us with poisoned arrows!"

"The anthropologists said they were perfectly friendly," Rodney retorted. His voice dropped to a low mutter as he added, "... as long as you stay away from their 'temple'. But --" at Sheppard's glower "-- I figured the anthropologists were exaggerating the danger out of some bleeding-heart desire to keep us from molesting the natives. I mean, these people have bows and arrows. We have guns. I thought they'd take one look at us and run. Heck, they might've even mistaken us for gods or something. I mean, it could have happened."

Sheppard opened his mouth, closed it, took a deep breath, counted to ten, and then began ticking off his rejoinders. "Okay, first of all, you're not an anthropologist, Rodney, and you know that second-guessing people's motives isn't your strong suit. They didn't run -- or rather, they did run ... towards us, with lots of screaming and shooting. Second, we may have guns, but we're not going to mow down fifty tribespeople in cold blood just to get to some glowey doodads." Noticing Rodney's face darken like a thundercloud at the last part, he kept talking quickly. "And last but not least, arrows aren't that harmless, and they definitely aren't when they're poisoned."

"I didn't know about the poison," Rodney mumbled. "I hope Ronon's okay."

"Yeah, that makes two of us." Ronon and Teyla had been last seen making a dash for the Stargate, Teyla half-carrying her semiconscious teammate. "He just got a nick. By now he's probably terrorizing Beckett's nurses like normal."

There was a brief, blessed silence before Rodney started talking again. "Do you think it's following us?"

"I wouldn't be surprised, Rodney; that's probably what it does." There was no need to ask what he meant by "it".

"It couldn't possibly get through the door, could it?"

"How am I supposed to know, Rodney? You're the technology expert!"

They'd reached the bottom of the stairs and were now following a musty corridor that might once have been a wide, appealing hallway. High archways opened off the main tunnel, gaping into blackness. As he swept the beam across the walls, Sheppard could see the dingy remains of old frescoes, so moldy and crumbling that the original designs could not be determined. It was damp down here; their boots splashed in puddles.

"What's the water table here? We can't go any lower; we'll drown. Hey, you don't think these passageways flood, do you? At least if we drown, we won't have to worry about being torn apart by a --"

"Rodney, shut up." Sheppard had stopped walking and cocked his head to one side.

"What? Do you hear something?" Rodney flinched, looking around wildly. "Oh God, it's found us, hasn't it?"

"No, no. I felt something. A breeze, I think."

Rodney had drawn his handgun and was pointing it in random directions, looking wild. "Like the breeze you feel right before a sharp object slices off your head? That kind of breeze?"

"No, just a breeze, and put that thing away before you shoot me. It's not like that's going to help anyway. We already know bullets don't hurt it -- much."

"I notice you're still carrying your gun," Rodney grumbled, holstering the pistol.

"I'm carrying my gun because my gun is bigger than yours, and even if it's not lethal to your average killer robot, it's at least capable of knocking the thing down for a minute."

Rodney snorted as Sheppard began poking into side passageways, trying to find the source of that elusive breeze. "Kindly stop calling it that, Colonel."

"Rodney, it's a robot and it's trying to kill us; what would you call it?"

"An automated robotic defense system. Which you triggered."

"Only because I was trying to avoid the crazy people with spears, McKay!" Sheppard paused, licked his finger and held it up. "Aha. It's coming from this tunnel."

"The robot?" Rodney squeaked, leaping behind Sheppard.

"No, genius. The breeze."

"... I knew that."

------

Once they were in the new passageway, Rodney had to agree -- privately -- that Sheppard was right. He could feel a slight drift of air, and something else as well. "Colonel, stop for a minute."

Sheppard obeyed instantly, making no sound as Rodney laid his palm against the wall and concentrated.

"What are you doing, communing with it?" Sheppard asked, after a moment's inactivity clearly proved to be too much for him.

Rodney threw him a glare. "I'm listening, Sheppard. Something you'd be better at if you weren't talking all the time." If looks could kill, the look that Sheppard gave him at this remark would have flattened him, but he wasn't paying attention. "There's some kind of equipment running in here. It's not really something you can hear, more like something you can feel."

Sheppard tilted his head to the side, his annoyed look being replaced by a speculative one. "I think I see what you mean. Kind of a thrumming, right?"

Rodney nodded. "It reminds me of something, but I can't quite place it."

"Makes me think of the air conditioner in a big office building."

Fingersnap. "That's it! I knew there was something familiar about it. What do you want to bet that breeze you feel is the ventilation system for the facility?"

Sheppard looked down the corridor, where there was only darkness. "Think it's been running this whole time, or did we just activate it?"

"No way to know. So far, nothing in this whole place has responded to us, except for our lethal little android friend up top. It may have been running the whole time. Maybe that's why their energy source is so depleted."

They began walking again, very cautiously, with Rodney hanging behind Sheppard. "You know, there might be more surprises," the scientist muttered.

"I'm being careful. Y'know, Rodney, the killer robot probably has ears, or something roughly similar. The more you talk, the more likely it's going to be able to find us."

Rodney instantly clammed up. Sheppard, unseen, grinned into the dark.

The corridor ended in a tall set of double doors. Like the door panels in the Atlantis conference room, they appeared to rotate in their frames rather than swinging from a set of hinges, and were currently standing half-open. Cool air flowed from within. Sheppard could feel it ruffling his hair.

"Can you see what's in there?" Rodney whispered loudly from behind him.

Sheppard glanced over his shoulder at the self-described genius. Rodney's weapon was out, but at least he had the common sense to point it at the floor. He was shifting nervously from foot to foot.

"No, Rodney. It's dark." Ignoring the huff of exasperation from behind him, Sheppard played the light of his P90 through the doors. The light winked off various reflective surfaces within the room, but he couldn't tell what he was looking at; the space was too large for the light to do more than provide a pinpoint source of illumination.

"Well, guess there's only one way to find out what's in here." Sheppard took a couple of cautious steps forward, entering the doorway.

"You just don't possess the emotion that most people term fear, do you?" But Rodney's shuffling footsteps reluctantly followed him.

As soon as they were both inside the room, everything lit up. Sheppard squinted his eyes against the sudden glare, frantically blinking back tears of pain as his retinas went completely white for an instant. Slowly adjusting to the light, he scanned the room hastily for any threats, and, seeing nothing, flicked a look at Rodney. The scientist had thrown up his arm to block his eyes and was squinting around from under it.

"Could be a control room or something."

"Thank you for the expert opinion, Colonel. Why don't we let the real scientist look around a little before we jump to any conclusions, hm?"

He started to push past, but Sheppard blocked him with an arm. "Not until we check for more defense systems."

The tapping of their feet echoed in the large space, sounding much too loud. The room was huge, at least three stories high and continuing for the length of a couple of football fields. Catwalks and girders crisscrossed the upper levels, while the walls on the ground floor were lined with scattered consoles and grapples probably designed to hold heavy equipment in place. It made Sheppard think of an aircraft hangar, and apparently he wasn't alone, because Rodney said suddenly, "Hey, I think I know what this place was for. It's like the underground bay were we found the ... Orion." He couldn't resist a slight wince at the name of the ship.

Sheppard looked around, nodding. "I see what you mean. And look." He pointed up, to a long seam in the ceiling. "It retracts, I bet. This place is probably for storing or repairing ships."

"Guess that's why it's so well guarded." Rodney snorted. "Except it hasn't been used in ten thousand years, and someone forgot to tell Rover."

"Speaking of whom ..." Sheppard looked over his shoulder at the open doors.

"Yes, with the lights signaling our presence to all and sundry, it might be a good idea to shut the doors, hm?" Rodney looked around and headed for a random console. "Did you see any sign of a mechanism when we were over there? Something like a hand plate or some other piece of gene-activated technology?"

"No, but I wasn't looking." Sheppard headed for the doors, impressed all over again by their size, although the rest of the room dwarfed them. Definitely not something you wanted gaping at your back, when robots armed with build-in pointy objects were roaming somewhere outside. "No sign of anything."

"Must be operated from the consoles, then." Rodney passed his palm across the nearest, bringing it on-line.

Sheppard turned his head away from this procedure, tilting it as he listened. Standing in the doorway, he thought he could hear something -- a clashing metallic sound, very faint, coming from somewhere far down the corridor.

"Uh, Rodney, you might want to hurry it up over there."

Rodney looked around, his eyes wide with panic. "Oh, please don't tell me --"

"I think Rover's catching up." Sheppard reached out to push on one of the doors, but he might as well have been pushing on the wall of a barn for all the good that did.

They hadn't gotten a good look at the thing earlier, but Sheppard really didn't want to see it any closer. It reminded Sheppard vaguely of a black metal scorpion covered with knives. Despite Rodney's insistence that it was part of the facility's defensive mechanism, Sheppard thought it just as likely that it wasn't supposed to be there -- an escaped specimen, like the energy creature on Atlantis; an experimental piece of technology; something that wandered into the facility in the intervening millennia and couldn't find its way out again. Whatever it was, it moved like lightning and seemed to shrug off their bullets. They'd only escaped it the first time by slamming a heavy door in its (to use the term loosely) face. Unfortunately that had cut them off from the exit, but considering the circumstances, they'd decided to see if they could find a way around. Apparently there was a way around, because the robot seemed to have found it. Either that or it had gone right through the door, which was not a comforting thought.

The clashing down the hall was getting louder, starting to resolve into a distinctive metallic skittering sound. "So, Rodney, anytime would be good, here."

"What do you think I'm doing, Colonel, taking a lunch break? Dammit!" There was a clattering sound and a hiss of frustration or pain from Rodney. Looking around, Sheppard saw that the console was partially dismantled, with crystals lying on top of it.

"Rodney, now is not a good time to rebuild the thing; just shut the damn door!"

"What's it look like I'm doing? Nothing works! After sitting in this damn climate for ten thousand years, it's a wonder it'll even power on!" He yanked on another crystal and managed to crack it loose. "I'm trying to hotwire it. I could really use a hand."

Sheppard backed away from the door, keeping his P90 trained on it. He could now hear the skittering even when he wasn't standing in the doorway, and from the increased tempo of his movements, so could Rodney. "You know, McKay, in about thirty seconds a really pissed-off killer robot is going to come through that doorway --"

"So let's have the doorway shut by then, shall we?" Rodney swung himself under the console. "Okay, what I need you to do is watch the readouts and tell me when you see those three blue lines -- there, on the left -- go all the way across."

Sheppard leaned over the console and hunted through the incomprehensible readouts for the one Rodney was talking about, trying to also keep an eye on the doorway.

"How's that?" came the muffled voice from under the console.

"Nothing changed." That he could see, anyway. "You know, I'm really not trying to rush you, but --"

"Yes, Colonel, I'm well aware of death speeding towards us on little black bug feet, thank you." There were some rattling sounds and suddenly the text displays on the console, which Sheppard assumed were numbers, began to change rapidly, and the various status bars that he could see started crawling forward.

"Hey, something's happening."

"I'm aware of that too, Colonel; do you think I'm having a picnic under here? I'm bringing up power to the doors now."

The numbers had began to change so rapidly that they were a blur, and all the blue lines were turning red. "Hey, Rodney, whatever you just did, I think it caused some kind of --"

He didn't have time to finish; the console blew up in his face. The world went white and Sheppard was knocked off his feet and slammed into the floor. Dimly he heard Rodney give a terrible scream, but his white world was already turning black.

------

Rodney was up to his elbows in the guts of the console. Everything was a mess -- he'd never even realized crystals could mold. Of course, by Earth standards, the whole place was stunningly well-preserved; anywhere but the Pegasus Galaxy, you'd never expect to find an office building that had been sitting in a jungle for 10,000 years and still be able to get the computers to work. He was getting spoiled by Ancient technology that had been perfectly climate-controlled since the beginning of the Holocene. This place had probably once possessed such a system -- and the rumbling ventilators were no doubt the last vestige of it -- but it hadn't been able to withstand the rigors of the jungle.

The whole system still worked far, far better than it had any right to -- just the fact that it worked at all was some kind of miracle. But with the mold causing everything to ground out on everything else, they'd be insanely lucky not to just electrocute themselves. He'd tried to pull as many nonessential crystals as possible before he started crossing wires, hoping to prevent the risk of lethal groundings, but --

He heard Sheppard exclaim something in an alarmed-sounding voice and then the world erupted in smoke and fire. He screamed, more from shock than pain -- there wasn't much pain at all, and somehow he felt as if there should be, as electrical sparks showered down onto his face and hair. He was distantly aware of a deep, grinding crash, and the small part of his brain that managed to stay rational in this sort of situation informed him that it was probably the door closing. They'd managed to accomplish that much, at least. Not that it helped them if they killed themselves in the process.

For a moment he lay still, gasping, and then choking -- the too-small and now pitch-black space under the console was filling up with stifling smoke. He smelled singed electrical components and, horribly, burnt flesh: his burnt flesh. As shock began to fade, the pain was starting, and oh God, it hurt. It felt as if he'd thrust his hands into a bonfire. In the darkness, he could see tiny residual flames flickering across some of the crystals.

My hands. Not my hands, please not my hands. Between the smoke and the dark, he couldn't even tell if he still had hands. He tried to move his fingers, and stopped immediately because it felt as if he'd just raked them over sandpaper. There was fiery pain and tingling numbness, and his hands were still wedged up inside the console and God, what if they were burning to ashes right now? He tried to pull them back, and froze up with a small whimper as pain blazed down his arms. And he was still choking; he couldn't breathe. He was going to suffocate here under the console, and his fingers were probably quivering ashy stumps, and he was crippled and he was going to die ...

Sheppard. His eyes snapped open as he remembered his teammate. The blackness was absolute now, except for an occasional blue spark playing across the damaged crystals as failing capacitors discharged themselves. He couldn't even feel the thrum of the ventilation equipment. Their little exploding-console stunt seemed to have killed the power completely. And where was Sheppard? He'd been standing right at the console ...

"Sheppard?" His voice sounded small and lost even to his own ears, and was broken in the middle by a hacking cough.

No answer. Rodney took a few shaky breaths. The smoke was clearing, so he wouldn't suffocate, at least. And Sheppard must be hurt -- not dead, please not dead -- so rescue wouldn't be forthcoming anytime soon. He was on his own here ... possibly on his own with a lethal metal centipede about to cut his legs off. And trapped in a small, dark, smoky space.

"Bad thought," he muttered to himself. "Not helping, McKay, not helping. First things first. Get your hands unstuck. Yeah, that's a good place to start."

The sound of his own voice helped ground him and keep the panic at bay. He tried wiggling his right hand gently. The surge of pain nearly made him sick; the worst part was the terrible fear of what additional damage he must be doing to his hands by moving them. Unable to see what he was doing, his brain conjured nightmarish images of his fingers cooked like chicken wings, the skin peeling and the flesh sloughing off ... "Quit it, Rodney. Get loose first. Panic later."

With a gasp of relief, he felt his hands come free and settle onto his chest. He curled them against him with a tiny whimper. He didn't dare move them, just held them curled up into loose balls, the fingers not quite touching each other. Pain and fear brought tears to his eyes, but as he calmed down a little, he realized that it actually wasn't all that bad. As long as he didn't move his hands too much, the pain subsided to something bearable, with a tingling numb feeling around the edges.

