Dim sunlight bathed the clearing, but under the trees was darkness. If the cloud cover ever lifted sunlight would probably filter through, but it was doubtful the denizens of the forest ever saw bright sunlight. Thick fog swirled over the clearing and lapped at the Gate like a smoky lake hiding everything lower than knee height.
"How is it, John?" Elizabeth's voice came over the radio.
"Rodney's checking for life signs." Colonel Sheppard responded quietly never taking his eyes off the tree line. Huge, freaking-giant trees dripping with moss and draped in vines stood like mute guards over the forest denizens. Underbrush filled the gaps between the trees. Plants and ferns four, maybe five feet tall jostled for growing space and limited sunlight.
Conifers dotted the large clearing mingling with birch and oak like trees. Two slender birch like trees grew close enough to put them on this world on foot instead of in the puddle jumper.
"Oh, oh yeah," Dr. McKay fumbled the life signs detector out of his vest pocket. Slowly, he scanned the area in an arc intense blue eyes focused on the screen. "A lot of life." He raised his eyes to stare thoughtfully into the abundant growth, then tapped the keys on the detector and scanned again. "No, energy signals of any kind except the DHD. I'd say the life signs are animals not people."
"You sure?" Ronon asked in his low timbre. He looked deceptively at ease as he too scanned the surroundings for any type of danger. He stood close behind McKay, but not close enough to make him nervous.
McKay gave him a disgusted look. "As sure as I can be staring at a tiny screen full of same colored dots."
Ronon frowned at him.
"Look, no energy signals means no civilization of any kind. It doesn't rule out pre-tech communities that like to shoot arrows at us, but the groupings and movements indicate browsing herds with very few individual signs which could be what passes for predators on this world, but this is the Pegasus Galaxy and it is us."
"So there could be people?" Ronon egged him on.
"Yes, of course there could be people. And if so, most likely they will want to shoot at us."
"Perhaps this will be one of our uneventful missions." Teyla replied without much conviction. "We are looking for fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables not technology or allies."
"Mmmm, which brings me back to my earlier point," McKay retorted referring to the mission briefing. The one where Dr. Weir had informed them that this would be the Daedalus' last supply run for awhile. Earth apparently needed it for the fight against the Ori. Finding fresh food supplies became the first order of business. "Shouldn't another team being doing this one?"
"The other teams are searching on other worlds, Rodney." Teyla said patiently.
Sheppard gave him a frustrated look. "Well, it won't be a mission if we don't leave the clearing. Be back in three days, Elizabeth. Hopefully, with fresh meat for the larder." Sheppard said dryly and started forward wading carefully through the thick fog well aware that literally anything could be hidden from his sight.
"I don't mind hunting game." Ronon stated with a look of anticipation.
McKay muttered, "Of course you don't, Rambo" and followed Sheppard through the fog. "Wait a minute." He stopped by the vine covered DHD and with Teyla's help cleared off the dense growth that had grown over it. He pushed a symbol and it lit up. "It appears to be undamaged. You want me to dial Atlantis to be sure it works?"
"No. If it has power, it should work." Sheppard really wanted to get on with the hunt. It had been a long time since they had a simple mission like this. One more like a vacation than work.
"Okay." McKay caught up with Sheppard.
Behind them the Gate shut down with a soft whoosh. Silence enveloped them broken only by the rustling leaves and the occasional raucous calls that sound somewhat avian. A large blue and yellow bird soared into view. It appeared to be three feet long with a wing span of ten to fifteen feet. It cast a large, wavering shadow across the fog as it glided across the clearing and disappeared into the trees behind them.
"Wow." McKay gazed at the huge bird raptly turning to watch its flight until it disappeared. "Something that big shouldn't be able to fly. That's truly amazing." Excitement tinged his voice making him seem younger than he usually did.
Beyond the clearing behind the Star Gate the land became hilly, rolling waves of tall conifers. Far, far into the distance were mountains that appeared as mere smudges of dark blues and grays against the horizon.
