Spoilers: A brief mention of Irresistible, but that's about it.
Disclaimer: I don't own Stargate Atlantis. No copyright infringement is intended. Blah, blah, blah…
A/N: Many, many thanks to Ashanome, the extraordinary and patient beta. She did her best with the story; I hope I haven't ruined all her hard work. The t-shirt's in the mail, I swear.
"But once you allow yourself to recognize necessity, you find two things: One, you find your options so restricted that the only course of action is obvious; and Two, that a great sense of freedom comes with the decision." –Steven Brust
"There are no easy answers… but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right." –Ronald Reagan
During my time as the Military Commander of the Atlantis expedition I've done a lot of things that were never mentioned in the Air Force recruitment literature and weren't covered in Officer Candidate School. Some days I think they are missing out on some great incentives for joining up. Other days – like today – I know they did the right thing.
I was crouched in a small, dark, smelly cave, listening as another bunch of alien Viking-wannabes neared my hiding place. Even out of the direct sunlight, the temperature must have been over 100 degrees. Sweat poured off me, getting into my eyes and stinging the scrapes that covered my body. I didn't bother to try to wipe it away. It would just be replaced immediately.
Two previous groups had noticed the opening of my little lizard-infested cave. In both cases one of the hunters had stuck his head into the small chamber, glanced around briefly and then crawled back out. If they had bothered to look up they would have seen me huddled on the narrow ledge over the opening. Then the hunt would have been over and I would probably be dead.
Except for the 'probably be dead' part I would almost welcome being caught. They might not kill me. Tajk had said that there were no rules except for the time limit. Maybe they would see how beaten up I was and decide I had repaid the insult. On the other hand, they had seemed pretty ticked off when the hunt began.
I spit out the small pebble I had been sucking on in the hope of generating some moisture in my mouth. That old trick only worked up to a point and I think I had passed it. The only moisture left in my body appeared to be making a break for it through my sweat glands. If I'd had two working hands I could have probably wrung a fair amount of liquid out of my cloths.
But my right arm was basically useless. I'd broken my humerus, I think that's what it's called; the big bone in my upper arm. Trying to use the arm resulted in enough pain to double me over and make me forget my desire for a drink of water. I could still taste blood from where I had bitten my lip while trying to hold back cries of pain.
I also had an arrow broken off in the back of my thigh. The shaft had snapped off so that less than an inch showed. A small piece of luck, in an otherwise miserably unlucky day. It hadn't bled very much and I hadn't left a blood trail for the hunters to follow.
Add in an assortment of cuts, scraps, bruises, a half-dozen burns and a lump on my forehead that felt like it was the size of Rhode Island and it was obvious I wasn't having my best day ever. And I was damned thirsty too.
I could tell when my den was discovered: the talk died and the laughter trailed off.
The previous hunting teams had pushed aside the branches of the bushes that partially concealed the opening. This group apparently didn't believe in leaving the environment as they found it. I could hear them ripping the scrubby plants from the rocky soil and tossing them aside. A weak light washed down the short tunnel which made up the entrance.
I tensed in anticipation, a knife held awkwardly in my left hand. It was the only weapon they had knowingly let me keep when they sent me off. I had a couple of smaller knives hidden in my clothing and boots, but I'd had to leave my P-90, 9mm, comm and TAC vest with all its useful contents at the stargate. They even took my belt.
"Watch out for lizards!" a laughing voice called.
Yeah, the lizards are hilarious.
A torch was shoved through the opening, followed by a head covered in braids. Instead of stopping and making a survey of the cave at this point, the man continued crawling into the cave.
I held my breath, a simple prayer of 'don't look up, don't look up, don't look up' repeating in my head.
Before the hunter could get to his knees and look around there was a shout from outside. He glanced over his shoulder and shouted, "What?"
"Is there anything in there?" the voice that had been concerned about lizards yelled back.
The hunter turned back and waved the torch from side to side, peering into the dark corners. "No, just dirt. Not even any lizards. I'm coming out." He upended the torch, extinguishing its flame on the rocky floor of my cave before starting to back out. "Hey, you got any brew left?"
I didn't hear the reply. My breath rushed out and the tension drained out of my body. I leaned back without thinking and bumped my injured arm against the cave wall. Pain exploded and the muscles surrounding the displaced bones contracted, amplifying the agony.
My jaw clenched trying to hold back a cry. Small sounds – not whimpers – managed to escape with each breath as I rode out the latest waves of pain. Each one seemed to last longer than the previous one. The pain finally receded to a manageable level, although my right hand continued to twitch for several more minutes.
I could still hear the hunting party outside. Probably chugging some of the local ale that had started all of this.
I stared at the light seeping into the cave and wondered what time of day it was. How much longer until the sun set on this wasteland of a planet? I was almost positive it was late afternoon local time, although my internal clock was insisting it was late in the evening. I rubbed my aching head and grimaced at the feel of dried blood in my hair and on my face.
Damn Rodney McKay and his frigging food allergies.
I leaned back, closing my eyes. I was so damned tired and I ached everywhere. I had been stuck in this cave for several hours. But it would be dark soon and I could start back to the stargate.
At first glance, the people of P9D-224 – known simply as Home to its inhabitants – did not have good prospects for survival.
They had been heavily culled recently and the few dozen remaining people were teetering on the brink of extinction. Their crops had been ruined and their domesticated animals killed. The barns holding the storage bins of grains, preserved meats and vegetables were destroyed. The survivors from a half-dozen villages were all huddled together in the few houses that were still upright in the village closest to the stargate. They spent their days hunting and gathering whatever was edible from the surrounding forests or could be salvaged from the devastated fields. And they consumed nearly all of what was found. Very little was left to put aside for the cold months. Yet they seemed to be cheerfully ignorant of the fact that they couldn't survive the rapidly approaching winter.
The people themselves were huge. I mean they were taller than Ronon, even some of the women, and heavily muscled. Everyone, men and women, wore their long blond hair in multiple braids. Most of the men had long beards that they braided also. I'd seen some of them eyeing Ronon's hair and I suspected there might be some blond dreads showing up in the village.
One thing that worried me about them was that they were cheerful. All the time. They laughed and joked constantly. After a little while it got to be downright creepy. Considering our history, I don't think I was the only one on my team waiting for… something. I wouldn't be surprised by anything from alien possession to Wraith worshippers.
When Bingham's team had 'gated to the planet they had been welcomed without reservation. They were allowed to wander freely, making scanner surveys and taking the usual soil, rock and plant samples. The locals provided guides who were happy to point out flora that was edible or was used for healing.
Dr. Weir had sent an offer to help them relocate to another world, one populated with refugees from several other planets. She set up the refuge when we started coming across more and more of these devastated planets with small populations barely hanging on. Atlantis provided a place and a means for them to start over, hoping to gain allies and trading partners.
The elder of P9D-224, Tajk, had rejected the offer with polite cheerfulness. He had also refused to accept any food, equipment or seed for planting, citing their lack of trade goods. No amount of talk had budged him.
Elizabeth, typically, decided not to give up. She'd had all of the department heads scour the reports on Home for anything that could be used for trade. There was no sign of any technology that would make McKay's eyes light up. But there was a plant that showed some hope as pain killer. Nothing Earth-shattering as in, say, a cure for cancer or even the common cold. Just an aspirin substitute.
That's why my team came to P9D-224, to negotiate a formal trade agreement. Tajk was highly amused that we wanted to make a deal for the plant. But I thought I saw a hint of relief also.
When I said we had come to negotiate, I meant Teyla. Besides Dr. Weir, she's the best negotiator Atlantis has. We had arrived yesterday afternoon. Teyla and Tajk managed to get in a couple hours of talks before darkness descended. McKay, Ronon and I spent the time getting our tents set up and a fire going.
It was late autumn here. The sun went down early and the people of Home went with it. And they rose before it.
Teyla spent the day discussing terms with Tajk and the rest of us occupied ourselves as best we could. Ronon went hunting with a few of the locals. McKay had brought some calculations or something to work on. And I started out to explore the woods but ended up helping some of the local women build a corral.
I'm pretty sure they could have accomplished more without my help, but they seemed amused by my efforts to keep up. By mid-day I was tired, sweaty and happy to get the comm call from Teyla that an agreement had been reached. I grabbed my jacket, vest and P-90, bid the chortling ladies good-bye and headed back to the village.
I found Teyla at the well in the center of the village. McKay was with her and had obviously just finished making a point. He was standing with a finger thrust triumphantly into the air and a pleased smile on his face. Teyla was wearing her I-work-with-children-and-must-be-patient face.