Squirming his body, he wriggled out of the enclosed space. A wave of relief washed through him as he sat up in the dark room, feeling the sense of echoing vastness around him rather than tiny, Rodney-suffocating smallness. Then he remembered that there also might be Rodney-decapitating robotness around here somewhere, and froze.

"Sheppard?" His whisper sounded terribly loud in the stillness. There was no answer. Probing outward with his feet, he felt one boot contact something heavy and gently yielding.

"Sheppard!" Still holding his hands against his chest, he used his legs to scoot forward and nudged at the still body with his knee. "Sheppard? If you're dead, I'm totally screwed, so you'd better not be dead. Sheppard? This is the point where you say something, in case you missed your cue."

There was no answer. Desperately missing his hands, and trying very hard not to think about the all-too-real possibility of permanent nerve damage, Rodney used his knee to nudge his way along Sheppard's body until he found his head. Checking for a pulse was obviously out, and it took him a moment to think of an alternative that didn't involve hands. Cautiously, and half-hoping that Sheppard didn't pick this exact moment to wake up, Rodney leaned forward and tilted his head to the side, bending over until his cheek lightly brushed against Sheppard's nose and lips. I hope you realize I'm going to have nightmares about this for WEEKS, Colonel. He closed his eyes in relief as steady breaths stirred the fine hairs on his cheek. But he could also feel something wet against his face. Tilting his head a little more, so that the side of his face brushed Sheppard's, he felt warm, sticky dampness smear a trail along his cheek -- blood.

Sheppard flinched at the light touch. Rodney also flinched, violently, rearing backward and almost falling against the console. "Ow!" they both said. Then Sheppard's voice, sounding disturbingly thick and muffled, said, "Rodney?"

"Present." Rodney sat for a moment, listening to small rustling sounds in the darkness as Sheppard presumably shifted position and checked himself over. Then he asked, "Are you all right?"

"I'll live." This wasn't at all comforting considering the man's kamikaze tendencies, and became even less comforting when Sheppard added in a tentative, almost frightened voice, "Rodney ... it's dark in here, right?"

"Pitch black."

"Thank God," Sheppard mumbled. There was more fumbling, then a sharp snap! as he flicked on the light on his P90. Rodney winced and his eyes flew shut; he squinted after a moment to see Sheppard sitting up, looking like absolute hell, his face a mask of blood and his hair sticking up every which way.

Then Sheppard flicked off the P90, plunging them into darkness again. Before Rodney could even get out a protesting "Hey!" he'd turned it back on, tilting it up towards the ceiling.

"Sheppard, what are you doing?"

"Tryin' to get the damn thing to work." He shook it; the light danced crazily across the ceiling. "Light bulb must've broken when I fell."

The back of Rodney's neck prickled nervously. "Colonel, it's working fine."

"Oh." The word came out very small. Sheppard raised his hand to his face, touched the blood there. Rodney watched helplessly as the nimble fingers worked their way across the mess, touched the area around his eyes, drew back quickly. His blood-matted eyelashes fluttered; Rodney caught the brief reflection of Sheppard's eyes in the P90's glare before he closed them again, and sat back with both hands resting on the floor to support him.

Rodney didn't want to push, didn't want to say anything in fact, but he had to know for a number of reasons -- not the least being the impact on his immediate survival. "You can't see, can you?"

Sheppard drew a shaky breath and let it out. "No, Rodney, I can't."

"Is it temporary? Maybe it's flash blindness -- there were lots of sparks and stuff underneath the console; I thought I'd gone blind for a minute when the lights went out. Bright light can make you blind for a few minutes, it happened to me just now when you turned on the flashlight but it goes away and it'll probably go away for you, just don't rub your eyes, that's the worst thing you can possibly do --" Rodney knew he was babbling and couldn't help it, because the bleak and terrified look on Sheppard's face freaked him out even worse than his own pain. He couldn't deal with this too, not on top of losing his hands.

"Rodney. Calm down." And there was the Sheppard he wanted to see, the calm Sheppard who knew how to behave in a crisis, not the frightened and lost-looking Sheppard of a moment ago. Rodney could actually see the man pull himself together, his blood-covered face setting into more determined lines. "There's a first-aid kit in a pocket of my vest. Give me a hand with it."

"I'd love to but --" And, to his own shame, Rodney found himself giving in to a small, hysterical burst of laughter. "I can't."

Sheppard's head came up sharply. "What do you mean, you can't?"

"I burned my hands." He struggled to keep his voice from cracking. Just mentioning his injury made the pain come back tenfold.

Sheppard made a small hissing sound. "How bad?"

"Bad. It's bad." He didn't dare look down, didn't want to see how bad, though he knew he would have to eventually. "I can't use them."

"You can't use either hand?"

Anger flared, helping to wash away some of the pain. "Isn't that what I just said, Colonel? Are you deaf now, too?"

Sheppard took a deep breath and seemed to be thinking. After a moment he said, "How are you aside from that?"

"Aside from that?" Rodney's voice rose to a shriek on the last word. "Aside from not being able to use my hands and being in excruciating pain because burns are one of the worst forms of pain the human body can experience? Oh, I'm peachy fine, Colonel."

"Good," Sheppard said. "We're still alive, so the doors must be closed. Are they?"

Rodney managed to stop hyperventilating at the complete, total lack of sympathy he was getting from the bastard sitting next to him, and looked over his shoulder. In the reflected light of the P90, he could just make out the doors' heavy shape. "Yes," he snapped. "Which means we're locked in now, too."

"At the moment, I can deal with that. We're in here, but it's out there, and in a minute we'll see about finding a way out -- as soon as we get ourselves patched up a bit." Sheppard ran one of his hands over the front of his vest, dipping into pockets until he found the right one. "Rodney, come over here."

Rodney scooted himself closer, a bit reluctantly. He felt lightheaded, dizzy. Shock? "Sheppard, no offense here, but the idea of the blind man playing doctor isn't exactly inducing confidence in me."

Sheppard flinched visibly at the words "blind man". He laid the first-aid kit down on his knee and flicked it open. "I have a general idea what's in here, but you're going to have to help me." He touched the contents and picked up a role of something white. "Gauze?"

"I guess it must be, unless you keep toilet paper in there."

Sheppard snorted a small laugh. "Hold out your hands."

Rodney drew his arms even tighter against his body and tried to quell the shaking in his voice. "Oh hell no. I'm in enough pain without letting your ham-hands anywhere near my burns."

"They'll hurt less when they're covered," Sheppard said, which was probably a blatant lie. "Hold out your right hand; we'll start with that one."

Rodney bit his lower lip, and did as he was told. Very reluctantly, he dragged his eyes down to inspect the damage. It didn't look quite as bad as it felt, but it certainly looked bad enough. The skin was reddened, pock-marked here and there with a patchwork of oozing blisters, with a couple of highly worrying white patches on the side of the hand that he could see.

"How far up your arm does it go?" Sheppard asked, shifting the P90 so that he had both hands free and untucking the end of the gauze.

Rodney used his teeth to pull up his sleeve. "Just to the wrist. The jacket must've protected everything else." And how he wished he'd been wearing gloves.

"Rodney, I'm going to start wrapping from the wrist; I need you to lay your wrist against the end so I know where to begin." He held up the end of the gauze; Rodney dutifully placed his arm on it. Sheppard began to wrap it, very gently. He was actually surprisingly good at this. Occasionally Rodney had to correct him ("Left, and up a little") but the anticipated mangling of his burned flesh did not materialize.

He did jump and flinch backwards when a few spots of bright red appeared on the white gauze, banging his hand into Sheppard's and cursing loudly at the bright flash of pain. Sheppard, startled, dropped the gauze. "What?"

"You're bleeding on my bandage." He'd thought, at first panicked glance, that his own skin was splitting open and bleeding, but the blood had actually dripped from Sheppard's forehead. By the dim light of the indirect illumination from the P90's beam, he could see that Sheppard's hair was matted with blood and more of it was trickling down his neck into his collar. "You know, I don't want to alarm you, Colonel, but you're bleeding a lot."

"I know," Sheppard said, in the same calm tone he'd been using earlier. He tapped the floor lightly with his fingers until he got hold of the gauze, picked it up and resumed wrapping.

"Far be it from me to protest, but I'd rather not have you pass out in the middle of this operation, and Colonel, you really are bleeding like the proverbial stuck pig."

"Head wounds bleed, Rodney," Sheppard retorted. He tore off the gauze and tucked in the end. "Other hand."

With both hands bandaged, it certainly didn't hurt less -- all a lie, as suspected -- but at least he didn't have to worry about banging his injured fingers into anything. Cleaning up Sheppard's head wound was a whole lot trickier. Rodney had the Colonel tilt the P90 upward so that the light was better, and then attempted to direct Sheppard in the process of cleaning his own face. Rodney had to keep swallowing; there was a hell of a lot of blood. He didn't do blood.

It appeared that flying glass from the exploding console had left a lot of lacerations along Sheppard's face, forehead and hairline. The only really worrying injury -- aside, obviously, from the blindness, and Sheppard refused to let Rodney look at his eyes -- was a very deep gash just under the edge of his hair. Rodney thought he saw a flash of bone; was that even possible? Maybe it was just blood, glistening in the uncertain light. It better be. Cleaning up the wounds with nothing but some wipes from the first aid kit turned out to be a lost cause, so Sheppard ended up just mopping the worst of it and then wrapping the remaining gauze around his head and over his eyes.

Rodney couldn't help laughing at the end result. "You look like the invisible man, Sheppard." It would have been funnier if the bandages hadn't been steadily soaking through, forming ever-widening red patches. With the blood all over his hair, face and collar, he looked as if someone had dumped a gallon of dark red paint over his head.

Sheppard didn't even grin at the jibe, and Rodney didn't like that. Instead, he reached into the first-aid kit again and took out several small packets, which he held up. "Okay, Rodney, one of these has got to be Tylenol; tell me which one."

"Two of them, second and third from left. Uh, my left."

Sheppard dropped the rest back into the kit and tore open the packets. He offered Rodney a palmful of pills; after contemplating this for a minute, Rodney leaned over and nipped up two of them with his teeth. There was another little comedy of errors as Sheppard tried to offer him a drink of water from his canteen -- "Left! Up! No, down! Tilt it -- not that much -- damn it, Colonel, now my shoulder's wet!" At the end of it all, Rodney's neck was damp and Sheppard was actually grinning as he swallowed his own painkillers and took a swig from the canteen.

------

For Sheppard, there were advantages to having Rodney McKay around that went above and beyond the man's skill with machines, or even the fact that he genuinely enjoyed Rodney's company and liked being around him. At times like this, when he had his fingernails dug into the ragged edge of panic, the need to keep Rodney calm gave him something to focus on, something to drag him away from the abyss.

His head felt like somebody'd driven a railroad spike through it, and from the ground-glass feeling that came whenever he breathed, he was pretty sure he'd cracked some ribs when he was thrown to the ground. One of his knees also felt unpleasantly off -- the leg had twisted under him when he fell, and he had no idea how bad it would be until he stood on it.

All that paled in comparison to losing the use of his eyes, though.

Temporary. It was temporary. He held onto that, because to do otherwise would be to fall down and never get up again. There were a lot of things that could cause temporary blindness. He'd had one buddy who'd burst some blood vessels in his eyes, pulling G's in an F14, and while it'd taken weeks for his sight to come back, it had come back. Another time, a friend of his had -- but this wasn't helping, and he dragged himself back to the here and now, where the Tylenol was slowly kicking in and taking the raw edge off the pain in his head.

Beside him, Rodney was muttering steadily, "We are screwed. Screwed, screwed, screwed. Screwed worse than a busload of Catholic schoolgirls at a co-ed sleepover. More thoroughly screwed than a sheep at a Highland dance festival. Screwed worse than a --"

"Rodney."

The monologue broke off. "Yes?"

"Shut up, I'm trying to think."

The rejoinder was immediate. "Oh, is that what you're calling it? I thought you'd fallen asleep, and frankly, I really don't appreciate it, considering that you're leaving me alone in the dark with a scorpion creature and --"

"Don't talk to me about being in the dark, Rodney."

The words were soft, and he hadn't known he'd say them until he heard them come out of his mouth, but Rodney shut up as if he'd been slapped. After a moment, more subdued, Sheppard heard him say: "Well, I hope you have a plan, Colonel, because I sure as hell don't."

Yes, he had a plan. His plan was to get out of here without dying. But somehow he didn't think that was what Rodney had in mind. He forced himself to focus past the fear and pain, to do what he did best: assess the situation and get them out alive.

"If we can get the power back on, do you think you could find a map of this place, Rodney?"

Rodney's voice oozed scorn, although Sheppard could still hear the incipient panic quivering under the surface. "If I had hands, quite possibly."

"Leaving that aside for the moment," Sheppard said impatiently.

"Oh yes, let's ignore reality, excellent idea. Well, then, leaving aside the fact that it isn't physically possible for me to manipulate objects, and assuming I can decipher what is no doubt an entirely different variant of Ancient computer system than I've ever seen before, and giving the benefit of the doubt that we won't be diced into a thousand tiny pieces by an angry robot while we're doing this ... oh, sure. Piece of cake."

Sheppard suppressed his urge to strangle Rodney. "Is it worth trying?" he said between his teeth. "I mean, if you can get the computer online, do you think you have a reasonable chance of finding us a way out of here?"

"How can I answer a question when I have nothing to go on, Colonel? I don't know what's in their computer or if I'll even be able to read it! Not to mention the utter impossibility of actually getting it running when I can't touch it--"

"God, Rodney!" The exclamation burst out of him; it must have carried at least some of his frustration and anger, because Rodney shut up. Reaching out, Sheppard groped until he got hold of Rodney's jacket sleeve. He squeezed, hard, feeling the flesh of Rodney's shoulder underneath, eliciting a pained squeal.

"Ow! I'm injured! And now I'm bruised!" Rodney tried to twist his shoulder away, but Sheppard held on.

"Rodney. We are, as you've pointed out, thoroughly screwed. The longer you sit here arguing with me, the more screwed we are. We couldn't find our way out of here when we were both perfectly healthy; our chances of being able to do it now, injured, in the dark, with what may be our only route blocked by a homicidal robot, are --"

"I don't know if I've mentioned this lately, Colonel, but you absolutely suck at pep talks."

"--slim," Sheppard continued doggedly. "So get that computer working, Rodney, because I don't think we can get out of here by stumbling down random passageways in the dark."

He still had Rodney's shoulder in a deathgrip, and he felt it become rigid under his fingers. "Colonel, you seem to be missing the point. I have no hands."

"I'll be your hands. Tell me what to do."

There was a long silence before Rodney said, finally, "That's idiotic. For one thing, you can't see, or had you forgotten?"

"Trust me, I hadn't forgotten. And as soon as you think of another idea, tell me what it is. In the meantime, let's get the power up again."

After another silence, Rodney twisted away from his hand. "Fine."