"There's a large group directly ahead about half a mile and a smaller group off to the right at about the same distance. And just so it's perfectly understood, I do not slaughter animals nor do I dress out the kill. I am an astrophysicist not a big game hunter."
"So why'd you come?" Ronon asked derisively.
"My question exactly, my friend." McKay retorted companionably with a cheeky grin. His eyes lit up momentarily at the small smile Ronon gave him.
"Let's check out the smaller group first." Sheppard ignored the bickering that was part and parcel of communication on their team and decided prudently to choose the cautious approach until they knew what this world had in store for them.
Teyla noticed with satisfaction that Dr. McKay was dividing his attention between the life signs detector and his surroundings. He had made a lot of progress in the five years they had been a team from the completely naïve, when it came to scouting and defensive procedures, scientist who would focus so completely on an energy signature or piece of technology that he would not notice an enemy until a gun barrel or arrow was pointed at his head, to an alert and competent field scientist/soldier.
She remembered when she had first noticed how he was unobtrusively studying them, soaking up their actions and reactions and then awkwardly trying to incorporate them into his own behavior a mission or two later. Trying in his own awkward way to become less of a hindrance, less of a handicap off world. She had mentioned it to Ronon who admitted he had noticed it as well. They had discussed the situation and decided that a more competent, survival-trained McKay could only benefit the team.
She also remembered his surprise and leeriness when she and Ronon had approached him one night when he was alone in his lab. They had offered him a deal. They would teach him how to notice people hiding in the shadows, how they knew when something was wrong, how to divide his concentration, teach him to notice the little details, how to hit what he shot at, how to pass information without speaking, how to defend himself with whatever was at hand at least until one of them reached him.
In return he would teach them to use the computers, how to email and research things, explain Earth sayings that they did not get, how to open ancient doors by rearranging crystals, how to jury-rig things, how to make power sources overload just in case, and give them a basic understanding of the ancient technology so they could follow his instructions if he became partially incapacitated off world. The training for all of them would be done covertly so as to avoid embarrassment on all accounts. They had finally convinced him they were serious and not setting him up for a huge gag.
The only two people that would be told would be Sheppard and Dr. Weir. Dr. Weir had thought it a very good idea. Her only comments were 'Don't break bones or injure his hands, Ronon.' and 'Don't let them blow themselves up'. Sheppard had just given them a peculiar look, a mix of 'you've got to be kidding' and 'this is going to be so amusing'. There had been much frustration, much yelling, many bruises, many electrical shocks and burnt fingers, but there had been much progress and it had all paid off. They didn't worry so much about him anymore and he carried himself with a lot more confidence and quite a lot less panicked freak outs when they were attacked. There was a lot less 'we're going to die' and a lot more 'let's get out of here it's dinner time'. In fact, he had eventually ordered all his scientists to undergo the same training he had subjected himself too.
They passed under the enshrouded canopy of the gigantic trees and into a different world. It went from mid-morning to dusk in just a few steps. The early summer heat became early spring chill. The fog swirling around their legs became damp and cold. A thick hush surrounded them making them all reluctant to break the stillness.
Pausing, McKay blinked as his sight adjusted then he glanced at the detector, touched Sheppard's arm and pointed to his diagonal right. Sheppard nodded and headed in that direction. McKay followed with Teyla pacing him to his left which kept both their weapons hands free since she was left-handed and he, right. Ronon brought up the rear listening for anything coming up behind them.
As they moved as quietly as possible through the dense undergrowth they could hear tiny critters, most likely insects, moving beneath the dead leaves and other detritus that carpeted the forest floor and the scurrying of small rodents. High above them the air was filled with bird calls, shrieks, chitterings, chirps and various other sounds.
"I've never seen trees so tall." Teyla murmured. "I cannot see the tops."
"Me neither." Ronon brushed thick vines out of the way.
"Rainforest." Sheppard surmised, wading through the dense greenery.