"What's up? Why is McKay grinning like he just discovered a cache of ZPMs?" I asked suspiciously and looked at Teyla for an explanation. I could tell she was more amused that annoyed by the slight tilt of her head and the way her lips twitched before she started to speak.
"I was just explaining to Dr. McKay that Tajk has invited all of us to a small feast to celebrate the successful conclusion of the trade agreement. Dr. McKay is bored and wishes to return to Atlantis. In an effort to find a reasonable excuse to miss the feast he has pointed out that the eashtic fruit, which they use in much of their cooking, is a type of citrus and therefore he cannot eat it." She watched me, waiting to see how I would react.
I eyed McKay who was still looking much too pleased with himself, bouncing on the balls of his feet and humming with a little smirk curving his lips.
"What do you think, Teyla? If McKay heads home is it going to cause a problem? You know Elizabeth wants some sort of trade set up so we can help these people without it being a hand-out."
I still wasn't sure why this particular world had affected her so strongly. I suspected it was a cumulative effect. So many of the worlds we visited now have been completely devastated by the Wraith and there are no people left. Elizabeth is a very generous, open-hearted woman. She hasn't learned yet, or is refusing to admit to herself, that we can't save all the people in the Pegasus galaxy. Sometimes I suspect she thinks of each Wraith-ravaged planet as a personal failure on her part.
Teyla sighed and glanced back at the small house where she had spent so many hours negotiating with Tajk. "Despite their jovial appearance, I believe they have strict rules of conduct. I think they might be insulted if we did not all attend. I would not want to risk compromising the trade agreement at this point."
I looked at McKay who was no longer looking so chipper. I punched him lightly on the shoulder in false sympathy. "Sorry, buddy. Looks like you get to sit through the local version of the rubber-chicken dinner. Teyla, will they accept it if we explain that McKay can't eat because he has physical problems that require a special diet? You don't mind being thought of as weak and puny, do you, McKay?" I asked, feeling a big grin stretch across my face.
I watched as he tried to find a suitably snippy comeback. He stood straighter and crossed his arms – carefully fitting his fists under his biceps to make them look larger – and puffed out his chest. He opened his mouth to speak and I cut him off, "What would Elizabeth do?"
McKay floundered for a few more moments, started to speak then stopped, one hand gesturing indecisively. Finally, the hand slashed through the air in dismissal and he glared at me. "Fine. Just… just fine," he snapped, the corner of his mouth crooked in dismay. "Never let it be said that Dr. Rodney McKay wasn't willing to 'take one for the team.'"
"I will go and speak with Tajk about it now," Teyla promised, hiding her own smile at the scientist's disgruntlement. "I am sure he will understand once I explain that we tolerate Dr. McKay's weakness because of his wisdom and that is why he is not exiled to the wilderness to fend for himself."
McKay paled noticeably as she walked away. He turned to me, ducking his head and lowering his voice although there was no one near enough to hear our conversation. "You don't think they actually kick their sick people out of the village, do you? Because I don't want to risk being dragged out to the woods and tied to a tree for those huge squirrels to nibble on."
"Relax, McKay, Teyla was just kidding." I paused thoughtfully and then added with a smile, "I think."
"Oh, ha ha," McKay muttered. He followed me when I turned and headed toward our tents on the outskirts of the village. "Considering our history, I don't think I'm being unreasonable to be concerned about this. Where are we going?"
"I'm going to get cleaned up. They eat their main meal just after midday, which should be any time now. And I'm pretty sweaty."
Our tents had been set up near the gutted remains of a hut. I stopped there briefly to rummage through my pack for a clean shirt and my kit.
"How did you get so dirty anyway? The last we heard, you were just going to explore the local woods and it's too cool for that to make you sweat. Unless you were – Oh my God, you weren't out in the woods with one of the Merry Milk Maids, were you?" McKay gaped at me as if unable to decide if he was jealous or appalled.
I was irritated for a moment and then gave a reluctant laugh. "Jeez, McKay, should I be worried that you're so concerned about my love life? But no, I was helping some of the women build a corral. I spent the morning splitting logs." I shook my head in admiration. "These women have incredible upper-body development."
"Is that what you call it?" McKay muttered sarcastically.
"McKay, these women look like they could snap you in half. You might not want to let on that you've been admiring their other, uh, attributes."
The creek was a few meters inside the tree line. When we reached it, I pulled off my shirt and then stuck my head in the water. Damn, the water was cold enough to cause an instant headache. Shuddering, I sat back on my heels and splashed water on my arms and chest, washing away the worst of the dirt as quickly as possible.
McKay had backed away from the flying water, fastidious as a cat. He perched on a log, watching as I tried to dry off with an inadequate towel and then pulled on a clean t-shirt.
"How do you get your hair to do that without any gel or whatever?" he asked curiously.
"Do what?" I asked, confused.
I rolled up my dirty shirt inside the towel and we headed back to the village.
As we got nearer we could see the local women had been busy setting out food and arranging cushions for seating. The men were already seated, some with a woman perched on their cushion hand-feeding them bites of food. The food was sparse, but probably the best the village had to offer at this point.
The breeze brought the scent of very gamey meat being roasted wafting our way. I swallowed, hard. I'd eat the food and then thank God for Alka-Seltzer.
We stopped briefly at the campsite to drop off my dirty laundry and weapons, and for McKay to grab an MRE.
"Listen," I said as we continued into the village, "try not to be too obvious with the MRE. No loud comments about the food or – "
"I know, I know," McKay said impatiently. "I promise to be good, Mommy."
"I'm just saying… You tend to speak first and think later in situations like this. It'd be nice if you reversed that process for once."
"Says the man who insists on taunting every Wraith and bad guy we come across. And it's not that I'm not thinking, it's that I'm thinking of more important things."
We were greeted with smiles and laughter from the feasters as we circled the gathering to where Tajk was seated. McKay watched this performance for a few moments and then glanced at me.
"I've been meaning to ask. What do you think about all this smiling? You don't think they've discovered Lucius' herb, do you?"
I made an impatient noise and thumped him on the arm. "What were we just saying about 'think first, talk later'?"
McKay rubbed his arm. "That's gonna leave a bruise. Maybe they're pod people. Pod people always smile a lot," he added, watching as another pair of smiling women walked by carrying jugs of the local homebrew. "God, it's like they're all on Prozac or something. Maybe the botanists should be looking for whatever plant produces that attitude instead of the headache medicine."
Growling in exasperation, I stalked ahead to where Teyla and Ronon, back from the hunt, were already seated next to the community's leader.
"I'm sorry we're late, Tajk," I said, allowing an apologetic grin to spread across my face. I dropped onto the cushion to the right of the leader, and nodded to my team members seated on the other side. "It's all my fault; I wanted to get cleaned up after helping the ladies with the corral."
"No problem, Sheppard," Tajk said and slapped me on the back, almost sending me face first into a bowl filled with some sort of lumpy, grayish paste. This brought a bellow of laughter from those nearby.
I straightened up, careful not to let my grin slip. The people of Home seemed to enjoy slapstick. I bet they would love the Three Stooges. I looked warningly at McKay who was settling onto a cushion on my other side. He shrugged and opened the MRE, ignoring a woman who was trying to press a mug of the local ale into his hands.
I smiled at the woman and accepted the mug, then turned back to Tajk. "I understand that you and Teyla have come to an agreement. Our leader, Dr. Weir, will be very happy. She's been looking forward to having you as allies."
I raised the mug and took a small sip, managing not to grimace at the sour taste. It tasted like fermented lemons and rancid butter. The serving woman was back with a trencher of sliced meat and root vegetables for me. I watched as Tajk dipped sausage-sized fingers into the communal bowl of gray mash and smeared the paste on a slice of meat. He rolled up the meat and stuffed it into his mouth, juices dripping into his pale beard. Ronon copied the ritual without hesitation, although he took care not to get food in his beard. Teyla had produced a small knife and was cutting bite-sized pieces. Looking around, I noticed that all the women seemed to be doing the same, while the men were all going for the stuffing method.
McKay popped a government-issued ravioli into his mouth with a small smirk.
Stifling a sigh, smile firmly in place, I dipped my fingers in the paste and smeared away. I managed to cram the whole piece into my mouth and started chewing. After a few moments I noticed a slow burn starting around my lips. By the time I raised my mug the whole interior of my mouth was on fire. I gulped the ale desperately, feeling the heat spreading down my throat.
I heard the laughter around me and knew I was providing more fodder for the locals' amusement.