Clothing rustled as he stood, and Sheppard heard footsteps moving away from him. Gritting his teeth, he braced himself and got to his feet. He was prepared for the resulting wave of vertigo; what he wasn't expecting was the difficulty of orienting himself while completely blind, with up and down, right and left seesawing randomly as the world spun around him. He knew he was tilting, he just didn't know which direction or how to correct for it, and found himself on his butt on the floor.

"Colonel!" Rodney's frightened voice gave him something to latch onto, as the nauseating spinning sensation began to recede. He anchored himself further by leaning against some sort of solid object, which was probably the console that had maimed them. He'd just been lucky not to have come down on the edge of it and broken something.

"Sheppard? Are you all right?" Rodney seemed to be hovering just out of touch range. It was unexpectedly disturbing to know he was there but not know his exact location, pose or expression.

"Stood up too fast."

"Right." He could hear the skepticism in the tone. From the way Rodney had reacted to him earlier, he must have looked like hell -- head injuries always bleed a lot, and there was no telling how much damage had been done to his face. It would be easier to convince Rodney that he wasn't badly hurt if he was more sure of it himself.

"Well, I can't offer you a hand, Colonel -- you currently have our full complement of those -- but I can give you an elbow up." Something hard and pointed bumped lightly against his shoulder. Sheppard grinned a little as he hooked a hand through the crook of Rodney's arm and allowed himself to be assisted to his feet. He ended up gripping hold with his other hand as well, when the floor attempted to slide sideways out from under his feet.

"You're white as a sheet," Rodney said. "You're hurt worse than you're letting on, as usual, aren't you?"

"I have a head injury, Rodney. I'm dizzy. Big surprise. Point me in the right direction."

He tried not to limp too badly as Rodney led him across the floor -- although he suspected that he hadn't been successful enough; he could feel the waves of disapproval radiating from his companion -- and tried, also, not to resent being led around like a blind man with a seeing-eye dog. The vision of Rodney with a leash and collar helped dispel some of his gloom.

"You're grinning like a lunatic. This had better not be some new symptom of your condition." Rodney tilted him against something cool and hard, and then shrugged away and left him standing there. Running his hands lightly over the smooth surface, he decided he was standing against another console -- definitely a different one, because they had been right next to the other one and they had gone a lot farther than that.

"I thought you were going to have me fix the terminal ... console ... thingie you broke."

Rodney snorted. "With what, duct tape and a bobby pin? I'm not MacGyver, Sheppard. It's completely hosed -- kaput, dead, an ex-terminal. If we're lucky, the system detected the power surge and shut down the other equipment to prevent damage."

"Why is that lucky?"

Rodney assumed his I'm speaking to an idiot tone. "Because that way, everything else is intact and all we have to do is bring the power back up. Tilt the gun down so that I can see what I'm -- I mean, what you're doing. Okay, now, there's a lever right next to your left hand. Flip it."

As his fingers found it and threw it, he heard Rodney yell: "Not that one!"

"It was next to my left hand!"

"It was on the far side of your left hand! Obviously I meant the one closest to me. Listen to me, will you?"

"I'm not a goddamn mind reader, Rodney!"

"I don't expect you to be! All I want you to do is follow simple instructions. A monkey could do this, Colonel. Now throw the right lever. -- No! Not that one! What do you think you're doing?"

"It's the one by my right hand," Sheppard said between his teeth. "I thought that's what you just told me to do."

"No, I just told you to throw the correct lever, the left-hand one, the one I told you about in the first place. Aren't you paying any attention at all?"

"If this is what working for you is like, Rodney, it's a miracle your staff hasn't killed you by now."

There was an annoyed huff. "It's not my fault you can't take directions. Now listen this time."

His headache was back with a vengeance, and so was the vertigo. He'd almost welcome a visit from the killer robot at this point -- at least it would shut Rodney up.

------

Watching Sheppard work was like Chinese water torture ... driving Rodney slowly insane, one drip at a time.

What made it worse was that he knew Sheppard wasn't an idiot, despite Rodney's frequent claims to the contrary. He was well aware that most of the fault lay with him. He'd never been good at giving verbal directions. Even if he'd had any aptitude at all for expressing himself with words -- which he didn't -- he'd never seen any point in taking the trouble to distill his thoughts into a linear series of instructions when it was several times as fast just to do it himself in the first place. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, but as usual when he talked, the ideas that were so clear and bright in his mind turned into an impenetrable verbal tangle. Knowing he had to, in this case, didn't make it any either -- it just left him even more frustrated because he knew he was failing, and he loathed that feeling.

He could see that Sheppard was really hurting; the man's face was almost gray in the P90's flat light, and he kept steadying himself on the console. Unfortunately, Rodney was hurting like crazy himself, and pain and stress made both of them snappish. Even the console itself was conspiring against them; it refused to light up no matter what they did.

"Maybe it's just fried, Rodney," Sheppard said shortly after crossing two crystals and getting, as usual, no response.

"Yes, and maybe you fried it by completely ignoring my instructions a minute ago and hooking the secondary power coupling to the user-interface feedback channel."

"I wasn't ignoring your damned instructions, Rodney -- you told me to pick up the red crystal, and I can't tell which one's the red one because I'm effing blind! Colors don't help!"

"So you picked one at random, then? And that seemed like a good idea to you because ...?"

"Because every single time I've asked for clarification, you've only made it worse, that's why!"

"Don't blame ME when you're the one who can't understand a simple set of instructions!"

"They're only simple instructions in McKay World, population YOU!" Sheppard snarled, and then slumped against the console, turning an even less healthy-looking color. The P90 clattered to the floor, its light dancing crazily across the room.

Rodney moved without thinking, lunging forward to catch him, completely forgetting his burned hands. Forgetting, that is, until he made contact with Sheppard's arm -- the shock as the dry gauze dug into his burned flesh felt like he'd dipped his hand into acid. He recoiled with a cry of pain and then stood helplessly as Sheppard sank to the floor and leaned the side of his face against the console.

"Are you okay?" It was a stupid question and he knew it, but he didn't know what else to say, and he hated not being able to do anything.

Sheppard swallowed a few times, then mumbled, "Yeah, I'm good. You?"

Rodney snorted and slid down to join him on the floor, leaning his back against the defunct console. "I'm thinking we need a new plan."

"Okay," Sheppard murmured. "I'll just stay here while you think of one, then."

Rodney looked at him more closely, at the pale, clammy skin. "You ought to lie down. You might be in shock or something. In fact, you probably are, just because it would make my life even more difficult."

"I'm comfortable here. Moving makes me dizzy."

Rodney gave him another suspicious look, then sighed and nudged the P90 with his foot, rotating it to cast the light down the length of the room -- or at least as far as it reached -- and then back up the other side. Now that he wasn't able to distract himself by bickering with Sheppard, he was all too aware of his own physical discomfort. The pain in his hands, which had receded to a murmur, was now a scream; he kept wanting to rub them, to relieve it somehow, but all he could do was hold them awkwardly in front of his body. And he was lightheaded; his mouth felt dry. He was cold, too -- shivering a bit. Weren't those symptoms of shock? Didn't burns cause shock? Wasn't shock fatal? Whimpering a little, Rodney slid the rest of the way down the console until he was lying flat on the floor, staring up into the cavernous darkness of the room's ceiling. Now he was even colder, with his whole body in contact with the stone floor. When they told you to make a shock victim lie down, they didn't mention that particular problem. Which would kill you faster, hypothermia or shock? He couldn't help whimpering again.

"What's the matter with you?" The tired voice emanating from Sheppard's direction was so expressionless that it could be taken either as sarcasm or concern. Probably a little of both.

"I'm burned and in shock and hypothermic and dying. Yourself?"

Sheppard snorted, and then he began to hum quietly. When Rodney finally placed the tune, he turned to look at the Colonel in disbelief. Sheppard was still in the same position, propped against the console with his face pressed to it, although now he was smiling slightly. He was humming "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".

"Ha ha. Very funny."

The humming broke off; the grin grew a bit wider, turning into a smirk. "I knew you'd be a Python fan, Rodney."

Rodney closed his eyes. It was bad enough to be mocked without being smirked at, too. "Not by choice, I assure you. There's really no escaping it in college."

"I'm sure you'd have preferred to spend your Saturday nights locked in your room doing equations."

"That was how I spent my Saturday nights. Enjoyed it, too."

"You were a strange, pathetic teenager, Rodney. Of course" -- even with his eyes shut, he could hear the grin in Sheppard's voice -- "look how the end result turned out."

Rodney's eyes popped open; this was really too much. "You do realize that because of those Saturday nights, I'm now probably the only person in this galaxy capable of fixing the power supply and getting us out of --"

THUD.

They both froze, and then turned, as one, to look towards the door -- Sheppard automatically turning his head in the direction of the sound even though he couldn't see. The hollow, metallic bang came again and Rodney scrambled up into a sitting position and scooted towards Sheppard.

"Is that what it sounds like, Colonel, do you think?" He hoped that the slight catch in his voice went unnoticed.

"You mean does it sound like a killer robot pounding on the door?"

The noise stopped, but was immediately followed by something even more unsettling: a horrific metallic screeching.

Rodney turned to look at Sheppard. "Claws," they said simultaneously, and Sheppard added, "Rodney, I think getting the power up and running has just become a priority."

"It wasn't before?" But Rodney was already scrambling to his feet, tilting a little as he got his own headrush this time. Beside him, he was vaguely aware of Sheppard painfully making his way up on his own -- dragging himself on the console was more like it -- but his attention was taken up by examining the room, trying to understand how the whole system fit together.

It wouldn't just power back up from the console. Obviously something important had blown somewhere -- a fuse, or something. If this place was wired like Atlantis, a single surge shouldn't do that, but then, with half the crystals in the equipment corroded together, there was no telling how much damage the overload had done.

Sheppard had swung the P90 to point blindly in the general direction of the door. The shriek of claws raking metal had stopped, followed by an even more ominous silence. "Any day now, Rodney..."

"Genius thinking here! Quiet!" His brain felt fuzzy, the pain in his hands making him lightheaded. And he was hungry and thirsty and tired, and scared, and this was just all so much easier in a nice warm well-lighted lab -- and there went his stupid brain again, running off in circles. Blast it! Okay, pretend this was Atlantis, and the power had gone out and he had to get it back on -- what would he do?

He could see two possible options. One was that somewhere, there would be a master control room that would be able to override the power shutoff. The other was the Earth solution: that the power was off because a fuse had blown, and so the thing to do was find the breaker box.

"Colonel, I need some light here." Then he realized that he was gesturing with a bandaged hand, which Sheppard couldn't see. "Uh, left. Your left. Um, your nine o'clock?"

Finally, he'd managed to figure out a system of terminology that Sheppard could actually follow, because the P90's light swung right where Rodney had in mind. Following Rodney's terse directions, he swung it slowly over the walls and then up to the second story catwalk. There was still nothing but a very ominous silence from outside the door.

"Stop!" Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed. "Up there!"

He looked around and spied a set of stairs leading up to the catwalk, started for them and belatedly realized that he was forgetting his companion. Looking back, he saw Sheppard following him, apparently tuning on the sound of his footsteps. Sheppard was limping badly, but seemed to be able to walk unaided.

"Just follow the sound of my voice, Colonel. There's a flight of stairs. Stop! Okay, you're on the first step. Come on up."

It was a good thing he didn't have to help Sheppard, because it turned out that he needed all his concentration for himself. Climbing stairs without benefit of hands turned out to be fairly tricky. He'd never really relied on banisters all that much, but what he did do, apparently, was use his arms for balance. With both hands held in front of his chest, he kept nearly overbalancing and having to hastily stifle the instinctive tendency to reach out and steady himself on something.

Sheppard, leaning on the railing, seemed to do fine on his own, so Rodney left it to him. Turning back at the top of the stairs, he said, "Follow me. Three o'clock. I mean, nine. I mean, left. Hey, can I get some light over here? Some of us have to see where we put our feet, you know."

Sheppard heaved a somewhat put-upon-sounding sigh and followed him.

Rodney's objective was what Zelenka, in Atlantis, insisted on calling an Ancient fuse box. They weren't fuse boxes, weren't even close, and Rodney attempted to point that out at every opportunity. However, he had to admit that the function was rather similar. It was a reset for the electrical system. Atlantis, being so large, had a number of them and most were well-secured, so that even with the ATA gene, they required an additional code in order to use. An understandable security precaution, in Rodney's opinion; he just hoped that this smaller facility wasn't quite so careful.

Looking around impatiently for his "hands", he found Sheppard making his way carefully along the catwalk, steadying himself on the railing. Feeling shaky and shocky and not at all well, Rodney wasn't in a mood for coddling slowpokes, even slowpokes with head injuries. "Hey, do you think you can get over here before the next Ice Age?"

The ghost of a grin touched Sheppard's mouth. "Usually it's me telling you to hurry up," he said, coming to rest against the wall next to Rodney.

"Welcome to my world, then." Rodney gestured to the panel in the wall, then grimaced at himself for forgetting, once again, that Sheppard couldn't see. "Okay, in front of you -- well, a little bit to the side of you -- there's a vertical panel in the wall, about as high as your head. The symbols on the front indicate -- but, right, you don't care about that because you're blind. There's a pad on the right-hand side that scans you for the gene. On Atlantis, you have to enter a code, but -- here apparently you don't," he finished as the panel popped open to reveal banks of crystals, all neatly labeled in Ancient script, and all dark.

"We're going to need light. I mean, I'm going to need light. Lean the P90 against the wall -- yeah. Now we need my computer. It's on the back of my vest -- I'm turning around, and if you drop it, you bought it, Sheppard."

"The SGC bought it, McKay."

Rodney could feel light tugging as Sheppard tore loose the velcro straps and opened the case. He turned back around.

"Set it on the floor and power it up -- um, fingers to the left -- yeah, that button. Now, there's a kit in my vest with alligator clips and everything else you'll need."

"Which pocket?"

"Er..." Sort of embarrassing to admit that he didn't remember. "Left side, second one down. No, I guess that's not it. Um, try the next one up. I know it's there somewhere."

"You keep everything but the kitchen sink in here, don't you?" Sheppard complained as he sifted through Rodney's vest pockets. "Pencil stubs, string ... that feels like a broken Ancient crystal or something ... My God, what is this?"

Rodney risked a peek down; he'd been trying to pay as little attention as possible to the fact that Sheppard was seriously invading his personal space, albeit out of necessity. "Oh ... that. That's a -- a -- uh --" It was a bright purple and yellow knitted thing; one of the new science techs had made them for everybody in the lab, for no apparent reason, during her first week on Atlantis. Rodney thought perhaps it was supposed to be a pencil topper. He'd promptly assigned her more work, reasoning that she couldn't possibly have enough duties if she had that much free time, and he could have sworn he'd thrown the damn thing away, but he must have absentmindedly tucked it into a vest pocket instead. "Er, it's a -- soft-foam variable capacitor from P3N-584 I brought back to study and can you please keep searching because this is very uncomfortable for me."

"Right, Rodney, because it's a total picnic for me ... Is this it?"

"Yes, thank GOD. Now you'll notice that one end plugs into the back of the computer. You're going to do that and then bring up a program that will analyze the inputs and give you voltages. With this, you're going to identify which of the master control crystals are damaged and pull them out ..."