"More like the Jurassic Period."
"Dinosaurs, Rodney?" Sheppard frowned.
"No. I'm not saying dinosaurs, Colonel. I'm saying the vegetation is more related to that period than to the rainforests."
Sheppard stopped, hand up, fist closed. All talking immediately ceased and they all stopped behind him gazes darting around to pinpoint any danger. Slowly, he pointed forward turning to give McKay a stunned look.
There, not ten feet away was a small cluster of lizard-like creatures. Lizard-like in that they were leathery skinned and mottled gray-green and white with bony spikes down their back and across their sides. About three to four feet tall they were balanced on their hind feet slowly munching away on ferns, plant leaves, and mosses. Their long tails swaying gracefully back and forth whipping the fog into swirling drifts.
McKay's wide eyes met Sheppard's. They both grinned. "Tiny dinosaurs," he whispered, a mere breath of sound. A sound, though, that alerted the small herbivores. Heads swiveled and upon sighting the strangers in their forest they dropped to all fours effectively disappearing in the fog. The only proof to their existence the muted sounds of flight.
The deeper they progressed the more sounds of life they heard. A soft chittering above their heads had Ronon peering up into the dimness. A small furry animal looked down at him from a lofty height. It clung to the tree trunk with tiny black paws and had a long tail wrapped around a branch to help anchor it. Ronon pulled his gun from its holster. "Not yet," Sheppard stopped him. "Check things out first. Gather samples on the way back to the Gate."
Ronon grunted in agreement and re-holstered his weapon. He would not want to have to carry an increasingly heavy pack throughout the day.
Continuing on they worked their way through densely crowded giant ferns and bushes loaded with black berries and red berries. Huge flowers hung on vines and danced gracefully on thick stems rising from thick foliage. Moss hung in sheets from tree branches and thick vines. Toppled logs half as tall as they were crossed the path making them scramble over or duck under if one end was caught on another tree.
Something like prehistoric squirrels ran along the branches scolding them. Leathery birds flew between the trees. Big, winged insects and moths fluttered around the flowers. Small bands of herbivorous dinosaurs ran through the undergrowth this way and that set to flight by the strange intruders.
Thirty minutes later they were standing at the edge of another small clearing gazing out at the herd of large herbivores. Standing about six feet tall and about thirty feet long they were covered in bumpy gray hide. Two protective horns and a large bony frill shadowed the herbivores eyes. A small horn protruded above their mouths. They moved slowly their short tails swaying back and forth as they walked snatching bites of vegetation and chewing methodically.
Glimpses could be caught of young ones completely surrounded by the massive armored bodies of the adults. "Triceratops?" Sheppard questioned in disbelief. He stared at the slow moving giants. Small birds rode on their backs and bony frill. Small dinosaurs darted between their feet snatching bites of grass and foliage when the triceratops stopped to browse.
McKay turned frightened eyes toward him. "Crap, we just found the Lost World." Panic flitted through his eyes as he turned his attention to the detector. "Please, please, please don't let there be any single slow moving dots." He begged as he swung the device around in a complete 360 degree circle.
"Oh, of course," he moaned. "Not a single slow moving dot. Four slow moving dots. We need to get out of here." He looked around wildly as fear laced his voice.
"McKay?" In one word Sheppard was asking what danger did Rodney think was approaching them, in what direction, how serious, and what options did they have.
"What eats Triceratops?" McKay snapped still scanning the area. "We need to move that way now." He pointed to their right and put his words in action by moving quickly but quietly in that direction.
"McKay!" Sheppard hissed causing Rodney to pause and face them.
"Oh for Pete's sake! Huge predators! In that direction!" He pointed across the clearing waving his arm in a slight arc. "Huge plant eaters with horns are going to be stampeding through here," he pointed at his feet, "any moment now."
"Crap!" Sheppard glanced across the clearing and where slight noises could now be heard. One look of the triceratops raising their heads in alarm was all he needed to motivate him.