I could feel sweat break out on my forehead as I chewed as fast as possible. I was finally able to swallow and prayed the burning sensation would not continue into my stomach. I took another swig of the brew. Tajk clapped me on the back again and I barely managed not to spew it back out. Teyla was watching me anxiously while Ronon, the traitor, was grinning along with the villagers.
"Very tasty," I managed to wheeze. At least the fiery paste killed the gamey flavor. I wouldn't have to worry about the taste of anything until my taste buds regenerated, if they ever did.
"You're a good man, Sheppard," Tajk declared, gripping my shoulder and giving me a shake. "I am glad we have decided to be allies."
"Thank you, no, I don't want any," McKay said absently.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw the scientist waving off the serving girl with the jug of homebrew. McKay was hunched over a pc tablet, playing chess and eating ravioli. I turned back to Tajk, satisfied that McKay was behaving himself. "I'm glad we could come to an agreement about trade. I think we can agree that you can never have too many friends, especially when you're fighting an enemy like the Wraith."
"Yes, although what help you think we can be in the fight against those monsters, I'm not sure," Tajk said, leaning back comfortably and sucking at his teeth.
"I don't think –" I began.
"No. I don't want any," McKay's irritated voice interrupted.
I turned around in time to see McKay's hand, undoubtedly being used to gesture the server away, knock into the earthenware jug. The container tipped and the entire contents splashed in his face. He leaped to his feet, coughing and spitting, eyes squeezed tightly closed. His flailing arms caught the gawking girl on the side of the head and sent her reeling into my arms.
Judging by the look on her face she was more annoyed than hurt. I lowered her the rest of the way to the cushion and jumped up to check on McKay. He was still gasping and blowing like a beached dolphin.
"I told you I didn't want to come to this thing. I've been poisoned! Oh, God." His hands tugged weakly at the neckline of his uniform shirt as he looked at me in panic. "Oh God, I'm a dead man."
I was knocked aside by a bellowing local. By the time I regained my balance the tall native had McKay by the throat and was shaking him. His feet barely touched the ground as he pawed unsuccessfully at the hand wrapped around his neck.
"You insult us, little man!" the enraged giant yelled. "I will teach you not to belittle us this way!"
I threw myself at the struggling pair. I managed to grab the taller man's wrist and dug my fingers into the ulnar nerve. The hand dropped away from McKay's neck and he slumped to the ground. The furious native rounded on me with a cocked fist. Before he could swing it forward Ronon wrapped an arm around his neck and slammed him to the ground.
I crouched next to McKay, confident that Ronon could keep the larger man down. McKay was gasping weakly, his face already showing signs of swelling and his lips faintly blue.
"You having an allergic reaction, Rodney?" I asked calmly, opening the zipper on his shirt. I didn't wait for the nodded reply and didn't bother to search McKay's vest. The man never put things in the same pocket twice. Without having to look, I ripped open a flap on my vest and pulled out an EpiPen. I had the cap screwed off, the pen in hand and the safety removed in record time. Thank God Beckett had made us practice this.
I jabbed the auto-injector into McKay's thigh and started counting.
Above and behind me I could hear angry voices. The sound of Ronon's blaster charging quieted the belligerent shouts for a few moments, but then a sullen muttering started. I wondered briefly why the Satedan had sneaked that huge handgun to the feast and then just decided to be happy he had.
I watched McKay worriedly. In typical McKay fashion he was at his quietest when he was actually sick. He locked eyes with me and his hand fisted on my jacket sleeve. I smiled as reassuringly as I could. "Don't worry. Carson'll have you fixed up in no time."
He nodded and closed his eyes. I wasn't sure, but I thought he was breathing a little easier already. I reached ten, removed the injector from his leg and started to massage the abused muscle. I managed to catch Teyla's eye and gestured for her to come over. Standing up, I left her to take over the massage and to check our patient's pulse and respirations.
I automatically stuffed the pen back into its container and screwed on the cap while taking in the chaotic scene in front of me. Ronon had McKay's attacker, who would be considered large even among this community of towering people, on the ground and was holding a knife to the man's neck. He kept the rest of the angry villagers back with the threat of his blaster.
A mug came flying out of the crowd and I threw up an arm to keep from being hit in the head. It bounced off my forearm and shattered on the ground. What the hell had started this? Was it the rejection of the drink? The spilling of the drink? McKay accidentally striking the girl? Any combination of the three or something entirely different? I decided it didn't really matter at this point. I needed to get McKay back to Atlantis as quickly as possible.
Time to stroke some ruffled feathers. I took a step toward Tajk whose normally jolly expression had darkened thunderously.
"Tajk, I'm sorry about whatever just happened. I hope that you'll accept our apology and that it won't affect the trade agreement. As you can see, McKay is sick. I need to know: does the drink that you were sharing with us contain the eashtic fruit?" I spoke as soothingly as possible. I watched as the crowd, both the men and women, shifted and muttered. Tajk, at least, seemed to be listening to me.
"It is used to flavor the brew," the leader growled back. "What has that to do with the insult this man has offered?"
"Teyla told you about McKay's weakness, that he has to eat special food? We think that he is allergic, ah, that the fruit is making him sick."
This was apparently the wrong thing to say. The muttering grew louder and the crowd moved closer. My hand dropped to my thigh, but there was no gun there. The high-pitched screech of Ronon changing the setting on his weapon caused them to hesitate.
Tajk was not so intimidated. He stepped forward until he was toe-to-toe, looming almost a full head taller than me. "It matters not. He must answer for the insult."
"Tajk, I'm not sure what exactly McKay did to offend you. Believe me, whatever it was, it was an accident. No offense was intended," I kept my tone low and reasonable, forcing myself not to back up to regain my personal space. "He'll be happy to apologize as soon as he's feeling better."
More muttering from the crowd and Tajk shook his head.
"All disagreements must be answered by sunset."
I eyed the line of the sun. It was late autumn here. The sun would be down in another hour, two at the most.
"You can see McKay's ill. He won't be able to apologize before sunset." I held up a hand when angry shouts erupted from the mob. "I'm the leader of this team. Can I apologize for him?"
The village elder hesitated briefly and then nodded. "It has been done in the past. It will be acceptable for you to take McKay's place in the hunt."
"A hunt?" I asked, confused. "Do we go on a hunt after I apologize? Or what?"
"The hunt is where you make amends for the insult," Tajk said, starting to regain his good humor. "During the hunt, any who have been insulted will track the person who gave the insult. The tracker has until sunset to catch them. Once the sun has set, all disagreements are dissolved."
Obviously I need to start asking more questions before volunteering. "What happens if I can't elude the tracker?"
Tajk blew out his cheeks and looked over his shoulder at his fellow villagers. "They're very angry, Sheppard. You could be hurt badly or worse. There are no rules, except for the time limit."
"Great," I grunted. I looked around at my team. Ronon was totally focused on being intimidating, and doing a darned fine job of it. Teyla was kneeling, taking McKay's pulse and looking worried. I really didn't have a choice in this. "I'll do it. But I want to get my people to the 'gate first. McKay needs to get to our healers."
"You may do that. The hunt will start from that point."
Tajk turned to speak to the villagers, explaining the agreement that had been reached. There was still some grumbling, but the men began breaking away from the crowd and heading toward the houses. The women started to clean up from the feast, throwing frequent glares in our direction.
I noticed that Ronon had lowered his blaster, but was still crouched over the villager, a knee on the man's chest and a knife still at his throat. "I think you can let him up now, Ronon."
"You sure?" The Satedan asked skeptically.
"I must get ready for the hunt," the villager managed to gasp out.
Wonderful, I thought, the biggest behemoth in a village of behemoths was going to be chasing me. "Yeah, let him go. We need to get McKay to the 'gate. Why don't you go get our stuff," I said, raising a brow significantly, "and we'll meet you at the tents."
Ronon was on his feet and sprinting downhill immediately. I crouched next to McKay and Teyla, "How you doing, buddy?"
"Sorry," McKay gasped, his worried gaze watching as the villager got to his feet and trotted away. "I didn't…"
"Don't worry about it. I'm almost positive you didn't do it on purpose," I teased gently, watching him worriedly. "Besides, I can outrun these guys easy."
McKay was pale and his breathing was still ragged. He managed a small smile and a thumbs-up with hands that trembled uncontrollably. I had read the literature and Beckett had lectured us on it so I knew that this was a normal reaction to the epinephrine. Still, it looked as if the cure was almost as bad as the illness.
"Let's get you up and get back to the stargate."
Teyla and I got McKay on his feet, his arms draped over our shoulders. We started downhill, stopping only briefly at the tents where Ronon was waiting with our weapons. He supported McKay while Teyla and I clipped the P-90's to our vests and strapped on our holsters.
