by Eildon Rhymer

An icy planet, a jumper crash, a deadly enemy...

Their ghosts walked alongside him.

Sheppard welcomed them. Sometimes he even talked to them. When Sheppard fell for the fourth time onto the ice-hardened ground, the ghost of Rodney rolled his eyes. "Can't you even stay upright now? It's not difficult, Colonel. Just put one foot in front of the other and walk. A one year old could manage it."

Sheppard tried to muster a witty retort, but his head was pounding too badly. He rolled onto his back, looked up at the sky. Even the simple movement of breathing made his vision waver, and his side felt as if it was being torn apart.

"Get up," commanded the ghost of Ronon. "Brain'll freeze if you don't."

"Ha! As if we'd notice the difference."

"John," urged Teyla's ghost, "you really must get up."

He thought perhaps the cold had brought the ghosts. It did many things. It sank claws into his brain and made thoughts sluggish. It made his hands and feet feel distant, as if they didn't belong to him at all. Shame it didn't take away the pain. Or maybe it did. Maybe without the cold, he would be crucified on a blazing cross of pain. As it was…

"Get up." Rodney's ghost leant over and made as if to swat him on the shoulder.

"You're dead," Sheppard told him.

"Like, duh, yes, of course."

Maybe the ghosts had nothing to do with the cold. Maybe they had come with the blood that still flowed sluggishly from the injury just above the hairline. Maybe they came from the drugs. Maybe none of this was real.

Real, he thought. Real. Got to remember…

The ghosts vanished. They were just his imagination, after all. A hallucination brought on by cold and drugs and injury. He hated to think what Doctor Heightmeyer would say about that.

Alone, then. His team was gone. Dead. He struggled to his feet, and continued on his lurching way… where? A moment's thought. To the Gate. He moistened his freezing lips. Why? And that was easy. To warn… To warn…

He almost fell again, for the… was it the fourth time? Or was the last time four? Numbers were unimportant things. They flew away and vanished. There was no need to keep hold of them. Other things were more important, like… like…

Something cold and wet landed on his cheek. For a moment, he thought he was crying; it was so long that he had done so that he had forgotten what tears felt like. Surely they were never so cold. Then another teardrop fell, icy and white on his eyelashes. He turned his face up to the slate-grey sky, and realised that it was snowing.

One-handed, he pulled the coat more tightly around his body. It was Ronon's coat, dragged from his unmoving form. Robbing the dead. He imagined the glower of Ronon's ghost. There was cold weather clothing in the storage lockers, of course, but the crash had twisted the doors so they were unopenable. You need it, said Ronon's shade, and I do not.

It even came with gloves, stowed in the pockets with surprising neatness. Something about that made Sheppard chuckle, remembering a boy at kindergarten who wore gloves on a string threaded through the sleeves of his coat, so he couldn't lose them. "Should do the same with guns," he muttered. "Stop people stealing them."

He did not like to be without his weapons. There had been none to strip from the bodies of his team-mates, either. Kerran had taken them from them when they had lain unconscious from the drugged tea. Of course Ronon had managed to retain one little knife. Where did he keep the damn things, anyway? That had been enough for escape. They had made it to the jumper, but there had been no chance to get their other weapons back. Ronon had been furious. And now he was dead.

The snow fell heavily. He managed two hundred yards without falling, but the ghosts were quiet. It seemed that they only came out to reproach him, and never offered praise. Then he almost fell anyway, lurching to one side, and managed to turn half a circle on the spot. He stood there, reeling drunkenly, and saw his path marked in the new-fallen snow. Lead him right back to you, he told the absent ghosts, and then he remembered that there was nothing there in the downed jumper but dead bodies.

Nothing there. He had to remember that. Nothing there.

The crash had been his fault, of course. Drunk in charge of a… No, more accurately, drugged while flying, but they had had no choice. The jumper had been malfunctioning, anyway; that was why they had been forced to stop. And then Kerran had come, all smiles. Doubt had only set in when his questions had suddenly become too accurate, too pointed, and he had known things that he had no proper way of knowing. Trust had vanished entirely the moment they had awakened in a cellar with Kerran smiling down at them, human skulls behind him on the wall, like trophies.

"Oh, this is just marvellous," Rodney had complained, when Kerran left them alone after the first session. "We're going to get butchered by the Pegasus Galaxy version of Jack the Ripper. Never trust a man who drinks tea."

"Shh!" Sheppard had hushed him. There had been a small amount of knife-play, but nothing more, and Sheppard had shouted a lot and been generally objectionable enough to ensure that he was the only target. It had hurt. The feel of his assailant's mind in his own, lapping up his pain, had been even worse. "Let me come up with a plan."