"Run!" he commanded and took off after McKay's now quickly disappearing back. Ronon and Teyla followed him having no idea what was coming, but knowing it had to be large and mean to kill one of those creatures in the clearing.
They had only ran a few yards when roars shook the forest causing birds to take flight and the tree animals to scamper to higher heights. Dislodged leaves fluttered to the ground. Suddenly, the whole herd of herbivores were in terrified flight racing across the clearing and flattening the undergrowth as they tried to evade the predators that broke cover and chased them.
Safely out of the path of the stampede, McKay slumped behind the huge buttress of a tree trying to silence the frightened whimpers that clogged his throat as the earth shook and roars reverberated around them. Sheppard, Ronon, and Teyla dropped down beside him, but he didn't spare them a glance. He kept his attention of the detector as sounds of the chase faded in the distance.
"What were those things?" Ronon asked quietly, peering warily over the man-sized tree root.
"Tyrannosaurus Rex. T-Rex." Sheppard muttered, shaking slightly himself in reaction to the beasts.
"Too small. Allosaurus most likely 10 feet tall, 30 feet long, maybe a couple tons with nothing but killing and eating and breeding on their small brains." McKay added unsteadily on an exhaled breath.
"You call that small?" Teyla questioned unbelievingly.
"Compared to a T-Rex? Yes." McKay nodded his head emphatically.
Sheppard slumped against the tree, sitting on a protuberance. "Of all the things I thought I'd see in the Pegasus Galaxy, dinosaurs never crossed my mind." He passed a slightly shaking hand over his face. "Well, they're gone for now."
"Yes, well they may not stay gone and there are most likely more than four of them around and they aren't the only dangerous dinosaurs." McKay snapped, fear making his voice sharp. "Didn't you watch Jurassic Park or the sequels. Hmmm? How about those small, oh so cute, ones that hunt in a pack like piranha? Not to mention Pterodactyls, or the cousins - Ceratosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex."
"How do you know so much about these creatures when you're an astrophysicist?" Teyla asked somewhat amazed.
"I'm a well-rounded, well educated individual." McKay huffed.
"Definitely well rounded." Ronon muttered teasingly trying to not think of the monstrous creatures that had just went past them.
"Oh, ha ha." McKay responded. "I'll have you know I've lost weight and the last few times we've had to run for our lives from angry villagers," he glared at Sheppard, I've kept up with the team."
"Not with me." Ronon corrected him.
"No one keeps up with you." Teyla interjected in Rodney's defense. "He did indeed keep up with me and I did not slow for him either." She added when Sheppard looked skeptical.
"See. Improving." McKay said haughtily. "Still, not sure I can outrun a T-Rex so how about we leave before I have to try."
"I agree. Let's head back for the Gate. I wanted to hunt game not be hunted." Sheppard stood up and headed back the way they came.
They moved carefully and quietly senses alert for danger. Rodney's eyes kept darting down at the detector then ahead and left then right over and over again. The path of the triceratops was plain to see and made progress easier since they had beaten down everything in front of them in their mad dash for safety.
They were little over halfway back when McKay muttered, "Hide," and ran off the path they were following, jumped a felled tree covered in moss, and ducked down behind a huge boulder. His team mates followed him and hunkered down beside him weapons drawn and aimed at the path they had just vacated.
"Something's coming." Rodney whispered as a slow heavy thump, thump, thump, thump began to be heard. With every thump the ground vibrated slightly. "If it sees us, we are so screwed." McKay muttered hunching down as far as he could.
A couple of years ago they would have ignored McKay's 'we're doomed' statements, but he didn't spout them at the slightest sign of danger any more so taking his advice to heart they all hunkered down as far as they could and held their breath. Besides, something heavy enough to make the ground shake would be formidable.
A fetid smell wafted over them and the thumps stopped almost directly in front of them. Even the birds and tree dwellers were still as snuffling noises punctuated the silent forest.