"Want me to carry you?" Ronon offered when he noticed how shaky McKay was.
"No, no, no. I can do it." McKay waved off the offer and managed to stagger several steps in the wrong direction before we got our shoulders back under his flailing arms.
"Of course you can," Teyla murmured encouragingly while dodging a finger that had been headed for her eye.
We continued the hike back to the 'gate. Ronon loped in a large circle around us, scouting ahead and keeping an eye on our six. We were within a few hundred meters of the 'gate when he trotted back up.
"The villagers are coming up behind us, maybe two hundred meters. Looks like most of the men," he reported.
"Terrific," I said, tightening my grip on McKay's belt. "Well, Tajk said the hunt would start at the stargate. Is there anyone at the 'gate now?"
"Okay, we'll –" I broke off as the timbre of McKay's breathing changed, becoming raspier, shallower. I turned and saw the puffiness had gotten worse and red blotches had appeared on his cheeks and neck. "Crap. Get him down."
I pulled out a second EpiPen and had it ready by the time McKay was on the ground. I pushed the needle into the side of McKay's thigh and started counting.
"Teyla, run ahead and dial up the 'gate. Let Beckett know he's got a patient," I ordered. I waited while she and Ronon changed places propping up their ill teammate in a semi-reclining position. Teyla got to her feet and quickly disappeared around a bend of the path. I massaged the injection site while counting McKay's breaths and then taking his pulse. "Ronon, I –"
"'m gonna be sick," McKay mumbled just before he started to vomit. We quickly rolled him onto his side and waited helplessly while he retched. We could offer him physical support and sympathy, but not much else.
I looked back up the path toward the village. The locals were getting nearer. It sounded as if they were singing, but I couldn't make out the words or determine if they were angry or back to their usual cheerful selves. They didn't seem to be in a hurry to reach the stargate. I looked back at McKay who had stopped heaving and flopped back to rest against Ronon's supporting arm.
"Sorry to do this to you, Rodney, but I want to get you to Beckett as fast as possible," I said, gripping McKay's shoulder. I looked up at Ronon. "Can you carry him the rest of the way? I want you guys through the 'gate before the locals show up, in case they change their minds about letting you go."
"No problem," Ronon said, getting to his feet. He easily pulled a weakly protesting McKay up into a fireman's carry.
We moved off at a fast pace, not quite jogging in deference to the queasy and barely conscious McKay.
"Here. Make sure Beckett gets these." I held out the two spent EpiPens. In my comm I heard Teyla speaking to Atlantis Control. "Be sure to tell Doc about the villager choking McKay. I'm sure he's going to end up with some colorful bruises from that."
"I'll tell him," Ronon promised, taking the pens and stuffing them in a pocket without breaking stride. "I don't like you staying here. You should come through the 'gate with us."
"I'm not wild about it myself," I confessed. "But Dr. Weir wants to help these people, whether they want it or not. I don't think the trade agreement is going to stand if I don't stay to resolve the disagreement. Besides," I added confidently, "it's only an hour, hour and a half before sundown. And these guys don't look like long distance runners. I can keep ahead of them for that long, no problem."
Ronon shot me a look, a skeptical eyebrow raised. "Maybe."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
We emerged from the tree line into the meadow where the stargate was located, the shimmering silver-blue of the event horizon already filling its center. Teyla was by the DHD, watching the woods anxiously. I reached up and keyed my mike on.
"Atlantis, this is Sheppard."
"Colonel Sheppard, what's going on?" Elizabeth asked, sounding confused and concerned. "Teyla said Rodney is ill and you have to make a formal apology for something he did?"
I almost laughed. "Yeah, that's the short version. Teyla and Ronon can give you the details. I should be finished here within an hour or so."
We had reached the stargate and I urged my team to go through. Ronon and Teyla both hesitated, obviously wanting to stay, but I shook my head and pointed to the event horizon. I sighed in relief as the last fold of Ronon's coat disappeared into the wormhole.
"Elizabeth, I'm going to shut down the 'gate before the villagers get here." I could hear the locals getting closer. They were definitely singing. "If you don't hear from me within, say, three hours, send Lorne and a team through in a jumper. But I really don't think it'll be necessary."
"John, I don't like you staying there without any backup. Let me send a team now. Lorne can have one there within five minutes."
I glanced up as the villagers appeared on the path. The song broke off. They paused briefly, then a roar erupted and they thundered toward the stargate. Oh, crap.
"Gotta go, Elizabeth. See you in a couple hours."
I heard Elizabeth start to protest as I disengaged the wormhole. I knew I was going to hear about this when I got back to the City.
I moved forward to meet the shouting crowd. They never slowed down, knocking me to the ground in their stampede to the stargate. Several people stepped on me before I could curl up in a protective ball. I wrapped my arms around my head and hoped they didn't decide to make a second pass at me.
After a moment I noticed that the ground was no longer shaking and the bellowing had stopped. I uncurled slowly, wincing at sore muscles. Oh, yeah, there were going to be some big bruises.
Large, hide-wrapped feet attached to long, sturdy legs moved into my line of sight. I followed the legs up and up until I reached Tajk's smiling face.
"Are you ready to start the hunt?"
I got to my feet, keeping a wary eye on the men who had formed a loose circle around me, Tajk and the DHD. I pressed a hand to a rib that was creaking ominously. "I'm ready."
The village elder smiled happily and clapped me on the back, almost sending me to my knees again. "Good. Good. Harik, open the doorway to the hunting grounds."
"Wait a second. You didn't tell me that this was going to take place on another world. Where are we going?" I demanded as the young behemoth who had tried to choke McKay dialed a 'gate address.
"Oh, yes, Sheppard, when a hunt is necessary there are many hard feelings. We take them to the hunting grounds and leave them there. This way we will always be at peace here at Home."
I cursed myself for not asking more questions earlier. But there really hadn't been the time. Getting McKay to Atlantis had been more important. I watched as the wormhole formed. So there would be no rescue – or a severely delayed rescue, at best – if things went wrong. The crowd cheered and I noticed for the first time that more than half the men were armed with bows and arrows. One man was carrying a trio of slender spears.
"Are all of these men going to be hunting me?" I asked, starting to worry that making it through the hunt unscathed would be harder than I had originally thought.
"All in the village were insulted by McKay's actions, so all would normally be allowed to participate. But because you are not from among us, and are not used to our ways, we have decided that only ten will participate in the hunt," Tajk explained cheerfully while escorting me toward the stargate. "They drew lots for the privilege."
"Terrific." I noticed we weren't being followed. "Aren't they coming?"
Tajk didn't bother to look back. "Not now. They will follow after two angles of the sun have passed. Come."
We stepped into the shimmering event horizon. A brief eternity later we stepped out onto sun-baked ground. A searing-white sun sent heat beating down on our heads.
Tajk shook himself like a dog. "I don't like walking through the doorway," he said somberly, looking around our new surroundings. "I don't like it here."
I didn't blame him. The landscape of these 'hunting fields' reminded me of the deserts of the southwestern United States. Or Afghanistan. The ground was hard-packed and cracked dirt, pale and dusty. The colors were neutral – beige, light brown, grey and dusty rust; no vibrant colors which would indicate a presence of abundant water, as far as the eye could see. There were scrubby trees and bushes, but they were sparse and widely spaced. Rocks of all sizes were abundant.
A couple dozen meters from the stargate there was a gully that looked like a dried streambed. I followed the depression with my eyes until it disappeared in the distance. There were boulders and eruptions of rocks scattered about, mesas and in the far distance – too many kilometers away to reach in one day on foot – I could see mountains. It was beautiful if you liked deserts, but desolate.
"It's pretty bleak here," I said in agreement.
"Too many hard feelings have been left here. It seeps into the land."
I nodded agreeably and then cleared my throat. "So, what do I do now? Just take off and hide?"
Tajk shook his head, a poor facsimile of his usual grin tugging at his mouth. "No, you may only take one knife with you. You must remove all of your tools and other weapons. I will keep them here until the hunt is complete. You may take them with you when you leave or I will make sure they are given to your people."
Trying not to think about why someone else might need to return my stuff, I unclipped my P-90, unzipped my vest and popped the releases on my holster. I transferred my knife sheath to a back pocket. I had planned to keep my jacket even though I was slowly roasting in it, but Tajk indicated that it had to stay, along with my canteen. Before dropping the half-full canteen on the pile, I guzzled the entire contents. It left me feeling uncomfortably full, even after a belch escaped me. At the elder's embarrassed insistence I turned out my pockets to show I wasn't hiding anything.