Rodney had rolled his eyes. "Ooh, a Colonel Sheppard Special escape plan. I can't wait."

"Hey, at least my escape plans work."

"Oh, yes, and clearly the ten days you spent in the infirmary after your last attempted prison break were just a figment of my imagination. The spectre of imminent disembowelment at the hands of a telepathic madman must have unhinged my mind."

Sheppard had surveyed him seriously. "No, I think your mind was always like that."

"Oh ha-de-ha, Colonel Blow-things-up-and-ask-questions-later. Very droll."

It was then that they had noticed that Ronon had cut himself free.

"Ha!" Rodney had exclaimed, but only when they were back in the jumper. Before that, they had been too busy running for their lives for even Rodney to find the energy to talk. "Impressive escape plan, Colonel."

"I was working on mine," Sheppard had said through the side of his mouth, concentrating on working the damaged Ancient technology with his strangely-fuddled mind. Then something had snapped inside the jumper - an almost physical cry of pain that struck him between the eyes - and he lost control, and they were falling, falling…

He did not know how long had passed before he opened his eyes again.

They were only three miles from the Stargate. Rodney had said that… No, Rodney hadn't said it, because Rodney was dead. He had to remember that. Cold and drugs and a head injury made his mind… "No," said Rodney's ghost, unable to resist the taunt, "I think your mind was always like that."

"You don't score that one," Sheppard told him. "It was my line first."

The ghosts were just his imagination; he knew that. He knew he had to remember their deaths. He pictured the way he had last seen them. Rodney had been slumped forward over the console, blood pooled beneath his nose, and his calf lacerated by flying metal. Below the knees, Ronon's body had been encased in wreckage, impossible to move. Teyla had broken a leg, and blood had trickled from her mouth, across her chin.

He could not think of the last farewells he had said to all of them, as he had clambered over them, and headed out into the cold.

"I don't think he's going to make it," said Rodney's ghost.

"Course he will," Ronon said. "Sheppard's strong." And you are not, little man, said his expression.

"We are depending on you, John," Teyla's ghost told him.

He pushed them away. "You're dead," he told them. "It doesn't much matter to you what I do."

He fell another time - fourth, sixth, tenth, a hundred times? The thin layer of snow did nothing to soften the stone-like hardness of the frozen ground. That was why the tea had been so welcome, and the offer of a fire. Even Ronon had consented to go with him with a visible expression of relief. But of course he had. Kerran was telepathic. He had known all the right things to say.

Rule 139: Never go with a smiling native who offers tea. He would add it to the briefings when he got back, right next to, If things seem too good to be true, they usually are.

"The tea is not entirely the issue here," Teyla reminded him.

He scraped the ghosts out of his mind, raking his fingers across his eyes. For the third? tenth? fifteenth? time he struggled to his feet. Why am I hallucinating the ghosts of my team, anyway? he wondered. Surely my mind can think of better things…

No. No, he couldn't. He could think of nothing better.

"Going so soon, Colonel Sheppard?"

He raised his head, and saw Kerran there, descending from a creature that looked like a cross between a horse and a llama. Sheppard forced a smile. "Do you know what a cliché that was?"

"What do you hope achieve?"

"I'd have thought it was obvious," Sheppard rasped. "Avoiding a gory death rates high on most people's to-do list."

Kerran had a pistol strapped to his side, and Ronon's blaster was slung next to his saddle. Kerran had already told Sheppard that he preferred a knife. "More intimate," he had whispered into Sheppard's ear. "More slow."

Kerran stepped closer. Sheppard concentrated on breathing. "Why are you alone?" Kerran demanded.

"You killed them, you bastard." I killed them. I killed them.

"What? All dead?" Kerran's eyes gleamed. "Maybe I should go back and see for myself. Even the dead can afford… pleasure."

"There's no point." Sheppard's shoulders slumped with defeat, not caring any more if Kerran killed him. "I was going to the Gate, so no-one else will ever…"

Kerran seized him, a hand on his face, fingers digging into his brow, pulling the skin across the wound beneath his hair. Sheppard screamed, unable to prevent himself. The pain from the wound bled out into thoughts that flowed through his attackers' fingers. He felt himself being drained. He felt pictures, words, memories being wrenched from his brain…

Rodney, so still, and that was the worst thing of all, for Rodney was never still, never silent. Sheppard touched his shoulder, brushed his fingers over his hair. He had not found the ghosts yet, and there were no words, only silence. Then Ronon, his body twisted and disturbed by the removal of his coat. Sheppard had no idea what damage had been done to his legs, but he guessed it didn't matter any more. And Teyla, her compassionate eyes closed forever. I'm sorry, he whispered. I'm so sorry…

Kerran released him, hurling him away. He fell heavily onto his back, and his vision exploded into red, streaked with the snowflakes that fell like tears. "It's true," Kerran said, standing over him, one leg on either side of his body. "They are dead, and you are broken. " He bent over, the knife in his hand. Sheppard caught a fleeting glimpse of his own face reflected in the blade, like the face of a stranger. "You will have to give me sport enough for four, Colonel Sheppard."