Sheppard peered under the felled tree and muttered 'shit' under his breath. McKay knows it's really, really bad when Ronon peeks around and jerks back face pale and eyes showing fear.
With a low growl the huge predator turned in their direction sniffing loudly. Its head cocked sideways as it tried to see what it smelled. It took one hesitant step off the path pausing to sniff again.
"We need to move." Rodney whispered very, very quietly. "It doesn't see well, but smells very well. Move slowly; stay under growth if at all possible."
Sheppard made a small wave of his hand and slowly the team melted backward creeping under a tall fern until they were on the other side of it.
Ronon glanced around them spotting a huge tree to the right. He touched Teyla and motioned. She nodded and touched McKay who touched Sheppard. They followed Ronon slowly in a crouch around the tree.
The dinosaur took another couple steps after them sniffing the new and different odors and cocking its head back and forth searching for them. Behind the tree they spied another tree flanked by huge flowering bushes. They sent McKay ahead watching the dinosaur while he scurried behind the tree then they followed.
Tree by tree, bush by fern by boulder they eluded the dinosaur, but it did not give up on the strange smell that teased and tantalized it. Doggedly, it followed them pushing its way through thick brush, tearing vines in half, breaking rotting logs that got in its way.
An outcropping provided a moments rest as leaned back against the cool earth and stone and tried to catch their breath. Ronon and Sheppard were sweating and breathing hard as was Teyla, but Rodney was wet with sweat and was being to stumble slightly when he moved. Ronon looked at him worriedly knowing that to show sympathy right now was the worst thing for McKay. He responded better in dangerous positions to being pushed not pampered.
Ronon scanned the surroundings. The land rose in a slight incline and then it looked like it might fall again. Perhaps a depression, which would be bad, or fall away in a gentle slope. He reached across the others and touched Sheppard. He pointed to the slope when Sheppard turned his attention to him.
Sheppard nodded and as quickly as they could while remaining silent they moved up the slope crouching low as they reached the top and slowly worked their way down the other side.
Boulders dotted the forest at the bottom of the small hillock. Kneeling on the far side they listened as the big dinosaur continued to hunt them. Dripping with sweat and tired Teyla dared to whisper, "We have to do something to lose it."
Ronon nodded in agreement. They couldn't continue like this. McKay wasn't far from dropping, Teyla's hands were beginning to shake and Sheppard looked as worn out as he felt.
Sheppard and McKay traded looks. "We need to disguise our smell." McKay said in a sotto voice.
Sheppard looked around desperately. They could hear they slow, steady thump, thump of the predator. "Mud, dirt." He said in an undertone. He scooped up handful and started rubbing on his arms and face.
The others hurried to do the same. In moments they were absolutely covered in grime. "Move," Ronon murmured glancing over Teyla's shoulder.
They scurried forward. With a snort, the predator's head cleared the top of the hillock and it caught sight of them. It roared and began running after them. "Run!" Sheppard shouted. They gave up stealth and took off darting under and around objects that slowed the giant dinosaur down slightly.
Branches and fronds whipped their faces and bodies as they sped over the unfamiliar terrain. They ran under toppled giants and leaped over rotting logs and uprooted saplings. Then Teyla and Rodney tripped and rolled forward disappearing underneath the roots of a giant uprooted tree. Ronon and Sheppard skidded to a halt listening to the muffled moans and grunts.
"Teyla, Rodney," Sheppard hissed. "Are you okay?"
"Get in here, Colonel." McKay called out frantically. "Now, before it sees you!"
Ronon and Sheppard traded a look and then dove under the roots. They tumbled several feet before coming to rest practically on top of Teyla and McKay.
"Oh, sure, add to the bruises." McKay muttered under his breath with a hitch of real pain in his voice.
"Shut up, Colonel. It won't be able to smell us down here, but it can hear."
Sheppard shut up. They all huddled together as the ground trembled and dirt rained down on their heads. The creature sniffed and growled and trampled the ground around them. After what seemed to be an eternity, it roared its frustration making them clap hands over their ears and duck their heads to keep dirt from their eyes.