When I was finally allowed to go I paused and looked over to where Tajk was settling down in the shade of the DHD. "Can you tell me how long it is until the sun sets here?"
The village elder squinted up at the incandescent sun. "I would say it is about eighteen or nineteen angles before the sun drops below the mountains."
"Is that angles of Home's sun?" Receiving a nod in agreement I did some rapid calculations. Between eleven and twelve hours was the figure I came up with. Great. Elizabeth was going to kill me if I survived this.
I crouched down. "Listen, Tajk. I thought the hunt would take place on Home. My leader, Dr. Weir, is expecting me back in one or two angles. She'll send someone when I'm late. You should have someone contact her and let her know this will take longer than I originally thought. I can show you how to use my radio, my communication device."
"No one may leave until the hunt is completed." Tajk shook his head when I started to protest. "No one. Do not worry; what is meant to be will come to pass. Now hurry. You have a little more than one angle to hide. Oh, and watch out for the lizards."
With that cryptic comment he closed his eyes and turned his face away. I started to ask which action of McKay's had caused the problem, but Tajk waved me away before I got more than a few words out.
I took the hint and started jogging in the direction opposite the streambed, setting an easy pace. I had already put in a full day of labor before this fiasco began. Physically tired, with no food or water – it was going to be a long twelve hours.
I did my best to stay on the rock-hard dirt or on actual rocks to conceal my tracks. When I was about a kilometer from the 'gate I made a ninety-degree turn and continued running. Another two klicks, I turned again and was now moving back toward the dry streambed. I planned to stay within two or three klicks of the 'gate unless the hunters forced me further away.
When I was within meters of the gully, a flash to my right caught my attention. It was the stargate activating. I automatically dived behind a nearby boulder although I doubted they would be able to spot me at this distance. The shimmer of the event horizon was briefly visible before it winked out. I could barely make out ant-sized figures moving about, but it looked as if they were splitting up.
Staying bent over, I ran the last few meters to the streambed and leaped down the bank. Now that I was closer I could see that the streambed did not end, but continued on into a very narrow canyon, the entrance no more than two or three meters across.
I put on a burst of speed until I reached the passage cut into the rock. Once in the relative dimness of the canyon I slowed down to give my eyes a chance to adjust.
The walls of the canyon rose twenty meters overhead, narrowing further the higher they went. Most of the light was blocked and it felt as if the temperature dropped ten degrees once I was away from the entrance. The height and width of the passage fluctuated as I moved further into the canyon. I continued for another 100 meters and then ducked into a small niche to rest.
I sat and leaned back against the relatively cool rock wall and tried not to think about how thirsty I was already. Unless I accidentally stumbled across a source of water, or it started raining, I wasn't going to have anything to drink until this was over. There was no time to explore or dig for it. I knew that I could survive the next eleven or so hours without water, it just wouldn't be comfortable.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax. I was wondering how McKay was doing when I heard a faint scrabbling sound. A moment later I felt something crawling up my leg.
My eyes flew open.
The hand that had started toward my knife relaxed and fell back to my side. I chuckled quietly. A small, dust-colored lizard, no longer than my hand, stared back at me. Its little claws flashed as it turned rapidly from side to side, its stubby tail pointing toward the sky.
Chuckling again, I reached a finger out to the little reptile, intending to nudge it off my knee. It froze for a moment, startled. Suddenly flipping end-for-end, the tail snapped straight out and a blob of greenish liquid splattered across the back of my hand. The lizard disappeared, leaping off my leg and scuttling into a crack in the rock wall.
I gawked at my hand in revulsion. That lizard had just shit on me! Then the skin under the oily liquid started to burn. I looked around for something to wipe my hand on, but I didn't even have my bandana with me. Finally, I scraped up a handful of the sandy dirt and used it to scrub the back of my hand. By the time I had removed all of the excrement several blisters had formed and the burning sensation remained.
The things I put up with to fulfill my duty to Atlantis.
I decided that I had rested enough. Getting to my feet I stuck my head back out into the main passage. The view became a blank rock wall within ten meters in either direction. The passage had changed directions twice during the first 100 meters as I was running in. It made hiding easier, but hearing an opponent sneaking up was nearly impossible. Sounds echoed off of the rock walls, confusing direction and distance.
I heard voices and ducked back into my niche. I pressed into the darkest corner – after checking for lizards.
The sound of the voices was getting nearer. They called back and forth to each other – reporting on possible tracks and the bantering comments made between friends. I was watching the passage waiting for the hunters to pass and was startled when shadows moved inside my niche. I glanced up just in time to get a face full of dirt. It had been kicked over the edge as one of the hunters jumped from one side of the crevasse to the other. I caught a glimpse of flapping braids and a quiver full of arrows knocking against a broad back as I blinked watery eyes, trying to clear them of grit.
I waited until the sound of the hunters faded away before leaving my niche again and moving deeper into the canyon.
The next several hours were spent in almost constant movement as I did my best to remain unseen. And to avoid the damned lizards. Another had attacked me and squirted its acid crap on my pants leg. The abused material was looking pretty thin.
I wove in and out of the various passages. Twice I had to duck down another passage when a hunting party stomped past. Several times I followed a passage upward until I reached the mesa. I stayed up there until a search party got close and then moved back down into the maze of the canyon's passageways.
I tried to stay out of direct sunlight. Squinting to see in the harsh light from the incandescent orb made my eyes ache, brought on a pounding headache and did nothing to help my growing thirst. And I wanted to avoid casting a shadow.
Evading the hunting parties was fairly easy. Apparently they didn't believe in stealth. They talked and laughed incessantly. The bits and pieces I picked up all seemed to concern how they were going to mete out punishment for the insult. The more gruesome the penalty, the louder and longer the laughter. And I still had no idea what the insult had been.
I wedged the fingers of my right hand into a crack in the wall above my head and found another bump for my left to hold onto. My foot felt around for something to push against. The new combat boots issued by the SGC were great for hiking and ankle support, but really sucked when trying to free-climb a rock wall. A hissed curse burst out of me as my feet slipped off of their tiny purchases and all my weight hung on my fingers. There was at least five meters between my feet and the ground and I really didn't want to start the climb over. I pulled up slightly with my arms and felt for the ledge with my foot again. I knew it was there, I had seen it as I climbed past. With a relieved sigh I felt my foot brush over the ledge. I wedged the side of my foot on top of it and pushed up, changing first one and then the other hand hold. The next foothold was found easily and I moved upward.
When I was just below the edge of the crevasse rim I leaned against the wall, taking a brief rest and listening. Releasing the grip of one hand at a time, I shook out cramped and scraped fingers. I had heard at least three of the hunt groups search the area above me. Hopefully I would be able to take a short rest once I finished climbing this wall.
I listened for several minutes and heard nothing but the wind blowing through the dry foliage. I reached for the edge of the crevasse and then froze.
Tiny, clawed feet skittered up my back and around my shoulder. I tried to hold still, but something must have startled the lizard. It performed its patented 360 spin and snapped its tail at my face. I ducked and turned my head. The feeling of lizard shit smacking into the side of my neck had me gritting my teeth in disgusted frustration. Satisfied that it had defeated its enemy, the little bastard scurried up my arm and over the top of the wall.
I tried to ignore the burning when it began. There was nothing I could do while hanging on a wall. I reached up to pull myself over the edge. My eyes had just cleared the top when a pair of size fifteen moccasins stepped into view.
I followed the line of the knee-high footwear, past the hand clenched around the shaft of a bow. Braids flapped around a belligerent face as a pleased bellow shattered the quiet. A ham-sized fist reached for me. I didn't hesitate, kicking away from the wall and dropping back into the canyon. I kept my knees flexed to absorb the shock of the drop, but rocks rolled under my feet when I landed and I ended up on my back.
I scrambled to my feet and sprinted toward the main passage of the maze. I was about to duck around the corner when a stinging pain caused my right leg to wobble. It threw me off balance and I staggered around the bend and fell. I heard a snapping noise and the sting blazed up into full-blown pain. Another arrow splintered against the wall by my head.
A pained yelp escaped me before I could stop myself. Cursing, I got back to my feet and took off. Excited yells echoed on the rock around me.
I ran as fast as I could, one eye on the passageway and one on the cliffs over my head. Keeping track of direction and distance from the stargate was abandoned. My only thoughts now were on staying ahead of the hunters. Several times I saw shadows racing along the edges and pressed myself against the wall, praying the hunters would not look down or that there was enough overhang to hide me.