From time to time, while Sheppard worked, Rodney glanced down at the door, which remained closed, silent and dark. Although the underground room was chilly, he could feel nervous sweat running down his face, and kept dashing at his forehead with the back of his arm as he hovered behind Sheppard's head.

"I can feel you breathing down my neck, literally, Rodney. It's very distracting."

Under Rodney's instruction, Sheppard was now pulling crystals -- his nimble fingers ran down the row of crystals until Rodney snapped "Stop!" and then he tugged it and repeated the process. Rodney winced to see how many of the crystals were damaged, not just melted from their recent accident, but also laced with tiny cracks and threaded through with thin tendrils of mildew. No wonder the console had exploded. They were both fortunate to be alive.

"You know, when you do this, Rodney, I've always wondered how much of the time you're actually working, and how much time you spend just pulling out crystals and sticking them into other holes in order to look like you're working."

"I'm sure it would make more sense to you if we were banging on it with a hammer, but the Ancients were a bit more refined. Stop! Okay, down a row, left two, stop! Hang on. I need you to move one of the clips a few crystals to the right." He crouched down to study the computer. "It's still not getting a good circuit and I can't figure out why. I think we've found all the damaged crys--"

The lights came on, flooding the room and causing Rodney to throw his arm in front of his eyes with a mumbled curse. At the same time, hidden equipment somewhere behind the walls started up again with an audible thrum. Taking his arm away from his face, Rodney saw that the wall panel and all the consoles were lit up with a comforting blue glow.

"It worked?" Sheppard asked.

"We have full power!" Rodney crowed triumphantly. "Better than before! Who's a genius? -- Oh CRAP!" His eyes had fallen on the door -- which was now standing wide open.

"What?" Sheppard demanded, reaching for the P90 and fumbling until he found it. "Crap, what?"

"The door must've opened automatically when the power came back on. No no no no." Hastily he scanned the catwalk for any sign of door controls, only to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the door had to be closed from ground level.

"It's open? Crap ..." Sheppard echoed him. "Well, do you see the --"

"No, no -- it must be trying to find another way in, or else it's just lying in wait. On the plus side, now that the power is steadier I think we can probably close the door without killing ourselves. But the bad news is --"

"Don't tell me: we have to go back down there to close the door."

"Got it in one. But just to check, try to think shut as hard as you can." After a moment's pause Rodney said, "Well?"

"If I'd thought it any harder my head would have split open. No change?"

"No change."

For a minute they both just stood there, Rodney staring towards the door and Sheppard holding the P90. Then Sheppard said, "Only one of us really has to go down. You stay put and tell me what to do from up here."

He was already limping in the general direction of the stairs when Rodney snapped out of his frozen shock and chased after him. "Sheppard, that's stupid even for you!"

"I'm armed." He raised the P90.

"Which isn't a damn bit of good if you can't see what direction to shoot! Good grief. And you just walked past the stairs, hero. Stop, turn. And for God's sake, try not to fall down them." Sheppard was looking unsteadier by the minute.

They descended the stairs slowly. Sheppard had his head cocked to one side, obviously straining all his senses. Rodney was jumpy as a rabbit, trying to look in all directions at once. They reached the floor without incident and Rodney nudged Sheppard in the direction of the nearest console. He couldn't help noticing something that was all too obvious from down here: deep parallel gouges scored in the metal door. It has claws that can cut through metal. We are so very dead. OH HELL.

Within the gloom of the corridor outside the door, something moved, glimmering in the blackness. "Sheppard!" Rodney's voice was a high-pitched squeak of terror.

"What?" Sheppard swung away from the console, bringing up the P90 and then swinging the tip around as he tried to figure out which way to point it.

"Killer robot!" Rodney squeaked, not even noticing that he'd slipped into Sheppard's terminology.

It was crouching in the doorway now -- a long gleaming black thing, all oiled joints and shining sharp edges. It had a head, or headlike appendage, which swiveled slowly from side to side. There were no visible eyes.

"Where, Rodney?"

"Left! Up! No, down!" The P90's tip wavered around wildly in response to his panic-stricken jumble of directions. As the robot's head oriented on them, Rodney managed to clear his brain enough to yell, "Two o'clock! Now! Shoot it!"

Sheppard pulled the trigger and a spray of bullets flared across the door and wall and the metal surface of the thing, striking a cascade of sparks. It withdrew, sliding backwards -- impossible to say how it moved; it seemed to float on the surface of the ground, or perhaps it was gliding on small wheels.

Rodney lunged past Sheppard towards the console. "Don't stop shooting! It's still out there!" As another stuttering burst of P90 fire nearly deafened him, he bent over the console and stared at the screens. Now that everything was online, it was painfully obvious how to shut the door, except he couldn't push buttons -- or could he? Grimacing, he used the very tips of his elbows to tap the required sequence. I'm typing with my elbows. This is what I've come to.

He raised his head to see the doors swinging soundlessly shut. Seeing its prey about to be cut off, the robot made a swift lunge for the door and wedged one of its pincer-like appendages into the crack just as the doors closed with a soft clang.

Sheppard lowered the gun, cursing softly, and pulled another clip out of his vest. "Rodney, where is it? What's it doing? You'd better tell me you found some way to close the door!"

"Yeah, the door's closed, but --" There was a hideous metallic shriek as the trapped robot twisted its claw and the edge of the door began to give way. "The robot's stuck in it," Rodney finished weakly.

"Oh, that's great," Sheppard groaned. He dropped the spent clip and loaded the new one by feel, in a single practiced motion. "I'm guessing that sound is it tearing itself free."

"Yes." The word emerged as a whimper, which turned into a squeak of terror as Sheppard actually started limping towards the door. "Where are you going!"

"Tell me warm or cold." Sheppard, clearly orienting by sound, had the P90 trained on a point a few degrees to the left of the robot, which was twisting its claw and slowly enlarging the opening.

"Right, turn right, little more, yeah, now!" What else could you do but humor a crazy person? As Sheppard opened fire, Rodney found that he was actually moving towards the man's back, though he wasn't sure why -- it wasn't as if he'd be any use to Sheppard at all. It just seemed good survival policy to stay close to the man with the gun.

The bullets pinged off the metal claw -- Rodney hoped that they didn't kill themselves with the ricochet -- and then there was a sizzling sound and a great burst of sparks as the Colonel apparently hit something vital, maybe a hydraulic line or electric line at the base of the claw. The robot made no sound, but it withdrew rapidly and the door finished swinging shut, although that particular panel was slightly bent at the edge. Sheppard fired another burst and bullets sprayed across the door, scarring the metal.

"Stop! You got it!" Rodney's jubilation vanished as there was a deep metallic CLANG! from the door and he caught a glimmer of black metal through the small gap in the damaged panel. It was still trying to break in.

Sheppard checked the P90's clip lightly by touch. "I suggest we fall back to a more defensible position."

"If that's military parlance for 'flee', then I'm with you."

They beat a hasty, manly retreat across the floor to the stairs. Sheppard, following Rodney by sound, missed the stairs entirely and ran into the wall with a soft grunt. Rodney turned back -- he was already halfway up -- and jogged back down to impatiently offer Sheppard an elbow to guide him.

They paused at the top of the stairs. The clanging from below had changed into the familiar and ominous metallic shriek as it attempted, apparently with some success, to pry open the door.

"We're screwed," Rodney moaned. "More screwed than before, I mean."

Sheppard's head turned as if he was scanning the catwalk -- maybe just trying to will himself desperately to see. "Tell me what's in front of us, Rodney."

"The wall."

There was a short, loaded pause. "I need to know what's up here so I know what we have to work with, McKay."

"I thought you meant literally and you've already walked into a wall once in the last five minutes, so excuse me for making the mistake." Rodney gritted his teeth and forced himself to stop hyperventilating. "Yes, yes, I know: focus, focus. Don't have to tell me twice. Or once. Okay, we're standing near one end of a very long catwalk. The panel we just fixed is about three or four meters in front of us. Ceiling's still pretty high above -- uh, ten meters maybe."

"Any doors? Openings? What's at the end of the catwalk? Is there a railing?"

"Yes on the railing; it's about chest high." Rodney tried desperately to shut out the sound of screeching metal from below. The noise had changed to a deeper timbre; a quick glance over his shoulder showed him that the door panel was very slowly being bent backwards like the lid of a sardine tin. Hastily he yanked his eyes back up to the catwalk. "Er, ah, no doors that I can see. At the far end, it wraps around to the other side. There's not really much of anything up here."

"What about the ceiling?"

"At the risk of sounding like an idiot, what do you mean? It's a ceiling."

"The ceiling is obviously meant to open. Do you think we could open it?"

"Well, not from up here ..." Rodney trailed off, head tilted back. He hadn't been able to see it from below, but the vertical seam in the ceiling actually was open a little bit, as if perhaps the rock had shifted over the millennia and had skewed the huge hangar-bay doors a little bit out of alignment. It might be big enough for them to wriggle through, but he didn't think the robot would fit.

"Rodney? What is it?"

"There's a hole in the ceiling -- a gap between those huge doors up there. We might be able to get through, but not the robot. But ... Sheppard, like I said, it's ten meters above us and way out above the middle of the floor. We can't possibly get to it."

"We could with a grappling hook."

"Yeah, but where are you going to get a -- oh."

Letting the P90 dangle from its vest clip, Sheppard was pulling a collapsible hook and a coil of rope out of his vest.

"And you said I had everything but the kitchen sink?"

"Including foam capacitors. Foam capacitor, my ass," Sheppard said as he opened the tines on the grappling hook. "What was it, really?"

"I told you what it was; it's not my fault you don't believe me." Rodney trotted down the catwalk to the open panel, where his laptop was still hooked up. Thankful that Sheppard couldn't see this, he managed to unhook the alligator clips with his teeth and then shoved the whole assemblage -- laptop and case -- down the catwalk with his feet.

"Rodney, what the hell are you doing? I need you to help me aim."

"Retrieving my computer, that's what I'm doing. I'm going to need you to pack it up for me."

"If we have time." Overriding Rodney's indignant sputter, Sheppard asked, "How's the robot doing?"

Rodney cast a quick glance down. "Oh, it's doing great. We're not looking so good, though." One of the claws was now entirely through the door, and it was trying to wedge its body in the opening.

Sheppard took a deep breath and stepped forward cautiously until he touched the railing, steadying himself against it. The rope was played between his fingers with the grappling hook dangling loosely from his right hand. "Rodney, I need to know exactly where I'm aiming."

"Straight ahead of you. Ten meters up, about, oh, twenty in front of you. Sheppard, I don't know if you could do that with your eyes open."

"I'll make it," Sheppard said softly, although he sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. Rodney hastily got out of the way as he whipped the grappling hook around in a circle and flung it.

It actually came remarkably near the target, though it fell short and dropped with a loud clatter to the floor below. Reeling it in, Sheppard said, "How close?"

"Close. Three or four meters this side."

"Gotcha." He paused for a minute, as if visualizing, and Rodney realized that he probably did this sort of calculation in his head all the time. What else did a pilot do but gauge spaces and distances?

The sound of rending metal had stopped for a moment when the grappling hook clattered to the floor; now it started up again, louder than before. The robot was forcing itself through the hole in the door. Rodney choked down the impatient words on the tip of his tongue. He could see how hard Sheppard was concentrating and didn't want to jeopardize that.

The grappling hook sailed through the air. This time it actually tapped the edge of the opening, but didn't quite get a purchase, and slipped free to clatter, again, to the floor.

"Close!" Rodney cheered. "You almost got it in! Another one just like that."

Sheppard's next throw fell short again, though, by even farther than the first one. "I know, I know," he said immediately at the sound of the clatter below them, reeling in the line. "I let go early. I think I've got a feel for it."

"That's good, that's excellent." Rodney cast nervous glances at the robot -- which now had two appendages through the door and reminded him of nothing so much as an oversized cockroach crawling through a crack. He nudged the laptop around with his foot and felt about as useless as he ever had in his life.

And the next throw went in. Sheppard's face broke into a broad grin as he tugged on the line -- changing to dismay when the hook slipped loose and fell again. "Didn't have a good hold. But I think I can get it on the next one."

And he did, giving it a few sharp tugs and then tying off the line on the railing. "Okay, Rodney, you go f--"

"Laptop!" Rodney snapped, trying not to stare at the drop below them and contemplate what he was going to have to do in a minute.

"Do the words 'your laptop or your life' mean anything to you?" But Sheppard was already kneeling and groping around. Rodney hastily shoved it within his reach and turned around so that Sheppard could re-attach the case to the back of his vest.

A final groan of protesting metal reached them from below, and then the much-abused door panel fell into the room with a tremendous crash.

And that was when the truly horrible thought occurred to Rodney. He should have thought of it immediately, but he'd been leaping from one crisis to another, unable to stop for a moment and think their plan through. "Sheppard. I can't climb a rope. I can't use my hands."

Sheppard froze, turning his head in Rodney's direction. "Oh ... hell. I didn't even think of that." Toying with the end of the rope between his fingers, he said, "What's the robot doing?"

Rodney looked down and dropped his voice. "Just standing in the doorway. I don't think it knows for sure where we are." He looked back up at the gap in the ceiling, so near yet so far, then over at Sheppard, only to see, with horror, that his teammate was untying the rope from the railing. He swallowed and took a deep breath. "Listen, I can't get up the rope, and I think we both know it's pretty obvious that I'm going to have to --"

"Have to have me lift your heavy ass up, yes, I know," Sheppard interrupted. "Get over here and let me tie the rope around you."

"I, uh --" Too startled to put up a fight, Rodney stood unresisting as Sheppard knotted the rope around him in a loose harness. "Can you do that?" he asked, taking in the pale face and the shakiness in Sheppard's hands.

"Do I have a choice?" Sheppard gave the rope a final tug and stepped back. "There's one big drawback for you, which is that you're going to have to anchor the rope on this end while I climb up. I can't leave it tied to the railing because you wouldn't be able to untie it."

Rodney felt like a leaf in the current, buffeted by events beyond his control. "Okay," he said numbly, and then, looking down, he added in a terrified undertone, "Robot in the room. It's kind of hunting around. Sheppard --"

"I know, we're out of time. Brace yourself," Sheppard said and grabbed hold of the rope. Rodney gasped in startlement and pain as the Colonel swung himself over the balcony and his whole weight dangled from the rope. The makeshift harness bit into Rodney's hips, waist and shoulders; the weight dragged him forward and suddenly he found himself flattened against the railing, with his injured arms crushed in front of him. The pain made him cry out. Sheppard cast a quick, automatic look backward -- not that he could see anything anyway -- but didn't hesitate in his hasty scramble up the rope. "You okay?" he yelled over his shoulder.

Gasping, his eyes swimming from tears of pain, Rodney struggled to turn his body so that his arms weren't taking the brunt of the pressure. Darkness narrowed his vision down to a tunnel. Somewhere he found enough air to shout back: "Just hurry up, dammit!" Don't FAINT -- he used the hated word as a whip to spur himself out of the beckoning blackness. Panting, he got himself twisted around so that the harness was taking the weight again. Flattened to the railing, feeling lightheaded and detached, he stared over the edge at a far-too-close view of a creature out of nightmare.