None of them dare to even breath until with a loud snort the giant creature slowly moved on. They didn't rise from their hiding place until the ground stopped trembling with every footfall and even then they waited a few more minutes and then a few more until eventually Ronon took a deep breath, drew his gun, and shimmied up out of the ground.
Still hidden by the roots he looked around carefully. What finally convinced him that it was safe was the normal sounds of the forest returning. Birds began winging through the trees; animals squealed and squeaked and scolded. "Clear." he told them and helped them out from under the tree roots.
"What was that?" Ronon asked his voice actually wavering slightly when they were all leaning against the felled tree swiping dirt and leaves out of their hair and off their clothes.
"That was definitely a Tyrannosaurus Rex." Sheppard shuddered.
"T-Rex - Most ruthless predator ever to live." McKay added bluntly, shaking like a leaf and not in the least embarrassed about it since they others were obviously rattled as well.
Sheppard looks at McKay. "If we don't get back to the Gate, we are definitely screwed.
"Then we are screwed." Teyla stated and they all looked at her. "The T-Rex is more than likely between us and the Gate."
"Maybe it'll go on past the Gate." Ronon suggested.
"Right." Sheppard nodded. "Let's head that way." He looked around the forest. "Anyone remember which way to the Gate?"
Usually, they would rib him about his amazing ability to get lost on the ground, but considering all the dodging and crawling and terrified running they had done none of them were sure which way the Gate was.
"Okay, wait," McKay patted his vest pockets until with a triumphant grin he pulled out the life signs detector. "Since there is absolutely no electronic signals on this world, I might," he glanced up at them, "might be able to detect the faint signal of the DHD."
He stared at the screen, frowned, pushed a few buttons, frown again. "Not sensitive enough." He muttered to himself adjusting the sensitivity and expanding the range. "Hmmm." He stood up from the log and walked a few feet forward then began slowly and methodically to sweep the area.
"Nothing," he finally admitted with slumped shoulders. "I've got nothing. Either the foliage is too dense or we're too far away to pick up the reading."
"We were facing east and went southeast to the clearing." Teyla said slowly.
"So we were coming back northwest then we got chased easterly. So," Ronon looked up at the sky turning slowly around, "if we head west we have a good chance of finding the Gate or at least getting close enough for the detector to pick up the signal."
McKay stared at Ronon then he looked up at the thick canopy then he looked back at Ronon. "Okay, Mister Internal Compass lead the way." He crossed his arms over his chest and looked expectant.
Ronon looked at McKay in frustration. Sometimes he wanted to hit him; he really, really did, but he didn't. It would be bad for relations. Instead, he took a deep breath, looked around, and realized something. The T-Rex had left a path of destruction in its predatory chase.
"That way," Ronon pointed and with a smug look at McKay stalked off.
Never would he let on that part of his shakes was from the thought of Rodney caught between those two gaping jaws. Okay, well, never around anyone.
Ronon took point, Sheppard paced McKay, and Teyla brought up the rear. Trusting Ronon not to get them further lost, McKay took a moment to realize he was starving and dug a power bar out of his vest and munched it quietly. He wasn't sure if his trembling hands were from fright or from low sugar so he ate.
No longer did his team mates tease him about his incessant eating not after that time on P6R-253 when they got caught in a cave in. Sixteen hours to be dug out. First had been the light-headedness. That in and of itself wasn't too bad since there hadn't been much moving around to do. He had known that it was the beginning of his downward spiral; he hadn't said anything knowing that his friends could do nothing about it but worry. Then the shaking hands; he had turned off his flashlight lecturing about conserving batteries.
A few hours later his whole body was wracked with fine tremors. Ronon had sat next to him and had felt the shakes. "Scared?" He'd asked. "What? No. Whaaat's to beeee afffrrraaiid of? I'm suurree they'rrree di..di..digging uuusss oouuttt." Silence, heavy and oppressive had fallen as they all caught the slurring words. "Rodney, you doing okay buddy?" Sheppard had asked gently, worriedly. "F..f..fine," he had snapped. "Tired."