During one of those pauses I took the opportunity to check my leg. Quick glances behind me as I ran had reassured me that there was no blood trail. My fingers found where the arrow shaft had broken off and probed around it, trying to figure out how deeply embedded the head was. The pain, exponentially worse than when I was running, convinced me to stop. I wasn't going to try to pull it out and with a piece of the shaft protruding it was impossible to bandage with strips cut from my shirt. From the dampness on the back of my leg I knew it was bleeding, but it wasn't bad at this point.
I leaned against the wall and closed my eyes. I was tired. I ached all over. And I was thirsty enough now that the thought of a flash flood was not nearly as scary as it had been when I had first entered this canyon.
Opening my eyes, I stared at one of those damned lizards as it glared at me from the opposite wall. Screw it. Sighing, I pushed away from the wall and started walking again. I didn't even flinched when I felt a load of the biological ammo smack me on the back. The lizards were fast approaching the same status as the iratus bug in my mind.
Half an hour later I was looking for a place that would be relatively safe to hole up in for a while. I was limping badly and wanted someplace out of the sun to give my burning eyes a rest. There were still another five or six hours left before sunset. I hadn't heard a hunting party recently and I desperately needed a chance to catch my breath.
I was backing out of another rejected corridor – too many lizards – when I heard a rattle of pebbles. My hand automatically dropped to my knife and I looked around. No shadows moved and I didn't hear any of the usual chatter, but better safe than sorry. I started toward the nearest branching. I had almost reached the turn when I heard another mini-avalanche of pebbles.
Picking up the pace, I glanced over my shoulder. There was still no movement that I could see. I looked forward as I turned the corner and the ground disappeared under my feet.
The fall was just far enough to drive the air from my lungs when I hit. I tumbled down the slope, the steepness of the grade not allowing me to get control of the skid. I bounced off a couple of the larger rocks. More bruised ribs and a hip. The final bounce at the bottom slammed me into a boulder.
The sound of a bone snapping was loud to my ears. If there had been any air in my lungs a scream of pain would have reverberated over the desert. As it was, I lay on the scraggly bushes where I had fallen, gasping whimpers escaping me.
My mind was blank, unable to focus on anything but pain. A trickle of blood slid down the side of my face. For a few seconds I couldn't remember why I had come to the desert or how I had been injured. I decided it must have been a chopper crash and I had been thrown clear.
I lifted my head to look for the craft and came face to face with a lizard.
Memory rushed back. I managed to throw up a hand and the fecal blast sprayed across my palm.
"Damn it," I gasped weakly and scrubbed my hand on the rocky soil.
I rolled onto my left side and pushed into a sitting position, trying to keep my right arm as still as possible. Each movement jarred it and sent fresh waves of pain radiating up and down the limb. I finally looked at the arm and had to swallow back nausea.
My right upper arm was definitely broken, the bone displaced. The skin had not been broken, but the arm looked deformed and was noticeably shorter than the left one.
"Good one, John," I mocked myself. "Nice to see all the years of training and experience paying off today. Watch where you're going next time."
On the bright side, my leg didn't seem to hurt as much as before.
The rattle of pebbles reminded me where I was. I looked around as best as I could from my current position, but didn't see any movement. Probably one of those damned lizards.
I looked up the slope I had just rolled down, spotting the crack in the rock wall where I had emerged. To my amateur eye it didn't look as if I had left a trail on the rocky incline, but the bushes I had landed in were a bit crumpled looking. I couldn't stay out in the open like this. And I sure wasn't climbing back up the hill.
Gritting my teeth, I gingerly tucked my right hand into the waistband of my pants, the best I could do to immobilize it at this point. I moved the knife to my left pocket and braced a hand against the slope for balance as I got to my feet. That was when I noticed the darker shadow behind a clump of bushes.
Staggering to my feet, I moved over until I could push the branches aside. There was an opening, maybe a half meter high and less than a meter wide. The angle of the sun allowed me to see far enough into the hillside to tell that it widened out after a meter or so. After that it was too dark to see what was in there. I picked up a rock and threw it into the darkness. There was a scrabbling noise and half a dozen lizards scurried out. Thankfully they didn't take the time to acknowledge me as they passed by. Another rock produced a few more lizards. The sound of the rock bouncing around in the dark hole seemed to indicate that there was a larger space further in.
I stood swaying tiredly, trying to decide what to do. I rolled my tongue around in my mouth, trying to generate enough moisture to get rid of the dusty feeling. From what I had seen when I was up above earlier, I was pretty sure I was about five kilometers from the 'gate now. I had meant to stay within two or three, if possible, which meant I needed to move closer. And I really didn't want to crawl into that dark hole with a bunch of lizards.
I managed to limp almost ten meters before a muscle spasm in my right arm nearly sent me to my knees. It convinced me I wasn't going to be able to stay on my feet and keep moving until sunset.
I looked back toward the cave and sighed. Elizabeth and McKay better appreciate the sacrifices I make for them. Whatever it was that McKay did, it will have to have been of galactic proportions to make crawling into that cave worth it.
Walking back to the cave I did my best to wipe out all traces that I had been here, although there wasn't much I could do with the crumpled bushes where I had landed.
I backed into the opening, trying not to disturb the bushes there. Kneeling, then flattening to my belly, I began crawling backwards. Despite my best efforts my arm was continually jolted. I gnawed my lip to keep from crying out.
Lizards hurried past me out into the sunlight. I felt several more shots of the acid crap hit my legs and back. Any hope I might've entertained of salvaging this uniform was dead.
My feet bumped into a wall. The dim wash of light from the entrance was just a few centimeters in front of my head. I pushed up from the ground slowly, not wanting to bang my head. When I was on my knees I reached up – nothing over my head. Stretching toward the cave opening I felt rock.
I leaned forward to brace against the wall as I stood and staggered, jarring my broken arm when my left hand slipped. When the muscle spasm finally passed I got back up on my knees and felt around above the opening. There was a ledge. It was as deep as my arm and almost long enough to lie on. Unfortunately, the low curved ceiling wouldn't allow me to sit up straight.
"Hey, Marcai! Something's disturbed these bushes."
Startled by the voice almost directly outside of my cave, I backed away from the entrance, cracking my head on the low ceiling. How had they managed to get so close without me noticing? I must be more tired than I thought.
"Do you see any tracks, Rop?" That must be Marcai.
"There are a couple of smudges going that way. What's that over there?"
"I'll check it."
I scuffed my feet around on the hard-packed dirt- and rock-covered floor of the cave, trying to disguise any footprints, and then climbed painfully up on the ledge. I caught my breath on a moan when I accidentally knocked my injured arm against the wall. Pressing as far back on the ledge as I could, I pulled out my knife and waited tensely.
"Watch out for lizards," Rop called.
Both men laughed at this, while I bit back a snarl. I heard the bushes being pushed aside and more light spilled into the small chamber. A torch appeared, closely followed by a head. The hunter glanced around quickly and then backed out again.
A small herd of lizards suddenly appeared out of the darkness and dashed toward the light. The sound of Marcai's disgusted yells and Rop's laughter drowned out my own appreciative chuckle. Sweet revenge. McKay was lucky I didn't have a way to catch a couple of the filthy reptiles.
I leaned against the wall, my left hand gingerly cradling my right elbow. Closing my eyes, I listened to Marcai's grumbles as the two left the vicinity.
The cave was dark and smelled of lizards. But it was out of the sun and a place to hide while I rested. I would stay here for a few more minutes and then start working my way back toward the stargate.
I woke from a nightmare of being chased by giant lizards with long blonde braids. I sat up with a shout, banged my head on the low ceiling and almost tipped off the shelf. Trying to catch myself caused a new round of muscle spasms in my arm. I forgot the arrow in my leg and swung my legs around to hang off the edge of the ledge. The arrow shaft jabbed deeper into my leg. I ended up on my feet, hunched over and gasping in pain.
I finally noticed that it was pitch-black in the cave.
A hunting party had wandered by each time I had thought about leaving the safety of the cave. I had spent the remaining hours watching the light slowly vanish. The last thing I remembered, I'd still been able to make out my hand in front of my face. I must have dozed off. I was amazed that I had managed to fall asleep, let alone stay that way long enough for night to fall.
When the pain receded to manageable levels I dropped stiffly to my knees and crawled outside. I stopped when my head emerged and listened for several minutes. Nothing but the wind. A lone lizard dropped onto my head from the slope above and dashed down my back and into the cave.