The robot's design was obviously patterned after a scorpion or some similar, alien creature. It had a long low body, eight arms with razorlike claws -- one of which now trailed, broken, after being half-severed by Sheppard's P90 -- and even a scorpion-like tail curled over its back. Rodney still couldn't see what it used for a means of propulsion, but as he watched in horror, it reared up onto its backmost set of claws, its baleful attention focused on Sheppard as he climbed the rope. He was high above it -- no way can it jump that high, Rodney thought, and then, Can it jump at all?

His question was answered a moment later when it gave a short burst from some sort of propulsion jet, and launched itself at least six meters into the air, coming even with Rodney at the railing -- and perilously close to Sheppard -- before dropping to the floor with a crash. Rodney stared, open-mouthed, as it did it again. This time the snapping claws whipped within a hairsbreadth of Sheppard's exposed legs.

"Rodney, what the hell just happened!" Sheppard yelled down the rope.

"Robot! Jumping!" The rope harness was crushing all the air out of him. Sheppard had better get to the top soon or he really was going to fai-- collapse. If he'd been able to support himself with his arms, this would have been easier -- but, well, that was the crux of the problem, wasn't it?

"It can jump?"

"Beats the hell out of me, too!" Rodney yelled back, and then had to save his breath for not fainting.

The robot got in one more swipe at Sheppard before he vanished into the hole in the ceiling. This time Rodney heard him make a startled sound, but he couldn't tell if it was because one of the claws had connected or just because Sheppard had felt it come too close. Then, mercifully, the pressure was off the rope and he leaned against the railing, gasping, while spots danced in his vision.

Sheppard's voice came down faintly from the opening in the ceiling. "McKay? You all right?"

"I'm just great! Never better!" he gasped, a bit hysterically. That pain in his side -- it had to be a cracked rib. Or maybe just a stitch, because it seemed to be going away. "You?"

There was a brief pause. "I got a bit nicked. Don't worry about it. Get ready to climb over the railing; I've got the rope."

"A bit nicked? What does that mean? Knowing you, it probably means your leg's been torn off! How many legs do you have right now, Colonel?" At least there wasn't a giant pool of blood on the floor, at least not that he could see.

Despite the raggedness of Sheppard's shouted reply, Rodney could hear humor in it as well. "Just jump, McKay, for crying out loud!"

"I hate this," Rodney whispered, as he tried to worm his way over the top of the railing without using his hands. Halfway over the edge, he looked down at the robot poised underneath him and his eyes grew huge. "Colonel, I can't do this! The minute I jump, that thing down there is going to turn me into hamburger!"

There was a pause. Then Sheppard called down, "Rodney, don't move a muscle until I say go. Then jump, and don't hesitate! But absolutely do not jump until then."

"Why? Wait! What are you doing?"

To his alarm, the rope went slack. There was utter silence, broken by a sudden claw-snap right in front of his face as the robot got tired of waiting and leapt. It nearly got a couple of claws over the railing but fell back to the floor. Rodney peeked over to see it gathering itself for another leap. A small whimper escaped him.

Then there was a loud clatter from the far end of the room. Rodney's first, horrifying thought was that Sheppard had actually jumped down from the ceiling in some sort of idiotic kamikaze ploy, but looking in that direction, he saw nothing.

There was another clatter and the robot skittered off in that direction. Rodney's every instinct was simply to run, but he drew deep breaths and tried to have faith in Sheppard, until suddenly the rope went tight again and the Colonel's voice shouted, "Jump!"

Trust Sheppard.

He jumped. For an instant he was in freefall, plunging towards the floor -- I'm going to die -- and then the rope jerked tight, feeling as if it had severed his arms and legs in the process. Sheppard had carefully tied the harness so as to avoid Rodney's injured hands, but that was very little consolation to the remainder of his throbbing extremities as the harness cut off circulation. Also, as he jerked his way slowly up to the ceiling, he began to spin gently around in circles, making him dizzy and nauseous to add to the fun.

In the rotating glimpses that he caught of the floor, he got flashes of fast-moving black robot. "Sheppard! Hurry! Whatever you did, it's noticed meEEEEEK!" That was a manly shout of fear, not a girlish scream of terror, he told himself, numbly watching the robot drop back to the floor after coming almost close enough to take off a lock of his hair.

There was no answer from Sheppard. The rope continued to haul him towards the ceiling, far too slowly, to his way of looking at it. The robot leapt again, and Rodney, reacting on pure instinct, kicked at it -- he actually felt his foot glance off a claw before it dropped back down.

"Sheppard! I'm engaged in hand-to-hand combat down here, and I don't have hands! This is not good! Are you listening?"

His slow spinning had rotated him so that he couldn't see the robot, but an instant later he felt a fiery trail of pain blaze down his ribs. "Sheppard!" he shrieked, kicking out wildly against empty air. He could feel something wet trickling down his side. It had gutted him, gutted him like a fish, and he was going to die --

Then his head vanished into the crack in the ceiling, followed by the rest of him, and Sheppard's hands were on him, pulling him over the edge as he struggled and flopped in a vain attempt to help without the use of his hands. He sprawled on cold metal, gasping and shaking.

"Rodney?" Sheppard was kneeling over him, a blur in the dim light. "Are you okay?"

"No," Rodney managed to say. Darkness spun around him, trying to suck him down into its embrace. But he'd made it, he was safe, Sheppard was here to take care of things, and he could fai-- pass out without guilt.

"Oh, okay," Sheppard said, and something in the way he said it -- trailing off into a whisper towards the end -- made Rodney look up, just in time to completely fail to catch him when Sheppard keeled over.

"Colonel!" He sat bolt upright, swayed as a wave of dizziness washed over him. Sheppard was crumpled in a heap, his pants leg dark and sodden with blood that was rapidly forming a pool under him. Nicked, hm? You call that nicked? "Colonel, answer me ... please."

He knelt beside Sheppard, feeling the tickle of blood running down his side, watching the dark pool widen under Sheppard's leg. A tidal wave of frustration welled up inside him. He wasn't going to sit here and watch them both bleed to death all because of his damned hands!

He could see that Sheppard's pants had been slashed diagonally from the hip to the inner side of his knee. Nudging gently at the cloth with his elbow, he peeled it back, but all he could see was that the thigh underneath was a mess of blood. It wasn't spurting out ... if it had been, Sheppard would probably have already bled to death, rather than bleeding out slowly in front of Rodney's eyes. He didn't have anything to use for a bandage and couldn't have manipulated it if he had. For that matter, they'd used up most of the gauze from the first-aid kit tending to their earlier wounds from the exploding console. But he had to get that bleeding stopped somehow ... Rodney's eyes dropped to the gauze on his hands.

This is a stupid, stupid idea. But it might work. Sheppard had swathed his burned hands in gauze until he felt like a mummy. Rodney carefully lay down on his side -- still wrapped up in rope; there was no way he could remove that without help -- and laid his arm, elbow to wrist, across Sheppard's thigh, following the slashed fabric to estimate the location of the underlying injury. Then he bore down with his body weight.

The pressure on the burn made him hiss in pain, and there was no telling what all that blood was going to do to his damaged hand, but between the gauze and his jacket sleeve, it should be almost as absorbent as a bandage. Not sterile in any way, but given the choice between infection and bleeding to death ... well, Rodney was a great believer in the power of antibiotics.

Of course, it meant he had to lie here with all his weight on his arm and with his face practically in Sheppard's groin, which wasn't improving his day at all. And it meant he had nothing to do except look around, giving him his first opportunity to examine his surroundings.

He appeared to be at the bottom of a vast shaft, lying precariously upon one of the two great metal doors that would no doubt open to let spacecraft in and out of the hangar. The dim light coming through the narrow gap in the doors illuminated a vast dusty space that reminded Rodney of ventilation ducts or the utility space within a suspended ceiling: it had that same forgotten, dusty, utilitarian look to it. The walls of the shaft were rock, or so he presumed from looking at them, and over time had sloughed and crumbled in mini-avalanches that covered the edges of the metal doors with drifts of rubble and loose rocks. This didn't give him a whole lot of confidence in the stability of the remaining rocks; tilting his head back to look up into the blackness above him, Rodney wondered with a shudder just how far up the shaft went, and how likely it was to collapse on them.

Something dark glistened on the metal hangar doors, winding in a spotty, uncertain trail down to the far end. Blood, Rodney thought, and suddenly he realized how Sheppard had distracted the robot -- he'd gone down to the end and thrown down some of those loose rocks.

Speaking of the robot ... nervously, Rodney raised his head far enough to lean over the opening and look down. All he could see was a sliver of floor. He tried to reassure himself that they were safe here -- trapped, yes, but safe. Even if the robot could climb up the wall, it couldn't possibly get through the narrow opening, and these doors were far too large and heavy to force apart.

Or so he kept telling himself. It was a lot easier to be optimistic when he was having to fend off Sheppard's idiot cheerfulness, than when Sheppard was lying next to him (or, at the moment, under him), pale and bleeding.

The gauze on his arm was soaked -- warm and heavy. He was also still bleeding down the side; he had no idea how badly he was hurt and no way to find out. He dealt with it in the only way available to him: by pressing his free arm as tightly as possible against his side, and then trying not to think about it. Of course, ignoring the presence of discomfort and fear was not one of Rodney's strong points, and he knew it.

"I'm bleeding to death here, I think," he told Sheppard conversationally. "Just thought you'd want to know. Thank you for being so helpful, by the way, laying there and all. That's sarcasm, in case you couldn't tell. Of course, you did save my life earlier, and I suppose that might go at least partway towards excusing the fact that you're currently about as useful as a screen door on a spaceship. Oh, good grief, I can't believe I just said that. Does shock make a person lightheaded? Because I'm feeling fairly lightheaded. Hazy, almost, and kind of dizzy. I'm also cold. And thirsty. And I think the Tylenol's worn off completely, because my hands hurt like crazy and I have the mother of all headaches. I can't even unwrap a powerbar, so I expect to be in a hypoglycemic coma anytime now. Also, did I mention my arm is falling asleep? Because of you?"

He raised his head and looked hopefully at Sheppard, but there wasn't even a twitch of annoyance on the frightfully pale face. He couldn't even check for a pulse -- at least not without using his lips, the only unburned part of his body that had enough sensitivity to detect a pulse, and he wasn't anywhere near that worried yet. Besides, he thought he could see the Colonel's chest rising and falling shallowly, and that was good enough.

"So, Sheppard," he continued after a moment. "I'm wondering if you have a plan for getting out of this shaft? Because I'm coming up with a big fat zero myself. The way I see it, you're probably not capable of lowering me down at the moment, and I certainly can't climb down by myself. Climbing up also seems unlikely and unwise. Now, you could go down and get help, but that means finding your way out of a maze infested with lethal robots without your eyesight, and frankly, that probably means that you'll die and I'll just stay here, expecting rescue, until I starve to death. Which should occur fairly quickly, considering that I'm not presently capable of feeding myself. Actually ... I take that back ... thirsting to death is far more likely. How long can the human body go without water, anyway? When we get back, or rather, I should say, if we get back, I have to remember to ask Beckett about dehydration symptoms so that I'll know what to expect if this ever happens again. How are you doing down there, Colonel? Not very talkative. Me, I'm about like I was the last time I mentioned it. Still cold, uncomfortable, and bleeding to death. Oh, that reminds me, there's something I don't think I've mentioned yet, which is really an oversight on my part considering how many near-death situations we seem to encounter on a regular basis. Given the choice of various interment options after my, you know, passing, I'd really prefer to be cremated. Now, I'm well aware that I probably won't care, being dead and all, but something about the idea of being shut up in a tiny coffin for all eternity gives me the creeps. What if I'm not really dead and they put me in there anyway? I don't trust doctors to be able to make that sort of diagnosis. They could be wrong, you know, and then I'd wake up and that's really -- not worth thinking about. Where was I? Right. Cremation. All in all, a much more sensible option, and cheaper too. Besides, since I'm likely to die of dehydration here, I should be nice and dry and burn readily --"

"McKay." The voice was little more than a dry whisper.

Rodney's head snapped up. "Colonel?"

"Shut up."

------

Sheppard had to hand it to McKay: he was taking all this remarkably well. True, there had been a little bit of freaking out, and there was his whole tendency to use talking as a coping mechanism -- but when he thought back to the Rodney he'd first met in Antarctica, and the way that that Rodney used to behave on missions, the difference was remarkable. He was pleased and gratified to find that the same Rodney who used to panic at the drop of a hat had turned into a man who had managed to keep his head -- well, sort of -- while losing the use of his hands, being attacked by a robotic scorpion and having his team leader bleed all over him.

Currently Rodney was propping him up with a shoulder while Sheppard unstrapped his canteen. Shakily, he held it up to the general vicinity of Rodney's mouth -- the location of which he determined without difficulty from its nonstop talking -- and managed to give him a drink without drowning him, before drinking himself.

"Hungry?"

"No," Rodney said morosely, "but eating would probably be a good idea. What I could really use is more Tylenol."

"Food first, Tylenol after." He unwrapped a PowerBar, held it without much interest, then broke it in half and put it up to Rodney's face.

Rodney's presence retreated -- he'd jerked his head back. "What flavor is that?"

"Does it really matter?"

In his mind's eye, Sheppard could see the withering McKay glare boring into his skull. "What, do you think I'm a human garbage disposal? That I don't even notice the flavor of my food? I'm just saying, Colonel, that this had better be one of the chocolate or coffee ones. Peanut butter, I can deal with. If it's apple cinnamon, I'm out of here, and while the light's not too good up here, it's looking suspiciously pale."

"Take a bite, then you'll know."

Rodney groaned, and took a bite, loudly, which he proceeded to chew in Sheppard's ear. "Ugh. Vanilla. Whose idea was it to take a perfectly edible food product and put vanilla in it?"

"Why does everything have to be a struggle with you?" Sheppard wanted to know.

"Because I'm complex," Rodney said smugly, and leaned in for another bite. "This is really embarrassing, you know," he added, while chewing.

"What, being hand-fed like a pony? It's not much fun for me either." Sheppard ate his half of the PowerBar without much interest. He didn't intend to admit it, but Rodney was right about the vanilla flavor.

"Oh, thank you for the comparison. I'd complain louder, but you're the only one of us who can open packets of Tylenol, and right now I'd sell my soul for one, especially after that mauling you call first aid."

Sheppard had bandaged them both with the remaining gauze, what there was of it, using a clean bandana from one of his vest pockets for a pressure pad on the gash on Rodney's ribs. He'd cut off parts of his own pants leg to use on his leg injury, noticing Rodney's thoroughly blood-soaked arm without comment. (Rodney, however, had had plenty of comments, starting with several variations on "This is completely unsanitary" and ending with "This had better be it for the life-threatening injuries on this trip, Colonel, because we're totally out of bandages now.")

"How's your side feeling?"

Rodney snorted. "It'll be better once I get some Tylenol in me. Which you can pass back here anytime, by the way. How's your leg?"