Even shattered as he was, it was too easy. He felt as if he was throwing off a cloak. Rolling sharply to one side, and rose up, smashing his body into Kerran's knee. Kerran fell, and Sheppard was with him, tangled up with him. He crawled over him, smashed his fist into Kerran's face, but Kerran anticipated him and rolled over. He jabbed his knee up into Kerran's balls, and that at least connected. Kerran screamed.

Sheppard clawed at Kerran's waist with his left hand, trying to find the gun. Then he gave up, and concentrated on wrestling the knife from Kerran's hand. The blade sliced him on the side of the wrist. Kerran was bucking from side to side, and every movement sent such a hammer-blow of pain through Sheppard's head that he felt consciousness begin to slip away.

He could fight past pain - had done so many times - but there came a point when it was impossible to ignore the limitations of one's body. He had to finish this, and fast. Not that it mattered if he died, not now that… He snatched that thought back.

With the last of his waning strength, he hauled at the knife.

He missed.

Smiling, Kerran snatched his hand back. Still smiling, he drove the knife deep into Sheppard's side. Everything seemed to stop. He was impaled on the pain, scoured by it from within. It was everything, it was everything…

He staggered half to his feet, releasing Kerran completely. He stared down stupidly at the knife hilt protruding from his side. Kerran was on his feet, too, watching him, licking his lips minutely with the tip of his tongue.

Sheppard's legs gave way, and he sat down heavily. Dead, he thought, like the others. Their ghosts stood in a solemn semi-circle behind Kerran, watching him with sorrow, and perhaps a little reproach. I'm sorry, he told them, and laughed. This time the snow on his face was warm.

Kerran stood above him, hands on hips. Sheppard's eyes slid shut, his head slumped. He heard the sound of Kerran bending down to end it. And that was when he acted. The knife, as it slid from his body, hurt like a thousand suns, but he slammed it upwards with all the dying strength he could muster. It sank into Kerran's thigh, near the groin. He hauled it out, and blood fountained onto his face. He stabbed again, but Kerran was already falling, and this time he only caught his shoulder. The knife was wrenched from his slick hands.

Kerran fell. Sheppard was spent. "Say something," urged Rodney's ghost, but he was past that. Kerran knew it all, anyway. As his eyes glazed over, Sheppard thought he knew everything.

The enormous pool of blood had melted the snow. Fresh flakes landed on Kerran's hair, but these ones did not melt. He saw a tree not far away, its branches covered with ice. It looked like a tall skeleton.

"Got to go," the ghosts told him.

"Don't need you any more," he told them. "Kerran's gone."

The memories remained. The ghosts remained. They stayed with him as he crawled the remaining mile back to the Stargate. They watched as he dialled.

They were there when the jumper emerged through the Gate, sleek and lovely. "That way," he shouted at it, leaning heavily on the DHD with one hand. "Don't stop." But they did, anyway - Lorne disobeying his orders.

And then the ghosts followed him even into the darkness.

They were still there even when the darkness faded and became white.

"…think he's waking up," Rodney's ghost was saying. "Come on, Colonel, don't be lazy. Open those baby blues."

"Eyes aren't blue," said Ronon's ghost, from further away.

"No, Conan, it's a saying. A colloquialism. See, Colonel? See what I have to put up with? That's why you have to wake up, so I can have some halfway intelligent conversation with someone."

The real Rodney would never have admitted that, Sheppard thought. Then the ghost seemed to realise that, too, but it added, "Not that your conversation is intelligent, of course. That was the drugs speaking."

Sheppard kept his eyes closed. The ghosts fell silent. The whiteness became black again, and then the tangled hell that was a wrecked jumper. He saw their bodies. He had seen them die. Blood sheeted across the snow. It was all his fault.

Footsteps neared him; he sensed it all from far away, through the haze of red and white. Something was done to his side, to his head.

"Wake up!" Rodney's ghost demanded. "I'm bored. That witch-doctor tyrant won't let me have my laptop."

Why wouldn't they leave him alone? He thought he'd established that they were hallucinations. Maybe they really were ghosts. Not that he deserved them. He'd killed them all. He pushed them away, and fell into the darkness.