I inched the rest of the way out, trying to ignore the pain radiating from my arm. Getting to my feet, I looked around. There was only one small moon visible, down near the horizon. No movement. Maybe Tajk had been telling the truth when he said that all hostilities would end at sunset. I hoped it was true. I didn't think I'd be able to run away if someone decided to chase me, much less stand and fight. I don't think I'd ever felt so close to giving up.
I shivered. Like all deserts, the temperature had dropped drastically after sundown. The day had reminded me of my time in Afghanistan where 120 degree days were common. I was willing to bet it was in the 50's now and likely to drop lower. My sweat-dampened clothes stuck to me uncomfortably in the cool breeze. I shivered again and started walking.
I was pretty sure I was headed toward the stargate. I hoped I had not gotten completely turned around during my last dash through the maze of the canyon.
How long I walked I'm not sure. My injured leg felt hot and swollen now, but I limped as fast as I could. Every rock I stumbled over caused the pain in my arm to flare up. I zoned out as I walked, rousing briefly when I floundered over uneven ground or into a bush or tree. The single moon dropped below the horizon quickly, leaving only starlight. And then clouds started gathering, obscuring even that light source. I had to concentrate on staying on my feet and walking. The cold was a welcomed irritant that helped to keep me semi-alert in my beyond-exhausted state.
I almost fell into the dry streambed near the stargate. Only some fast footwork sent me backward to land on my butt instead of tumbling into the overgrown ditch. An involuntary grunt of pain escaped me as I landed, jarring both my leg and arm. I curled to one side, cradling the arm and trying to pant through the pain.
"Sheppard, is that you?"
The sound of Tajk calling out sent a surge of adrenaline rushing through me. I cursed and looked around for something to hide behind. There was nothing nearby. Resigned, I gazed across the gully. I could just make out the silhouette of the large village elder near the DHD and stargate. I pushed myself painfully to my feet and waited.
"I was beginning to think the boys were wrong and that one of them managed to kill you," Tajk called out cheerfully. "I was afraid I was going to have to return your belongings to your people. I'm pretty sure that you dying would have killed off the trade agreement."
The rush of adrenaline had given me a brief second wind. My body was under the mistaken impression that I wasn't as tired as it thought I had been, but I still wasn't sure I had heard right. Tajk expected the trade agreement to go on? Was this good news or bad?
"Well, what are you waiting for, man? I'm freezing my balls off here. Let's go home." The elder stomped in a small circle and flapped his arms, trying to keep warm.
I decided to take Tajk at face value and accept that he wasn't waiting to finish me off. I wanted to go home and he was standing next to my transportation. I made it across the gully without falling, despite the wind trying to push me over. As I neared the 'gate Tajk indicated my pile of gear near the DHD.
"Thanks," I said hoarsely. I knelt and dug my comm and GDO out of the vest. I put on the earpiece but fastened the wristband of the GDO around a belt loop.
"Hape said he thought he had shot you. And it looks like you ran into a couple of lizards – nasty buggers. How'd you break your arm?"
"Fell down a hill." I jiggled the canteen hopefully, but it was still empty. I started gathering up my gear. It was tough to do with only one hand and with the wind trying to whip away anything not nailed down. I finally got everything bundled together using the straps on the vest and silently praised the inventor of velcro.
"Sorry, I drank all of my water or I'd give you some. It gets very hot here during the day," Tajk said, smiling good-humoredly. He paused a moment, then sidled nearer and asked quietly, "Will Dr. Weir want to continue the trade agreement? I know we've had a bit of trouble today, but this is important to my people if we are to make it through the winter."
I looked up at the hulking native. Much as I wanted to, I was almost positive Elizabeth would disapprove of me giving him my candid opinion of him and the rest of his psychotically jolly group.
"I'll talk to Dr. Weir. I'm sure something can be worked out." I moved to the DHD and started dialing Atlantis. The clouds that had been gathering chose that moment to open up and release their burden. Large individual drops quickly became a deluge. I was soaked through in just a few moments and colder than before. Great. The perfect ending. At least some of the lizard shit would be washed off.
I rubbed my aching head and wiped water out of my eyes. It reminded me of the burning question. "Tajk, I've got to ask. What did McKay do? Was it spilling the drink? Or because he touched the girl? Or… what?"
The large man squirmed uncomfortably. He finally muttered something behind his hand just as the wormhole whooshed into existence.
I shook my head in confusion. "I'm sorry. I couldn't hear what you said."
Tajk shuffled his feet on the muddy ground, his huge hands flapping in a non-graceful parody of McKay's eloquent gestures. Finally, his dripping braids whipped around when he shook his head. "Do not ask me to say it again," he begged sorrowfully. "It was the worst of insults. It distresses me even to think about it."
I stared at him in frustration. What could I say to that? What could I do? As quickly as the adrenaline had perked me up, it drained away and I sagged against the DHD.
I felt defeated. I had gone through all of this and still didn't know the cause. I fumbled the GDO around so that I could see it and keyed in my code awkwardly. My hand was shaking, from the cold or exhaustion I didn't know. Or care, at this point.
My comm clicked before I could think of another way to get Tajk to spill the beans.
"Colonel Sheppard, is that you? Where are you?" Elizabeth asked, sounding relieved and anxious.
"Yeah, it's me. I don't know. Can I come home?" I pointed to my comm so that Tajk would know who I was speaking with.
"The shield is down. You can come through."
I picked up my vest and squelched toward the 'gate. I'd leave it up to Elizabeth to try to understand the social etiquette of Home. "Tajk, I apologize again for the misunderstanding. I'm sure Dr. Weir will send someone in a couple days to finish up the agreement."
A huge smile broke across the elder's face. "There is no need to apologize. All hard feelings will be left here, and it will never be spoken of again. I'm happy we can continue as trade partners."
Tajk's ham sized hand came up and slapped me on the back before I could dodge out of the way. The shock jangled along the nerve endings of my arm, starting another muscle spasm. My breath escaped on a gasp and I gritted my teeth to keep from yelling at the other man. When I could unclench my jaw I pasted a sickly smile back on my face. "Good-bye, Tajk."
I stepped into the event horizon almost missing the "Be well!" called after me.
I emerged into the familiar 'gate room and kept going, limping toward the corridor leading to the infirmary. I heard the shield engaging, followed almost immediately by the rushing sound of the wormhole closing. The marines on 'gate duty lowered their P-90's. From the corner of my eye I could see Elizabeth hurrying down the stairs from Control. I knew if I stopped now I'd never make it on my own. And I couldn't face being wheeled through the corridors of Atlantis on a gurney today. Not after the day I'd just had.
I wasn't aware I was dragging my gear until one of the marines took it from me with a quiet, "Let me take that for you, sir."
"Thanks, Haas." I didn't look around, just kept walking.
"John," Elizabeth appeared at my side, an appalled expression on her face. "My God, what happened to you?"
She reached out as if to touch me. I jerked away, almost staggering into a column in the middle of the corridor.
"How's McKay?" I asked. First things first. And I didn't want to think about how I felt or why I felt that way, right now. I'd check on McKay and make sure everything was okay there. Then I could give an initial report and let Beckett look at my injuries.
"He's doing better," Elizabeth said, watching me with concern as I rounded a corner. I had to put out a hand to keep from listing into the wall. "Carson took him off the ventilator a few hours ago. Says he'll be fine. John, what –," she tried again.
I waved the question off. "Not yet, Elizabeth. Let me do this first."
We turned at the main infirmary doors and I led the way down the inside corridor to the in-patient beds. Apparently business was slow, only one of the beds was occupied. I frowned when I saw that no one was sitting at the bedside.
"Where are Teyla and Ronon?" I asked, moving closer to stare down at the snoring McKay.
"They waited until Rodney was breathing on his own and then joined Lorne's team on P9D-224," Elizabeth said quietly. "They're being recalled now."
"I wasn't there," I muttered. I was so out of it that when I heard her walking away I didn't even find it odd.
McKay was a little paler than normal, but the frightening blue tinge was gone from his lips. The swelling and the red blotches had faded, but vivid purple bruises decorated his neck now. He was wired to the EKG and had a blood-gas monitor clipped to his forefinger. Nasal cannula and an IV completed the picture. He stopped in mid-snore with a snort and rolled onto his side. A frown crossed his face when the wires and tubing didn't follow him. His hand came up and started to tug at the nasal cannula.
I reached out and moved the hand back down where it belonged. "Leave that alone, Rodney," I said quietly.
McKay's eyes fluttered open and he licked at dry lips. "Colonel, did you need something?"
"No, nothing. Just checking on you."
"Okay," he mumbled, eyes closing again. Another frown creased his forehead. "You don't look so good. You should let Carson look at you."