"It doesn't feel like much of anything. Kind of numb. Head hurts like a bitch, though." His shaky fingers fumbled the first aid kit, nearly dropping it. When Rodney helped him pick out the right package, it took him two tries to open it.

"You didn't look that great before, Colonel, but you really look bad now," Rodney contributed, unhelpfully. "I think you've lost an unhealthy amount of blood and you should probably be lying down."

He'd love nothing better than to lie down, but somehow he doubted if he'd get much chance anytime soon. "I'm doing better than I look. Soon as the Tylenol takes effect, let's see if we can find a way out of here."

Rodney snorted. "Well, you couldn't possibly be doing worse than you look, what with the fact that you've been spurting blood everywhere like a firehose. By the way, don't forget there's a big hole in the floor. Falling through that onto an angry scorpion the size of a Thoroughbred wouldn't exactly be a pleasant addition to your day."

Sheppard felt a cold chill crawl around his stomach. He actually had forgotten about the crack in the floor -- or, rather, he'd forgotten that he was going to have to avoid it without being able to see it. Only one response came to mind. "This sucks."

"No argument over here."

A scrabbling sound made them both freeze. It came from below them, and it was close. "Oh, hell no," Sheppard said.

"Oh hell yes," Rodney said in a tight, frightened voice. "Guess what, Colonel: it can climb. I'd suggest we get a little farther away from the hole in the floor. Now seems good."

They both scrambled backwards, while the scritchy sounds from below them grew louder. Sheppard raised his P90. "Rodney, you said earlier that you didn't think the robot could fit through the gap. How sure of that are you?"

"Do I think it's possible? Not really. Would I bet my life on it? Not really."

"In other words, it's possible."

Rodney heaved a sigh and started on a sarcastic comeback, which turned into a yell of "CLAW!"

"Where, dammit?" Sheppard demanded, swinging the P90's muzzle to cover the general direction of the scrabbling.

"Le -- Ri -- Uh, eleven-thirty!"

Sheppard sent a burst of submachinegun fire in the direction that he hoped Rodney meant. He heard the bullets ping off metal, and then there was a screeching sound and a very loud clang from below.

"I hope that means it fell."

"It fell," Rodney confirmed, breathing hard. "But I don't think it intends to stay down there for long."

Sheppard listened to the rapid scrabbling from below. "A way out of here would be nice ..."

"Wouldn't it, though? I'd also like some ice cream and a puppy. Oh, and a whole barrel of morphine." Rodney's sarcasm receded in the distance as he walked away, hopefully looking for an exit.

Sheppard pushed himself to his feet and limped doggedly after him. At least the gash from the scorpion's claw was in the same leg he'd twisted, so he still had one good leg to lean most of his weight on.

"Why are you following me?" Rodney's voice echoed back down the empty space. "Sit, for God's sake, before you fall down! It's not as if you can help me search!"

"The objective is to protect you, Rodney, since I'm the only one of the two of us with a big gun or the ability to shoot one."

"Ah." He actually fell silent, for a change, until Sheppard started wishing he'd say something to make him easier to orient on. The only sounds were footsteps and occasional clattering sounds as he dislodged loose rocks and dirt atop the metal doors. Sheppard found himself becoming uncomfortably aware that only a couple feet of metal separated them from a rather long fall -- metal designed to retract, no less. He knew that the doors were probably corroded in place and solid as a floor, but that didn't make their position any less precarious.

Tilting his head, he listened to the scrabbling below. From the sound of things, the scorpion had fallen a couple of times in its attempts to climb the wall, but having succeeded once, it clearly did not intend to give up until it did so again. "Hey, Rodney, any luck?"

"Actually, yes, I think." The voice came, surprisingly, from above him. Sheppard tilted his head back automatically, even though it didn't help.

"Where are you, McKay?"

For once, the answer wasn't tinged with sarcasm. "Climbing rock piles. We're inside a big shaft here -- it probably goes all the way to the surface, not that we can really take advantage of it at the moment. But the inside of the shaft has sloughed off in places, and I think I've found a tunnel here. I haven't got a clue where it goes, but it goes away from here, and right now that's all I really care about."

"I won't argue with you." Sheppard started towards the sound of Rodney's voice, paused as his feet began encountering more loose rocks. "How steep is it?"

"Not very. I was able to climb it without using my hands ... obviously."

He didn't want to admit how weak his leg was. "All right ... coming up."

The footing wasn't good, but he actually made it to the top without falling, though sometimes he had to use hands as well as feet to keep from slipping. He was aware of Rodney hovering, probably wanting to help but unable. The man was never entirely quiet -- always in motion, with little rustles and mutters and breathy noises ... Sheppard had never really noticed before, and he found it oddly comforting.

"You okay?" Rodney asked, as Sheppard paused at the top to breathe.

"I'm fine, I'm fine." He wasn't fine, he was actually pretty woozy, and suspected it stemmed from a combination of head injury and blood loss. He knew better than to tell this to Rodney, however. He was confident that he could keep going, at least for a while, and beyond that ... they'd have to cross that bridge when they got to it.

Rodney hmph'd, and Sheppard felt him nudge against the P90. "Hey, let's get some light here. Now that we're away from the hole in the floor, I can't see a thing."

"Your wish is my command," Sheppard murmured, snapping on the light. "Any sign of the bug from hell back there?"

"No, but I don't intend to stick around here and wait for it."

The tunnel turned out to be, as Rodney put it, more of a glorified crack in the rocks than any kind of self-respecting tunnel -- just something that had opened up in some earthquake long ago. This probably meant that it could end at any time, trapping them against a dead end with a giant metal scorpion behind them ... but he decided not to dwell on that. If they had to backtrack, then they'd backtrack, and this offered a better hope of escape than any of their other options.

In any case, though, the going was slow. In the first few minutes, Sheppard tripped several times on unexpected rocks, and cracked his forehead against a low-hanging part of the ceiling. Stopping, once again, to wait for Sheppard to pick himself up, Rodney grumbled, "You're going to be one giant bruise if this keeps up, not to mention losing any hope of ever joining Mensa."

Sheppard sat on the floor for a moment while the swirling dizziness and nausea receded. The last thing his head had needed was another blow. "You got a better idea?" he asked, picking gravel out of his stinging palms. He'd managed to break his fall with his hands, and they didn't appreciate the treatment.

"I do, actually." Something jostled against him; reaching out, he touched a blood-stiff jacket sleeve. Rodney had knelt down next to him. "Yes," Rodney said impatiently, "I'm actually volunteering to be your seeing-eye dog, but only because you might break the flashlight if you keep falling down."

And also tacitly offering assistance in standing back up, which Sheppard suspected he might need. Getting a secure grip on Rodney's shoulder, he leaned on the other man as they both got to their feet. "Excalibur ... onward and upward," Sheppard panted.

Rodney snorted a weary laugh. "That's 'excelsior'. Excalibur was King Arthur's sword."

"Once again your memory for useless trivia amazes me, Rodney."

"Oh really? Well, once again your inability to remember details related to anything that doesn't have wings or make loud noises amazes me, Colonel."

... and so it went, snarking through the dark. At one point Rodney paused with a soft hiss of dismay. Sheppard bumped lightly into his back before managing to stop. "What?"

"Hole," Rodney said succinctly. "Big freaking hole. Shine our light down in front of us, but kindly don't step forward or it'll be the last step you ever take."

Sheppard took his hand off Rodney's shoulder and tilted the P90 downwards. He heard Rodney whistle softly. "Okay, that is one damn big hole. Actually, more of a chasm. It bisects the tunnel to both sides, and there's kind of a big jumble of rocks off to our right ... leading to another crack that we can probably follow without having to cross this." More and more, as they went deeper into the tunnel, he'd been explaining what was in front of them in detail so that Sheppard could visualize and avoid obstacles. Sheppard hadn't commented on it, for one thing because he really appreciated it and didn't want Rodney to get embarrassed and clam up, but also because he hated being that dependent on another person for anything -- even if the person was Rodney.

"So we have to climb a rock pile." Sheppard hesitated, contemplating the logistics of doing so when one of them couldn't see and the other one couldn't use his hands. "That promises to be fun."

"Tell me about it."

They climbed separately. It was obvious to both of them, without needing to discuss it, that all they'd accomplish if they tried to stabilize each other's balance was risk getting tangled and falling. Rodney went up first, while Sheppard waited at the bottom, tense and anxious, trying to tilt the light at the proper angle. The only sounds were Rodney's harsh breathing and an occasional mumbled curse or sharp intake of breath. Eventually he shouted down, "I'm at the top. Come on up."

"Took you long enough," Sheppard retorted as he raised a foot and tapped his boot on the rocks.

"Notice I'm not rising to the bait because I'm a bigger man."

"You said it, Rodney, not me." Sheppard slung the P90 over his shoulder, and bent over to use his hands to help support his body as well as feeling his way up the rock pile. Somewhat to his surprise, it worked quite well. He was tempted to take off his boots so that he could use his toes to help feel out the unstable rocks, but didn't want to risk injuring a foot or losing a boot ... not to mention that his leg hurt like hell and he didn't think he could bend it to remove the boot. He had to keep it rigid as he climbed, leaving him in an awkward twisted position with one leg fully mobile and the other one stiff. By the time he reached the top, the world was spinning again and his leg felt wet and slippery. He sank down in a heap and rested his face on his arm.

There was a waiting, hovering silence from Rodney's direction, until finally Rodney couldn't take it anymore and said nervously, "Are you, um, all right?"

Sheppard swallowed and tried raising his head. He didn't pass out or throw up. "I'm fine, but a short rest might be in order."

"Your leg's bleeding again," Rodney reported.

"I know. It'll stop." But he rested a hand against it, applying pressure despite the pain. He wished he could see how badly he was hurt, and at the same time was glad he couldn't.

"Tylenol?" Rodney asked hopefully.

Sounded like heaven. They went through their usual Three Stooges-like efforts to get food and water from Sheppard's hands to Rodney's mouth, finishing off a couple of PowerBars -- Sheppard didn't really want it, but made himself choke it down for the sake of the energy -- and nearly emptying one of their two canteens.

"Shouldn't we be saving the water?" Rodney asked as Sheppard capped the canteen.

"No point. Let's face it -- we're not in any shape to stay down here more than a day or two under any circumstances. Keeping ourselves hydrated and capable of moving is better than trying to ration our water and ending up dehydrated and comatose. We're not really getting as much water as we need anyway, with the injuries and exertion."

"You're such a ray of sunshine." Little rustling fidgety sounds emanated from Rodney's direction. "My hands itch."

"For God's sake don't scratch them."

"I'm not an idiot, Colonel. Hey, do you think it's a good sign? Maybe it means the skin is growing back."

"Your skin isn't going to grow back in a couple of hours."

"Thank you for the professional opinion, Doctor Sheppard."

His mother told him there'd be days like these ... "Let's move on before our scorpion buddy picks up our trail, shall we?" He tried to get up on his own, sank back with a soft breath. And Rodney was there, offering a shoulder to support him. Saying nothing, he gripped hold and let himself be helped.

What came next was long. Very long. There were more rock piles, more climbing, and he was pretty sure that the squishy feeling in his boot was from blood running down his leg and soaking his sock. Sometimes they seemed to be going up; sometimes they went down. Once they had to jump from one rock to another -- Rodney never did tell him why -- and that was difficult. Sometimes he just walked in a hazy dream state, not really aware of his legs rising and falling, letting his grip on Rodney's shoulder tug him along. At some point he became aware that McKay was shivering under his grasp, had been for some time, and the thought worked its way into his consciousness that both of them were in pretty bad shape.

"This is really extensive," Rodney was saying, rambling in a soft voice that seemed to be intended for himself as much as for Sheppard. "The caves, I mean. This area must have had some kind of pretty intense geological disturbance at some point in the long-distant past. I wonder if the Ancient facility could actually have had something to do with that. I mean, maybe this place is geothermal-powered, like the one where we found the Orion. Once we get back to Atlantis -- notice I didn't say if -- we'll have to figure out what they used for a power source here. Could also be a ZPM, you know, probably depleted but ... oh, no."

The sudden alarm in his voice jolted Sheppard out of his sleepwalking state. "What?" Rodney's shoulder twisted out of Sheppard's grasp, and he felt suddenly bereft, helpless. He didn't dare take a step forward, not knowing what lay ahead of him. The P90 slipped in his suddenly sweat-slick fingers. "Rodney? What? Dammit, what's the matter?"

"This is what's the matter, Colonel." There was a series of thunks, and it wasn't until a solid object struck his boot that he realized he'd been hearing the sound of Rodney kicking something along the floor. Bending over from the waist -- his leg wouldn't bend, and he knew if he sat down he'd never get up -- Sheppard touched it with his fingertips, feeling cold metal.

"What is this?"

"This, Colonel, is a claw, or a piece of one." Rodney's voice had that tight, desperate sound that it got when he was on the edge of panic. "As in, a claw partly severed by a P90 that eventually just got loose enough to fall off. Sheppard, the damned robot is in this maze with us."

They both fell silent and Sheppard found himself straining his senses, listening for that metallic skittering sound. All he heard was Rodney's rapid breathing, and his own. "It doesn't seem to be close."

"Sheppard, it's in here with us."

"And we'll deal with that when we have to, but in the meantime, there's nothing we can do except keep trying to find our way out."

"We don't even know if there is a way out." Despair surged up in Rodney's voice, deeper and blacker than the darkness behind Sheppard's closed eyelids. "We've been walking for hours, we're probably going in circles, there's a robotic bug thing in here somewhere that can't be killed but wants to kill us, we're running out of water and we have almost no food, and I wish you could see yourself right now, Colonel, because you look like something my cat dragged in and I don't feel any better ... and sooner or later one of us is going to collapse, probably you from the look of things, but whichever one it is, the other one's going to be totally screwed because it's all we can do to move ourselves right now, let alone another person ..." He trailed off into silence.

Neither of them spoke for a few minutes. Then Sheppard gave the claw a final nudge with his boot, and stepped over it. He'd only taken a few steps when there was the quick sound of feet and Rodney's body blocked him from moving any farther. "Hey, where do you think you're going? You'll walk off a cliff, you idiot."

"I'm getting out," Sheppard said simply.

He stopped. Listened. Waited. And finally Rodney took a long, deep, shaky breath. Sheppard raised a hand, and Rodney shrugged his shoulder under it -- back to their guide-dog position.

"You're insane," Rodney said as he trudged forward. "Certifiable. I am stuck in a maze with a crazy man. Granted, a crazy man who has a long history of surviving impossible situations. Maybe fortune really does favor children and fools. Lord knows you've been known to qualify as both, depending on circumstances."

They hadn't been walking for very much longer -- maybe fifteen or twenty minutes; hard to say -- when Sheppard's strength gave out. It happened from one step to the next: his knees buckled, and rather than using Rodney for a guide, he was suddenly supporting almost his entire weight on the shoulder under his hand. Rodney, unsurprisingly, staggered with a surprised exclamation, made a move as if to catch him and then froze uncertainly, while Sheppard continued to fall, going down hard on his butt and dragging McKay with him. He slumped forward, elbows on knees, resting his head in his hands and feeling the world go spinning and swooping away.