Twelve hours in he was clammy and shaking violently. Thirteen had seen the beginning of the vomiting; horrible retching sounds echoing eerily in the darkness. They had huddled around him trying to warm him; they had searched every pocket twice looking for anything to eat. Ronon had hit the wall in frustration fracturing a finger.
Fifteen hours after the cave-in he had slipped into unconsciousness; his body going suddenly, frightening limp in his team mates arms. He hadn't heard Teyla's sobs or Sheppard's muttered curses. He didn't know Ronon had cradled him in his lap rocking him, begging him hoarsely to hold on a little longer. Awareness had come and gone in pulses he couldn't control unaware really of where he was or what was happening.
They had all hollered for Carson as soon as the tiniest hole had been made. Food and a glucose I.V. had been squeezed through the hole. Teyla had to try three times before her shaking hands had got the I.V. in. That was the day they realized he might exaggerate an ache or pain, but life threatening conditions: citrus, bee stings and hypoglycemia - those he was absolutely serious about.
He finished the power bar, took a long drink from his canteen, and then pulled out the detector checking for the elusive DHD signal. Nothing. He put it back in his vest.
"Ronon," Sheppard called out hoarsely. "We need to stop." Ronon grunted and dropped to his haunches. He took a long drink and subtly checked on McKay. Sheppard and Teyla dropped to the ground. "Eat. Everyone. MREs" Sheppard ordered wearily.
Thirty minutes passed before Sheppard hauled himself to his feet with a groan. "I hate to say it, but we need to move. We don't want to be lost out here after dark."
Teyla got slowly to her feet. "I agree. As tired as I am, we need to continue."
Ronon reached a hand out and grasped Rodney's. He pulled him smoothly to his feet. "Good to go?" He asked quietly, eyes raking Rodney's face anxiously.
"Fine. Exhausted, but fine. Besides Sheppard's right, it's going to get a lot more dangerous after the sun sets."
Ronon studied him a moment longer and then gave a short nod. "You keel over and I'll kick your ass. I'm too tired to carry you."
"Got it; no keeling over." Rodney gave him a lopsided grin then turned and shouldered his pack. In doing so, he missed the look that passed between Ronon, Sheppard, and Teyla. His friends would keep an eye on him since they all knew by now that he'd keep quiet before seeming to be a liability.
Night came early under the canopy and it was falling quickly when McKay finally got a faint beep on the detector. Everyone was stumbling from exhaustion and vision was narrowing down to a few feet.
"We need to find someplace safe for the night." Ronon rumbled.
"No where on the ground will be safe." McKay said emphatically causing everyone to look up speculatively.
"Then we climb." Sheppard said. He pulled out a long coil of rope that had knots tied in it and took turns with Ronon tossing it up until it finally went over a branch. "We'll tie the packs to the rope. Teyla you go first then McKay, then me and Ronon. We'll pull the packs up afterward. McKay, can you do this?"
"Imminent death." He said seriously. "I can do it." Under his breath he added, "I hate heights."
Sheppard nodded. Teyla began climbing. Halfway up she wrapped her foot and hand around the rope and paused to catch her breath. After a few seconds, she continued on. When she reached the branch she took a deep breath, scanned it for handholds. Thankfully, the branch was knobby and had smaller branches growing from it.
With a grunt, she began hauling herself up. Gradually, she pulled herself on top of the giant tree branch. While waiting for Rodney to get to the top she faced the tree trunk and looked at the spacious nest formed by the four way split. If they tied themselves to the tree, they wouldn't fall even if the did somehow roll out. They just had to get around this part of the trunk.
"Crap," was all McKay said before he grabbed the rope and began to climb. He had to stop twice on the way up, but he did make it to the top. Now the difficult part of getting on top of the branch. Teyla had tied herself to the tree branch; now she leaned over. "Rodney do you want me to help pull you up?"