"Thanks. I will in a little while. Go back to sleep," I said with a smile. As I watched, he fell back to sleep. I heard footsteps and turned, thinking Teyla and Ronon had returned. I was surprised to see Elizabeth coming back into the ward, followed closely by Beckett. I gestured toward McKay. "He's going to be okay?"
"Aye, he'll be fine. I'll probably kick him out of here by tomorrow night – or actually tonight considering the time," Beckett said, eyeing me with professional concern. I knew I looked the worse for wear, exhausted, filthy and shivering in a wet uniform. I couldn't smell it anymore myself, but I knew I had to stink to high heaven too.
"Colonel Sheppard, why don't you come with me?" Beckett urged. "We'll get you out of those wet clothes and into a nice warm blanket. And I'll take care of that arm for you."
He reached out to take my good arm, probably to steer me toward an exam room. God knows I was tempted to go with him, but I knew that once I relaxed I wasn't going to be getting back up for quite a while. I took a step back and waved him away.
"No. Someone should stay here. I'll wait until Teyla or Ronon get back. I can give you a verbal report while we wait."
"John, I don't need a report right now. I can stay with Rodney," Elizabeth offered quietly. "You should go with Carson and let him take care of you."
"Why don't we just step over to the next bed? We can start the exam here," Beckett suggested, quickly stepping over and turning on the light at the head of the bed. "Now, Colonel. You look as if you're about to collapse. I really don't want to have to pick you up off the floor."
I eyed the bed with longing. "Doc, if I get in that bed I'm not getting back out. And I really want – need – a shower."
"Sorry, but that's not going to happen tonight."
I limped over and leaned on the bed. Beckett reached up and pulled the privacy screen and then keyed his comm. He spoke to the physician's assistant on night duty. The only part that caught my attention was the mention of warm blankets. I was still shivering and they sounded like heaven.
Beckett had me remain standing while he cut off my uniform, even snipping through the laces of my boots. When he was cutting off my pants he finally noticed the piece of wood sticking out of my leg.
"What's this, then? Another splinter?"
I shook my head. "Arrow." I hissed as he probed the wound.
"An arrow?" Elizabeth exclaimed on the other side of the screen. "Oh, John, I'm sorry I ever insisted on setting up a trade agreement with those people."
Beckett carefully helped me get onto the bed and snatched two pillows from a nearby bed to prop up my leg. A sheet was pulled up to preserve my modesty. I lay back with a grateful sigh, hoping the warm blankets would get there soon. He started taking my vitals, making notations on a pc tablet.
"The rest of the injuries I did to myself," I confessed. "I was clumsy. Well, the lizards caused the burns, but they startle easily."
"Lizards?" she asked, sounding confused.
"The lizard sh – uh, crap burns like acid. And there are a lot of them."
"The science teams never reported any animals like that on P9D-224."
I could feel myself fading. Not sleepy, but disconnected. The only thing keeping me conscious was the pain. "I wasn't on P9D-224. They take all of their disagreements to another planet and leave all their hard feelings there. That's what Tajk said anyway. Seems to work for them." I could hear my voice starting to slur.
A rumbling sound heralded the arrival of the PA, pushing an overloaded instrument tray in front of her and pulling the portable x-ray behind. Beckett was clicking his tongue over all my bruises and scrapes. He prodded my abdomen and felt along my ribcage, whipping out his stethoscope to listen to my lungs. He leaned in close to examine the burns on my hands and the side of my neck, hmmm-ing non-committally. In the meantime, the PA got an IV started and then began setting up the x-ray machine.
"Did you hit your head at all, Colonel?" Beckett murmured as he ran his hands over my head, pausing briefly over the lump on my forehead, and then pulled out his penlight. I winced away from the light and shook my head.
"No, that's the one thing I didn't manage to do," I said with tired cheerfulness. I sighed happily when a warmed blanket was spread over me.
"Well, you've bunged yourself up right well, but nothing we can't fix," Beckett announced, making more notes on the tablet. "Gretchen, get some pictures of his head first. If they're clear, Colonel, I'll give you something for the pain before we x-ray your arm and leg. I'm going to put you under to remove that arrow and we'll set your arm at the same time."
I nodded my understanding. I was so tired now I could probably sleep without the extra aid, but I wasn't going to reject anything that would numb the persistent pain in my arm and leg. I cooperated by lying quietly as the x-rays of my head were taken. Beckett and the PA disappeared to do whatever mysterious things are done with x-rays.
I stared up at the ceiling tiles for a few minutes, trying to work up a last burst of energy. Failing at that, I tried for a distraction. "Elizabeth, would you open the curtain, please?"
She pulled back the privacy screen so that I could watch McKay, who was still snoring away. I appreciated that she didn't try to talk to me, although I could see she wanted to. She just sat and offered quiet support. After a few minutes I heard footsteps hurrying up the corridor and looked around in time to see Ronon and Teyla rush into the room.
I was glad to see them. "Hey, guys. You okay? Lorne and his team get back all right?"
"We are fine," Teyla finally said, examining the only parts of me visible above the blanket – my neck and head. Her nose wrinkled over the odor. "We were worried about you, Colonel. Tajk returned to Home before we received news that you had returned to Atlantis. He told us that you were alive, but injured."
"Glad you're back, Sheppard," was Ronon's quietly rumbled contribution. A sudden twinkle appeared in his eye and he added in a solemn tone, "Trying a new bug repellant?"
I chuckled, ending with a grimace as I reached over to cradle my right elbow. "It's lizard sh – crap. I told Carson I needed to take a shower first. He's never going to get this smell out of the infirmary."
Beckett reappeared at that moment with another IV bag and a syringe. "I think we might have some disinfectant that will eventually defeat it, Colonel. We'll probably have to use some of it in your sponge-bath," he teased lightly as he piggybacked the new IV to the existing one and then injected the contents of the syringe into the port taped to the back of my hand.
I felt the cool rush of the drug traveling up the vein of my arm. The pain began to back away almost immediately. I nearly whimpered in gratitude as I felt my body melting into the hospital mattress. I hadn't realized I was still that tense from pain. "Thanks, Doc. Just what I needed."
Beckett squeezed my arm. "There you go, lad. We'll give that a few minutes to work before we start jostling you about. You just rest." He looked at the others gathered around the bed. "You have maybe five minutes before he drops off. He probably won't be up to talking again before late this afternoon."
"So, he's going to be all right, Carson?" Elizabeth asked.
"Oh, aye. That arm looks to be the worst of it. It'll probably keep him from going on missions for eight to ten weeks. Barring a stubborn infection in his leg, I expect he'll be out of the infirmary within two or three days and driving us all bonkers because he's bored within four. I'll let him back on light duty when the stitches come out of his leg, probably within the week." He adjusted the flow on my IV and turned down the light over my bed. "I've a few more hours work ahead of me, so I'm off to find a cup of tea. Would anyone care to join me?"
"I would enjoy a cup of tea," Teyla said. She patted my arm in comfort. "One of us will be here when you awaken, Colonel."
I managed to smile my thanks. The drugs were starting to have the usual effect on me. I welcomed the relief from the pain, but hated the floating, out-of-control feeling that accompanied it.
I watched as Ronon dropped into the chair by McKay's bed, propped his large feet on the bed rail and appeared to fall immediately asleep. I thought that looked like a sensible thing to do. My eyes were drooping closed when I felt a small, cool hand on my shoulder and heard Elizabeth promising to catch up with the tea-drinkers.
"I'm sorry, John."
I forced my eyes back open. She still looked upset. "Don't worry about it, Elizabeth."
"I don't know how you can be so generous," she said, her voice tight. "I insisted on trying to help those people and look at what happened. They're obviously – "
"Elizabeth, stop it," I demanded, frowning as I tried to maintain my concentration. I managed to work my hand free from the blanket and started to mold waves into the material. I watched my hand in fascination; anything to stay awake. "We were all doing what needed to be done. You. Tajk. Me. Do the right thing and be willing to fight to make it work." I could feel a small grin quirking my lips and I looked up from my handiwork. "Don't apologize."
A tentative smile touched her lips. "You're a little philosophical tonight."
"It's the drugs," I confessed with a yawn. I blinked sleepily and smoothed out the waves. "You know, I still don't know what caused the problem today. I want to know, damn it. Maybe we can work on that tomorrow."
"Of course," she said, squeezing my shoulder again. "We'll talk about it more tomorrow."
"Okay," I agreed, my eyes drifting closed again. "Still… no more feasts for McKay. It's too hard on my uniforms."