Next thing he knew, something was nudging at him, something warm and insistent. It made him think of a dog, and he tried to tell it to go away, when he woke up enough to realize that Rodney was prodding him with both leg and elbow -- the handless equivalent of shaking his shoulder, no doubt -- and speaking his name in a voice laced with worry.

"Colonel! Sheppard, are you in there?"

"I'm having a bad day," Sheppard rasped.

"Funny, me too." Rodney's voice was light with relief. He rested his shoulder against Sheppard's, who held out for about a half-second before giving in to exhaustion and allowing himself to lean into Rodney's solid warmth and accept the wordless support that had been freely offered. The only alternative was falling over, and he really didn't feel like he was there yet.

"Think they've sent a rescue party through?" Rodney asked after a moment.

"Hard to believe they haven't, but if they have, they haven't hailed us." His foggy brain began catching up with circumstances, and he added, "Oh, right. Underground. No radio signals."

"We could be closer to the surface now," Rodney pointed out hopefully.

He had a point. Sheppard raised his arm -- it seemed to weigh a ton -- and tapped his radio. "This is Colonel Sheppard. Anybody reading this? Teyla, Ronon, Lorne. This is Sheppard. Talk to me, people."

He tried a few more times before giving up and letting his hand fall back to his side.

Rodney shifted against him, getting more comfortable. "You can say 'I told you so'. I'll even shut up and take it."

"About what?"

"Coming here. Ignoring the anthropologists. It wasn't exactly my shining moment, I'm starting to realize with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight."

"I could say 'I told you so', Rodney, but it would be a lie, because I didn't tell you so, at least not at the time. Granted, in the future I think listening to the anthropologists regarding the homicidal tendencies of the people we meet ... just might be a good idea. That is why we pay them, after all."

"We get paid?"

Sheppard laughed a little. There was a silence, then, and he found himself drifting towards sleep. Dammit John, get a grip.

"There's something else, too," Rodney said hesitantly.

Oh great, now what. "If this is heading for personal conversation territory, McKay ..."

"What? No, good grief, no." Rodney sounded, briefly, more animated than he had in hours. "Don't be ridiculous -- we may be trapped together in a cave, but if I start regaling you with tales of my childhood, please just shoot me. No ... I didn't want to mention this earlier, because it really wouldn't have helped, but the flashlight seems to be dying."

Sheppard raised his head, startled. "And we're sitting here wasting it? Rodney ..." He felt for the P90, flicked off its light.

"I know, I know." Rodney managed to sound both impatient and weary at the same time. "It's idiotic and probably entirely incomprehensible to you, especially considering your present condition. A bad decision. No need to rub it in."

And there he stopped. He didn't need to say It's dark in here. Sheppard said nothing, either; maybe he leaned a little more weight against the slightly trembling shoulder propping him up.

He was drifting again when Rodney stirred. "Hey ... Sheppard ..." There was something new in his voice, something alert and hopeful. "Sheppard, are you awake? It's not completely dark. There's light coming from somewhere."

------

Light.

Rodney hadn't realized it until the P90's rapidly dimming flashlight had been shut off long enough for his eyes to adjust to the dark. He'd expected the surge of darkness to be a tsunami, a Rodney-swamping wave that would leave him struggling to breathe. And it had been, when Sheppard first shut off the light -- but, slowly, light crept back, and he began to make out dim shapes of boulders around him.

"Colonel." He shrugged his shoulder, trying to jostle the still, heavy lump of semiconscious pilot into wakefulness. "Sheppard, I can see. There's light coming from somewhere."

Sheppard stirred sluggishly, raised his head. "What kind of light? Natural daylight? Lamplight?"

"Does it matter?" Rodney was half-laughing. "It means there's something down here other than rocks and killer scorpion things. Maybe we've found our way out, maybe we've circled back to the Ancient facility, and you know what? I don't care. Anything's better than what we have now."

"Not necessarily anything, Rodney." Sheppard got a tight grip on his shoulder, and Rodney braced his legs under him, helping hoist them both to their feet. Sheppard was leaning a lot of weight on him, swaying drunkenly.

"You know," Rodney began, reluctantly, "I could go on ahead, just a little, and scout --"

"We stay together."

"Good." It came out small and probably frightened-sounding, but he didn't really care. The last thing he wanted was to be by himself in the dark.

"You want the flashlight on?"

"No, no. I need to be able to see where the light's coming from."

Without the flashlight, Rodney was almost as blind as Sheppard, and they both banged shins on rocks in the near-dark, until the light grew bright enough that Rodney could steer them around obstacles.

"Definitely daylight," Rodney reported for benefit of his companion. "Coming from above us, I think. It's ... aha ..." He let the words fade away thoughtfully, staring upward. "Well, that just about fits with the kind of day we've been having."

A single shaft of sunlight pierced the darkness, spiking from a point high above their heads. It appeared that the way to the surface had been opened by some long-ago rockslide; a treacherous expanse of giant, broken boulders and near-vertical rockfaces led up to the gap.

"McKay," Sheppard said impatiently, raising his head from where it had slumped to rest against Rodney's shoulder. "I don't know what you're looking at. You found where the light's coming from, right?"

"Yeah." Rodney continued to gaze at it, head tilted back, trying not to give in to despair. How were they going to manage that? Well, better be realistic here -- how was he going to manage that? Sheppard might be able to climb it, but the injured Colonel was in no shape to hoist a somewhat ... healthily built physicist up that distance. Aware of Sheppard's impatience, he said, "We're going to have to climb. Again. And it'll be a lot harder than what we've climbed up before. It's very nearly vertical."

"We still have the rope."

"Yes, and I still have no hands. You can't see how steep this is, Shep--"

He froze. So did Sheppard. From somewhere off in the darkness had come a distinct sound of metal ringing on rock.

"We're going to die," Rodney said promptly in a very small voice, half-choked by the flood of terror surging inside him.

"Sound carries in caves." Sheppard slipped away from the supportive shoulder and propped himself on the wall of the cave, getting out the rope which he had re-coiled after untying it from Rodney.

Rodney stared at the pale, blood-covered figure. Sheppard's fingers were trembling as he ran them down the rope, checking for worn spots. "Colonel, you can't lift me. You can't possibly lift me."

"We'll do it in stages, not in one long climb," Sheppard said as if he hadn't spoken. "Rodney, I need you to find, and describe to me, the first place up there that you think we could stop for a few minutes -- a ledge, a big boulder, a flat place, anywhere I can get enough purchase to pull you up."

Rodney swallowed, trying to maintain control. One part of him wanted to grab Sheppard by the shoulders, shake him and scream into his face, Leave me and get out, you idiot! The other part of him wanted to wrap himself around Sheppard's leg and whimper Please, please don't leave me to die in the dark. He forced both parts of himself down, trying to get the logic centers of his brain working again, and looked up at the rocks hanging above them.

"Um ... maybe about ... seven or eight meters above us, there's a place where a big rock slid out from the wall. It looks stable enough to stand on. I guess."

"Good. I need somewhere above it to anchor the rope. The higher the better -- it's going to be much more difficult to throw the rope once we're on the cliff, so if I could get it all the way to the top, that would be best. How high is it?"

"It's not really a cliff, you know. More like a big pile of rocks." Rodney tried to estimate distance. "I'm not good at this. Maybe ... thirty meters? Forty? Can you throw that high?"

"Guess we'll find out." The rope spun; the grappling hook flew, falling far short, snagging on a boulder about halfway up. Sheppard gave it an experimental tug. It seemed to hold. "How high did it go?"

"Halfway." Rodney's head snapped around at another sliding metallic sound, distinctly closer. "Uh, Sheppard ..."

"I know. We'll just have to anchor it again when we're higher ... or I could free climb and set the rope at the top. C'mere."

Rodney dutifully stood still as the rope was laced around him again. "You know, I don't want to complain but I really thought I'd better mention it ... this really hurt the last time."

"I know. It shouldn't be as bad this time around -- you can use your legs to take the weight off your body. In fact, the more weight you're able to put on your legs, the easier it'll be for me to lift you and the faster this will go." Sheppard gave the rope a sharp jerk and settled the P90 into a secure position.

"I probably don't need to say this, but please hurry."

Sheppard nodded, gripped the rope and began climbing. Little rocks slipped from under his feet and started miniature rockslides. "Hurry, hurry, hurry," Rodney chanted under his breath, dividing his attention between Sheppard and all of the many dark gaps in the rock where a killer robot scorpion could be hiding.

It seemed to take forever, but eventually Sheppard vanished over the top of the big cleft in the rocks. The rope went slack, then the Colonel called down, sounding weary and out of breath: "Get ready to help out here. Have you ever rappelled before, Rodney?"

"You're joking, right?"

Sheppard gave a tired, but genuine, laugh. "Well, you're about to learn a new skill."

The rope tightened and Rodney kicked off as best he could. This did turn out to be less painful and terrifying than dangling above the floor. It was almost like walking up a wall, and much sooner than he expected, Sheppard was hauling him over the edge. Rodney fell to his knees, and Sheppard collapsed back against the rocks, white as a sheet.

"You know, Colonel, I'm running out of ways to say 'You look like crap'. Want to rest for a minute?"

Sheppard flexed his reddened, rope-burned hands and rubbed them gently together. "Depends."

"On what?"

"On whether or not there's a killer robot climbing up after us."

"I told you not to call it that. And the answer to that is ..." Rodney risked a peek over the edge. "No. Not at the moment."

"Well, that's something, anyway." Sheppard dragged himself away from the rock. "Hold on, I need to tighten your harness and shorten the remaining rope."

Rodney sighed and stood still for it. "You know, wearing yourself out to the point where you fall or drop me isn't going to help us much."

"I know my limits, Rodney," Sheppard said shortly, testing the knots with his fingers. "We can rest before we have to reset the rope."

And so he was gone, up the rope and out of sight over the edge of a rock overhang above them. Rodney gritted his teeth. "I hate it when you do this!" he yelled up at the jerking, dangling rope.

No answer. Rodney sighed and leaned back against the rock, then looked over the edge just in time to see black robotic death skitter out of one of the openings below him.

He opened his mouth to shout a warning up to Sheppard -- or maybe just to scream -- then realized that it didn't seem to have figured out where they were yet. It scuttled about aimlessly beneath him, and just when he was hoping it might give up and leave, Sheppard dislodged some loose rocks that clattered down and bounced off its metal carapace. The eyeless head oriented upwards, and Rodney threw caution aside. "Sheppard! SHEPPARD!"

A strained voice floated back down to him. "This better be important, Rodney."

"It's important! It's important! Robot at, uh, under you o'clock! And I think it's about to jump, Colonel!"

There was some frantic-sounding scraping on the rock above him and Sheppard called, "Get back as far as you can. I'm going to shoot and I don't want to hit you."

Rodney flattened himself against the wall as a stuttering burst of P90 fire strafed the cave floor and drew a trail of sparks from the robot's black shell. The thing scuttled hastily out of sight.

"Did that do anything?" Sheppard called down.

"It just hid -- I think it's getting a little more cautious of us. Apparently it can learn. That's really interesting. I'd love to see what's under that thing's hood -- er, shell. It might even --"

"Rodney! Admire it later! Climb now!"

This particular leg of the ascent was considerably more nerve-wracking than the previous one. Looking over his shoulder, Rodney saw to his horror that the scorpion-like robot had skittered out of the shadows and was hovering under him with an expectant air, like a dog waiting for its master to drop a tidbit. It didn't try to jump, however -- it really did seem to be cautious of them now. He noticed that it was missing part of a front claw, which was, in a way, a relief: at least this confirmed that they were still dealing with the same one, rather than a whole herd of the blasted things.

Sheppard helped him wriggle over the edge. His burned hands banged against the rock, but it was a measure of his desperation and exhaustion that he hardly even noticed. Sinking down, he numbly watched Sheppard unhook the grappling hook -- they were on top of the boulder that had caught the hook on the first throw.

"Halfway there," Sheppard said. His voice sounded ragged and hoarse.

"Sit down before you fall off the rock and get sliced and diced by our chitinous little friend."

Sheppard needed no more encouragement; he slumped down in a boneless heap with his bad leg thrust out stiffly in front of him. He kept the P90 in his lap, ready for use. "What's it doing now?"

"You expect me to stick my head over the edge with that thing down there? I'm rather attached to my head, Sheppard."

Sheppard visibly steeled himself to move, and started scooting towards the edge with the P90. "I'll cover you."

They both leaned over the edge, Rodney with an elbow pressed against Sheppard's chest to keep him from falling. "Oh hell," Rodney said.

"What?"

"It's on the ledge we just left. It must've either jumped or climbed. Colonel, we've got to get out of here."

"See anywhere above us that I can set the grappling hook?"

Rodney tilted his head back, and groaned in despair. "No. I can't see anything. There's an overhang right above us."

"Any way around it?"

Rodney got up and made his way as far along the boulder's top as he could safely go. "You can sorta see around it here. And maybe if you could see where you're aiming, you could throw -- but, Sheppard, you'd have to lean way out and basically use random chance. We could be here all day, and we don't have all day."

Sheppard hung the coil of rope on his belt; the end without the grappling hook was still tied to Rodney. "Then I'll free climb. It'll mean leaving you down here alone, and I wish there was some other way --"

"You can't climb that blind!"

"There's not a whole lot of eyesight involved in climbing, Rodney -- it's mostly touch anyway."

Rodney looked him up and down: pale, shaky, covered with blood, barely able to stand. "Sheppard, I'm only gonna ask you this once, but are you absolutely sure you're up to this? Because if you try it and fall, you're going to die, and I'm going to die soon after. It's only in the interests of self-preservation that I'm asking."

Sheppard was silent for a few nerve-wrecking moments. Then he said, "Do you think you can belay me while I climb?"

"If I knew what that meant, sure I could."

Sheppard untucked the rope from his belt and began wrapping it around his body. "It means that if I slip and fall, you'll take up the slack and catch me. Since you're not anchored and we don't really have a way to anchor you, the real danger will be that I'll drag you off the edge. If you hear me start to fall, throw yourself flat and brace yourself on the rock. Since the rock face isn't vertical, I can probably stop myself with drag before I hit the end of the rope anyway. And when we get back to Atlantis, I'm definitely making sure that the standard offworld traveling kit includes some lightweight rock climbing equipment." He hesitated for an instant, thinking, then drew his knife and reached out, groping until he got hold of Rodney by feel. "This is gonna hurt, sorry." He gently placed the knife in one of Rodney's burned hands and very lightly folded the fingers about it.

"Hey!"

"I said sorry ... but some skin damage is better than death. If I do fall, and if I'm going to drag you off the ledge, cut the rope."

Rodney stared at the knife loosely cupped in his hand, feeling ill. "If I do that, you'll die."

"Not necessarily -- if the rope even slows me a little bit, it could make the difference. And I'm serious, Rodney: if you're going to go over, don't hesitate. Don't think about me, don't think about your hand, just cut the rope."

He wasn't sure if he would, if he could, but he said, "Yes. All right," just to get that look off Sheppard's face.