"Yes," he grunted, too exhausted to be offended or prickly.
Teyla grabbed his shirt and when he found hand holds she pulled as he did. With a groan, he flopped on top of the branch. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Teyla wiped her forehead and leaned against the tree.
Soon Sheppard came into view and Teyla helped him over the edge as well. She untied herself, gave herself more rope and retied the rope around her waist. "Do not let me fall." She said firmly to Sheppard and McKay and after they were secured to the branch and had a grip on her rope she stepped out onto the rough, knobby surface of the tree her fingers clinging to the rough bark of the tree.
She cautiously found footholds and eventually pulled herself into the cradle collapsing in relief.
She heard Ronon swarming up the rope and up onto the branch. She wrapped her rope around another branch. Ronon pulled the packs up and swung them over to her. "Colonel, you should come next." She said, bracing herself to take his weight. "I could use you on this side to steady the rope."
With a grunt, Sheppard slid a hand and shoulder under the rope and started over. He slid his head under the rope and felt a little safer with the rope holding him to the trunk. Slowly, cautiously he edged his way over into the cradle. McKay was going to freak, he thought.
"McKay, you're next."
And there it was. "I can't do it. I know I need too, but I can't."
"McKay." Ronon rumbled in the dark.
"No! I did not sign on for this stuff. Rickety bridges, logs over canyons, running from villagers, torture, wild hybrid dogs, dinosaurs! I'm a scientist not special ops!"
"McKay," Sheppard replied, a disembodied voice in the dark. "Believe me, none of us had this crap in our contracts."
"Yes, well I'm sure that you had some knowledge that people would be shooting at you! I'm suppose to be in a lab, researching Ancient technology not playing Tarzan on an alien world in the dark!"
"We could trade you for Zelenka or Kusanagi…"
Rodney snorted. "Right. Zelenka you'd have to drag through the Gate and Miko would faint at the first sign of danger."
"Fine, then, you're stuck on the team. Now get over here." Sheppard sounded exasperated.
"I can't see and what if the bark breaks or my foot slips."
"Take your time. You've done harder things than this." Ronon met his fears with a patience that would have surprised many.
"No, I haven't."
"Sure you have." Sheppard called out.
"Really? Name one thing." McKay ranted.
Everyone knew he wasn't trying to difficult. He had reached the end of his rope, he was tired and terrified.
"You stood up to Koyla." Sheppard offered.
"MJ9-625," Teyla replied. "You scaled the cliff face with those big birds swooping around us and you had cracked ribs."
"You took the enzyme to try and rescue us; helped us retake Atlantis from the Asurans." Ronon added.
Silence settled as Rodney tried to find an argument.
"Rodney," Ronon's murmur was barely audible. You can do this, because I won't leave you on this branch by yourself."
"That is blackmail."
"Fine, if I fall…ummm" McKay's complaint was silenced gently.
"I won't let you fall." Ronon said as he looped a rope around his waist and tied it to a mid-size branch.
"Okay, okay. Since I'm going to be bullied."
"Not bullying. I care about you being safe."
"Oh…….okay. I'm, I'm going now."
The rope shook as McKay slipped under it. It seemed to take forever as he searched blindly for the footholds one step at a time, hands clenching into the bark of the tree until his fingers hurt, muttering 'not going to fall, not going to fall, not hundreds of feet in the air, not going to fall' and then he was in the cradle shaking like a leaf.
The darnkess let him pretend to have privacy and noone bothered him until the shaking stopped. McKay handled danger and terror a lot better these days, but still today had pushed him to his limits with its dinosaurs and flights of terror and giant tree climbing and dangling hundreds of feet in the air over pitch blackness.
They settled into the cradle using their packs as pillows. Too tired to stay awake they decided to trust they were safe since there wasn't any sign of birds nesting here and they all went to sleep.