He saw them dying. He saw them dying. When he clawed himself briefly out of the darkness, and then fell back again, he saw them dying again. Again and again, again and again. Cling to it. Mustn't forget.

"Surely he should have woken up now?"

Something was trying to pull him closer to the whiteness, but he dug in his heels and resisted. The darkness was no longer dark, but full of all the colours of memory: white snow, red blood, and the pallor of Rodney's lifeless hand. Hold on to that memory. He could not forget it, could not, must not, could not.

The blood beneath Rodney's face.

Ronon's mangled legs.

Teyla with her eyes closed.

"Open your eyes!" Rodney again. Just a ghost. A hallucination. A hope. "Please, Colonel." His voice sounded ragged. And this time, as well as a voice, there was a touch, a hand on his hand. And then the creak of a wheelchair, and a large hand clasped itself brusquely on his shoulder, and then he caught a scent that he had no idea until now that he could recognise: Teyla.

The ghosts hung trembling on the fringes of the darkness. He teetered there beside him, not knowing which way to go.

"We are not dead, John," Teyla said.

"Which is kind of obvious, Colonel, to anyone but a moron."

"Got your weapons back," said Ronon.

Rodney had been so lifeless on the console, but before that… Before that…

"Can't move," Ronon grunted. "My leg is broken," said Teyla. "I'm bleeding!" Rodney gasped. "Oh, it's bound to get infected. I can't go anywhere. I don't do the cold."

Sheppard struggled to stand. The pain in his side was internal, and he managed to hide it. The blood on his face could not be concealed, and neither could the way he staggered and almost fell. He nodded at the back hatch, torn open to the sky. "I'll go to the Gate," he said. "Get help."

"What if Kerran comes while you're away?" Rodney asked. "Those two aren't up to taking him on."

It was all Sheppard to do to remain standing. "If I meet him, I'll make him think you're dead."

"This is a man who can read minds, Colonel."

"Then you'd better play dead for me. Give me something real to remember."

The ghosts stepped backwards into the darkness, and were gone. He opened his eyes slowly, and all three of them were there, dressed in scrubs and sporting their own bandages.

"I can't believe you're so simple-minded as to think we were all dead," Rodney exclaimed.

"Good to see you, too, Rodney."

And it was. It was horribly, painfully, embarrassingly good to see all of them. It made his eyes sting, and he wanted to turn his face away, but they were on all sides of him, and there was nowhere to hide.

"I worked it out," Ronon said, "not Genius here. Heard you babbling."

"So you stay asleep for four days, Colonel, just because you don't want to wake up and find us gone." Rodney's voice started off mocking, but it slowed as he went on, and ended up almost gentle.

"Yeah, well, who would I have to bitch about?"

Carson appeared behind them all. "Back to your own beds, children." He did his usual tests and examinations, and Sheppard leant back against the pillow, feeling strangely content. "Don't believe anything Rodney tells you, Colonel," Carson said. "With the blow you took to your head, you'd have believed you had four legs and a tail if someone told you so enough times." He took a step back, and said more loudly, "It was a bloody stupid idea, though."

"Hey, it worked," Sheppard protested.

"Only because you bumped into Kerran and hacked him to pieces and killed him," Rodney said, "which, incidentally, is a good thing, seeing as he was trying to do the same to us."

"Maybe now you're awake, Rodney will be more manageable," Carson said, leaning forward confidingly. "He kept trying to prod you awake. I did try to tell him you weren't a toy."

"Hey," Rodney protested, "it worked, didn't it?"

Smiling, Sheppard closed his eyes, and drifted to sleep to the sound of Rodney's rambling. Ghosts, part of his mind still wanted to tell him, but he spoke to firmly to it as he sank into the gentle darkness. Not ghosts. Real.


Note: When I started to post my WIP last weekend (Entertaining Strangers) I said that I never got distracted by other stories while writing a long story. Ah… well… actually… what I meant was that I never got distracted by other long stories. One-shots don't count. ;-)

I wrote this at the weekend as a bit of self-indulgent comfort-whump. I'd had a busy 6 day week at work, I was feeling under-the-weather, and my husband had deserted me for 5 days to run around hitting people with rubber swords in Yorkshire. In circumstances like this, I like to make-up self-indulgent stories, full of heroism and whump, but devoid of such pesky things as consistent backstory, sensible pacing, baddy motivation etc. Normally I'd never dream of posting the results, but when I read this one through a few days later, I realised that it wasn't half so self-indulgent as I thought it was, and might actually be postable. I hope I'm correct. --paces anxiously--

I wonder what Rodney and the others were getting up to while all this was happening…

One day I might write a story in which the notes aren't half as long as the story itself…;-)