After another brief hesitation, Sheppard nodded, then turned and took a couple steps towards the edge. Rodney flinched backwards as he fired a burst from the P90, then rammed in a fresh clip before returning the gun to its resting place on his vest.

"What are you doing?"

"Cover fire. If it's actually gotten cautious of the gun, that should help keep it from climbing up until I can lower the rope for you." As he spoke, he braced his arms against the rocks, and began to climb. "If it does start climbing again, holler at me and I'll shoot down a few times in the hopes of scaring it off."

"I doubt if it'll scare, Colonel!" Rodney yelled up to him. A shower of dislodged rocks made him duck. "Be careful! Please," he added softly.

In a few minutes, Sheppard was out of sight, and Rodney nervously paced the short distance from one end of the boulder to the other. Occasionally he peeked down. He couldn't see the robot at all and wondered what it was doing. Little clattery sounds from down below made him think it was probably still climbing.

A black claw appeared over the edge of his boulder, not four paces from him. Oh yes ... still climbing.

Rodney let out a yell of shock and -- to his own surprise -- anger, and lashed out with a foot, connecting solidly with the claw. He must have surprised the robot as much as it surprised him, because it recoiled hastily, lost its grip and bounced down the rockpile with a sound like a pile of washtubs being dropped down the stairs.

Distantly, Sheppard's voice called down anxiously, "Rodney?"

"Cover fire would be good!" Rodney yelled back at him. "Very good! Anytime!"

A short machinegun burst answered him. Anxiously he peeked over the edge to see that the robot had vanished again. No telling where it was.

It really did seem to learn from its experiences. It had shown no fear at all of the P90 until getting its claw clipped off. And it was able to strategize, at least to a limited extent. Simple as it seemed, the amount of programming involved in that sophisticated an AI must have been --

The rope jerked, and his radio crackled. "Rodney? I'm at the top. You ready?"

Rodney let out a long sigh of relief and then realized that he couldn't activate the radio without hands. After a fruitless moment or two of trying to touch his elbow to his ear, and then almost stabbing himself in the side of the head when he tried to use the knife, he yelled up the rockslide, "More ready than you'd believe, Colonel! Uh, that's a yes, by the way!"

He was yanked off his feet and instantly lost his loose grip on the knife, which skittered down the rocks and vanished over the edge. Aw crap ... Sheppard's gonna kill me. But then he had more pressing things to worry about, as the rope bit into his shoulders and hips, dropping him just a hitch, then pulling him up another little hitch, then dropping him a tiny bit -- Sheppard must be very nearly at the end of his strength. Rodney's feet scrabbled across the rocks, found purchase, lost it, found it again.

There was a slow-motion desperation to that climb, like the dreams where you run from a pursuing evil with the leisurely grace of underwater ballet. Rodney kept thinking he couldn't do this anymore, that he was too tired, his side and his hands hurt too much ... if he could only rest for a minute ... and then he thought of Sheppard, in far worse shape, hauling him bodily up the cliff, and somehow found the strength to keep going.

He was almost to the top when he looked over his shoulder and saw the black shiny bulk of the robot not ten meters below him, splayed out across the rockface as it crawled dogged after him. The only sound he could manage was a breathless squeak of terror. He kicked at the surface under his feet, dislodging a few small rocks that bounced down and clattered on its carapace, but it didn't fall, only kept coming, closing the distance between them.

Then he was in sunlight, blessed sunlight, with Sheppard seizing a double handful of his jacket and dragging him from the opening. They both crumpled in a tangled heap; he could feel Sheppard's chest heaving with ragged-sounding gasps. All he wanted to do was lie here and sleep for about a year, but the clattery sounds coming up from the hole were getting louder, fast.

"Sheppard." Rodney rolled off him, somehow made it to his knees. "Sheppard, it's right behind me. We've got to get out of here. Get up."

Shakily, Sheppard raised a hand to his face, wiped at the blood and sweat mingled on his cheeks. "Don't know if I can," he panted.

"Too bad, because I don't think you've got a choice."

Holding his leg out stiffly, Sheppard rolled over onto his good knee, tried to lurch to his feet and fell back. Rodney impatiently wormed his way under Sheppard's shoulder, until Sheppard finally got with the program and locked his arm around Rodney's neck so that he could be hauled to his feet.

"McKay, I'm not kidding here," Sheppard panted, leaning most of his weight on Rodney. "You know how I said I know my limits? I think I'm at that point now. Just go --"

"If you tell me to leave you behind, I'll hit you," Rodney informed him, half-carrying and half-dragging him down a short, moss-covered hill into a stand of trees. He looked back just in time to see the robot emerge into the sunlight, its shiny black carapace glistening with an oily sheen.

Sheppard tried to say something else, but it wasn't coherent, nothing but mumbling. His body relaxed, turning to dead weight on Rodney's shoulder, and his arm went slack around the scientist's neck. He just seemed to melt, sinking to the ground in a heap.

"Good one, Colonel!" Rodney yelled at him, looking from Sheppard's body to the robot crouched in the mouth of the cave. "Great timing! Remind me to thank you later! Oh wait -- we'll be dead later!"

He shook Sheppard hard with one foot. There was no response. Only the slight rise and fall of his chest let Rodney know that he was still alive.

The robot oriented on them and began skittering down the hill, gleaming in the sun.

And Rodney hit his breaking point. He'd had it. He was sick of being useless, sick of Sheppard protecting him while about to drop dead from exhaustion and blood loss. He'd just show Sheppard he could do this damned hero stuff too. Show him that he could take his turn, that Sheppard didn't have to do it all.

Protect his friend if it killed him.

He knelt down and fumbled with the clip holding the P90 to Sheppard's vest. Between the burn damage and the gauze on his hands, it was like wearing baseball mitts, and the pain made him hiss and jerk back. No way he was going to be able to undo the clip, so carefully, he propped up the P90 on Sheppard's chest, hooking an arm under it to try to support it and not break any of the Colonel's ribs when the gun went off. The worst part, at least so far, was trying to curl his finger around the trigger, but he had a feeling that all this was going to pale in comparison to actually trying to hold it steady while it fired.

"Eat lead!" Rodney yelled at the robot and yanked the trigger.

The gun bucked and bullets sprayed the soft ground about halfway between Rodney and the robot. He screamed in pain; between the vibration and the gun kicking back against his hands, it felt as if all the skin had been flayed off.

The robot stopped and then resumed its forward scuttle. Gasping and blinking back tears of pain, Rodney tried to summon every ounce of anger he could muster as he steadied the gun and squeezed the trigger again.

This time he hit it, sweeping a swathe of gunfire across its head and front claws. He had to drop the gun, shaking, letting it fall back onto Sheppard's chest. Fresh blood was seeping through the gauze and he didn't want to know what he'd done to his hands. But the robot had stopped moving forward. It remained still, swinging its head from side to side.

And his radio crackled.

"Colonel Sheppard? This is Lorne. We're picking up gunfire -- are you doing that? Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay, come in."

Rodney's jaw dropped. They really had sent a rescue party. He reached automatically for his radio, only to bat the side of his head with a gauze-wrapped hand. Now that he'd fired a submachinegun, though, turning the radio on was child's play. He just whapped at it until he got the right button.

"Lorne? Oh thank God. Where are you?"

Teyla's voice broke in. "Dr. McKay? Rodney? Are you and the Colonel all right?"

"No, we're not all right!" His voice cracked as he noticed the robot starting its forward movement down the hill again. "We activated some kind of automatic defense system inside the facility and it's about to decapitate me! A little help would be nice!"

Lorne's voice came calmly over the radio. "Just hang on, Doc; we're orienting on your radio signal." After a beat he said, "I'm picking up two lifesigns in the area of your radio signal, but only two. Yourself and the Colonel? Did you say you were being attacked by something?"

"Robots don't show up on life signs detectors, you moron!" Rodney snapped. "Just shoot it! Where the hell are you?"

And there it was, the most beautiful sight he could ever hope to see: a puddlejumper decloaking as it skimmed low over the trees.

"Whoa, I'm getting a visual," Lorne was saying. "What is that thing?"

"Dead, I hope!" Rodney yelled into the radio.

"You're pretty damn close, Doc --"

"Gonna be closer if you don't shut up and shoot it!"

No more argument came from the radio. Rodney watched dazedly as the small craft banked above them, and a small sparkle from one of the gunports blossomed into a drone streaking towards the robot. It never knew what hit it. Rodney threw himself over Sheppard's head and torso as flaming clumps of grass and pieces of hot metal rained down around them.

The jumper set down at an awkward angle on the hillside. Before it had even touched the ground the hatch was opening and Teyla had leaped out onto the grass, running down the hill.

Rodney straightened up slowly, creakily. Teyla skidded to a halt beside the two of them, taking in their battered condition with a quick sweep of her sympathetic brown eyes. Rodney looked past her to see Beckett, Lorne and a couple of Marines from Lorne's team following her down the hillside. It was going to be all right -- the cavalry was here -- and he found himself sagging into Teyla's supportive hands and grinning dizzily at Carson's half-fond, half-worried exclamation of "What have you two done to yourselves now?"

"Just an easy little meet-and-greet, Carson, nothing to worry about," Rodney told him, and passed out on Teyla.

------

"This is ridiculous, Carson -- can't the bandages come off yet?"

Limping through the infirmary, Sheppard easily found Rodney by the sound of the complaining -- the scientist's strident voice could probably be heard across half of Atlantis.

"Not if you want to have full use of your hands, Rodney, no."

Sheppard tapped lightly on the wall before peeking around the privacy curtain. "Hey, Doc. I'm dressed and ready for a getaway as soon as you put your John Hancock on my prison release papers."

Carson gave him a look of exaggerated shock. "I'm amazed and impressed that you didn't try to sneak out."

Rodney snorted. "Didn't you get the memo? Elizabeth's instituted a month-long, mandatory stand-down period for anyone who tries to escape from the infirmary early. Her official reason is to prevent a repeat of the Ford incident, but I suspect that it's aimed primarily at a certain Lieutenant Colonel who refuses to stay put."

"About bloody time." Carson signed Sheppard's paperwork with a flourish. "You're a free man. Remember, though: no strenuous activity, not if you don't want to lose your eyesight permanently. I'm not joking about this."

"Believe it or not, Doc, that's one instruction I'm more than willing to follow." Sheppard could see blurrily out of one eye; the other was presently covered by an eye patch to allow corneal lacerations to heal. Sheppard thought the patch gave him a rakish air, though Rodney said it made him look like a demented pirate.

Nodding towards Rodney, Sheppard asked, "How are his hands doing?"

"They'd be a lot better if he hadn't tried to fire a submachinegun..."

"Hello, Carson? Homicidal robot? Certain death? Ring any bells?"

"I understand the situation, Rodney; it doesn't mean it was a prudent thing to do."

Rodney groaned and waved his white mitts in the air. "I just want to be able to brush my own teeth again, thank you!"

"I don't know, Rodney." There was a devilish gleam in Sheppard's one visible eye. "Having beautiful nurses wait on you hand and foot doesn't sound like a bad deal to me."

"Unfortunately I don't have beautiful nurses waiting on me, Sheppard -- Carson has given me Ingrid. Have you had the misfortune to encounter Ingrid in your various infirmary visits, pray tell?"

Comprehension dawned. "Doesn't speak English, fifty years old, built like a tank? That Ingrid?"

"That's the one. I still have nightmares about her sponge baths."

"Ingrid is a lovely woman and a great asset to the medical division," Beckett informed them, adding with a pointed stare: "For one thing, patients do what they're told when Ingrid is around."

"That's because the woman has jail tattoos, Carson."

Beckett snorted, and gave Rodney a light shove on the shoulder in the direction of the exit. "Ingrid will be by your quarters at six to help you with dinner, and feel free to call her or stop by the infirmary if you need anything in the meantime. Colonel, you have your meds and I do expect you to take them. Straight to your quarters, now; don't forget, Rodney, I'm counting on you."

He waved them off cheerily. As they left the infirmary, Sheppard asked, "Counting on you for what?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "To be your watchdog. If I take you straight back to your quarters and make sure you don't do anything stupid along the way -- like, say, skateboarding off the East Pier -- Carson's promised to check the duty rosters and try to get me somebody other than Ingrid tomorrow."

Sheppard gestured at Rodney's mitts. "How long is that supposed to last?"

"He won't tell me. At this point, I think the man is frankly reveling in my discomfort. Either that or Weir has told him to keep me bandaged so I don't go back to look for a ZPM."

Sheppard's one visible eyebrow went up. "You were thinking about it?"

"Of course I was thinking about it! Except that Elizabeth's declared that world off-limits to gate travelers until the anthropologists make 'peaceful contact' with the natives." Rodney used his mitts to make a clumsy attempt at air-quoting "peaceful contact". "She claims that it's 'too dangerous' --" air quotes again "-- just because most of her command staff almost died on the last trip."

"How silly of her," Sheppard said with a straight face.

"Yes, isn't it? By the way, speaking of near-death experiences, how's Ronon doing? I haven't seen him lately, but I heard he's back to beating up Marines."

Sheppard nodded. "Turns out the natives' arrow poison is fatal, at least to most people, but Ronon apparently spent three days throwing up on Carson's nurses and then was perfectly fine. Which is another reason not to risk going back -- if one of those arrows had hit any of the rest of us ..."

"Fine, fine, I get it, no ZPMs. And, oh look, here are your quarters, so I can deliver you like a good package and Carson will be happy. See you later."

"Wait, not so fast!" When Rodney turned around, Sheppard said, "Where are you going?"

"I don't know. The lab, probably."

"And do what?"

"What do you mean, and do what? Work, Sheppard. You know, what you haven't been doing lately."

Sheppard pointed at Rodney's hands. "Without those?"

"Believe it or not, most of my work happens up here." Rodney lightly tapped himself in the head with a mitt. "Miko volunteered to type for me, and while that has turned out to be an exercise in frustration since the woman types about four words per minute, I'm still as indispensable as I ever was. Does that answer your question?"

"It does," Sheppard said, "but I also happen to have a fresh shipment of DVDs from the Daedalus and a case of beer courtesy of one of Caldwell's people owing me a favor."

Rodney looked tempted and impatient at the same time. "I bet anything you're not supposed to have alcohol with your meds."

"I bet I don't care."

"You are causing me to risk losing my promised, Ingrid-free existence in return for losing brain cells to television and alcohol?"

"I was going to call Ronon and Teyla, too."

Rodney threw his hands up in the air. "Well, what could possibly be worth passing up movie night in Idiotland?"

"What indeed?"

Rodney deflated and glanced up and down the corridor. "If Carson finds out about this, you won't have hot water in your quarters for a week."

Sheppard perked up, grinning like a loon. "I knew you couldn't say no."

As Sheppard led the way into his quarters, Rodney gave a loud hmph. "You do realize one of you is going to have to hold my beer for me."

"I nominate Teyla for that duty."

"I'm sure she'll appreciate that."

"She was the only one of us who hasn't been near death's doorstep in the last week. She feels incredibly guilty about it."

"So I should take advantage of her guilt to use her as my personal servant? Sheppard ... that's positively Machiavellian of you." As the door closed behind them, Rodney added in an undertone, "I think there's hope for you yet."

------

fin