He explained his plan as he went, talking over his shoulder as he rummaged through the lockers, pulling out rags and tossing them into a pile. By the time he had gathered together a sufficient collection of rags and pulled a piece of thick piping from the rubble littering the floor, Carson had finished splinting Sheppard's leg and Rodney co-opted him into helping to implement his plan.
They had to move Sheppard safely away from the gas pipe, the two of them helping to bear his weight as they scooted him as gently as possible over to the far side of the room, leaning him against the wall in a sitting position. Despite their care, Sheppard's face had been pinched and grey as they'd gently set him down.
Rodney then turned his attention to building a makeshift cannon. He armed the detonator before placing it in the end of a length of pipe and then carefully lifted the length of pipe across to the gas pipe, murmuring half to himself, half in explanation to Carson as he did, "First you fix the detonator in the bottom of the tube… Okay. Now..."
Carson had twisted some of the cloths into a ring around the hole that Rodney had – accidentally – made in the gas pipe and Rodney lowered his piece of piping carefully over the open hole, resting one end of the pipe onto the wadded material so that it stood on end over the hole. Carson, somewhat gingerly, took hold of the piece of piping and held it in place as Rodney began to wrap more pieces of cloth around the bottom of the pipe, explaining, "...we have to seal the bottom of the tube around the gas leak, like so."
Satisfied that any gaps were sealed about as tightly as they were likely to get, Rodney used rope to tie the "cannon" tightly in place, wrapping it around the pipe barrel and around the gas pipe before knotting it firmly. Once it was secure, Rodney left Carson to push more fabric into the mouth of the pipe, to act as wadding, whilst he fetched the length of metal rod, to which he had already firmly tied – and taped for good measure - one end of their knotted rope.
"All right," Rodney supervised, "so, put the wadding and the rod into the barrel, and then gently create a seal." He slid the rod carefully into place and joined Carson in packing more cloth in around it. "Don't pack it too tight," he warned, "otherwise we've got ourselves a pipe bomb, but if we play it right..."
They pushed the rest of the rags carefully into place and Rodney stood back, declaiming with a smile, "...our very own cannon."
"You really think this is gonna work?" Carson asked dubiously.
"It should," Rodney insisted.
Carson stepped back from the pipe, giving Rodney an odd look. "You can build a cannon, just like that?" he asked.
"Please!" Rodney scoffed dismissively. Cannons were easy. It was the most basic of physics. "I've got access to pressurised gas. It's a cinch!"
He grinned, warming up to his subject. "You should have seen my Grade Six science project. I actually had to..."
"Rodney." Sheppard sighed tiredly, his voice tinged with exasperation. It was enough to interrupt Rodney and focus his mind on what they were doing, and why.
"Right," he muttered. "Okay. Yeah."
He positioned himself at the wheel of the shut off valve, leaving Carson to crouch behind the pipe, squinting along their makeshift cannon to make sure it was aimed at the hole up above.
Rodney took hold of the wheel, feeling a heady mixture of excitement and nervousness. "Alright." He looked over at Carson. "Ready?"
Carson nodded and Rodney quickly turned the wheel, opening the valve that would release the flammable gas into the pipe and hence into their cannon. He waited a few seconds, calculating the flow and volume of gas roughly in his head, and then shut the valve off.
"Alright. Okay." Nervousness was winning out over excitement. He looked at Carson. This was it. "And ... are we ready?"
Carson didn't look particularly happy about being so close to the cannon but despite his obvious fear he nodded quickly. "Ready."
Rodney dug in his pocket and pulled out the remote trigger, also courtesy of Sheppard – naturally – and gripped it firmly.
"Fire in the hole!" he announced, instinctively cringing away as he pressed the switch. There was a muffled boom inside the piece of pipe and the metal rod and half the wadding were spat out of the opening in a blast of hot air, the rod sailing smoothly up and out of the hole in the ceiling, trailing the rope behind it. As quickly as that, it was over, the rope pulling taught and then slackening again as the metal rod was brought to a halt and fell to earth.
"Nice aim!" Rodney grinned.
"Nice cannon!" Sheppard echoed.
Rodney unfastened the rope from the heavy crate he'd used to tether it and took a good grip on the rope as he positioned himself under the hole. He gave a good pull and felt the metal rod slide over the loose soil above, the rope moving through his hands as he pulled again, moving the rod closer to the opening. He was vaguely aware of Carson picking up the end of the rope, taking up the slack as Rodney fed the rope through his hands.
As the rod slid closer, loose soil began to trickle over the edge of the hole, raining down on him. Shaking the dirt from his hair, he moved to one side and continued pulling on the rope, dragging the rod nearer. More and more dirt began to spill over the edge of the hole, the rod obviously dragging through the loose earth and uprooting it, pulling it with it as it moved. Thick clumps of earth and grass were falling into the room now, a constant flow of dirt pouring through the hole, showering down on all of them.
"Uh, McKay? You should stop." Sheppard coughed, his arms raised to try and shelter his head from the rain of soil. "There's too much dirt coming in. The room's gonna get too heavy."
They were close. So close. If he could just get the rod in place, the added weight wouldn't matter because they could climb out of here…
"I've almost got it!" Rodney insisted, continuing to pull at the rope. Carson was still holding on to the end of the rope but he'd stopped taking up the slack, his attention fixed nervously on the dirt pouring in through the hole, more and more of it as the rod inched closer. They were almost there. Almost free. And then, without warning, with a horrendous groaning of metal, the entire room shifted and tilted. The movement was slow at first, a gradual lean to one side, and then there was a sharp retort from under the floor and suddenly everything was happening very fast.
The room tilted sharply, the floor dropping away under Rodney's feet. He grabbed instinctively for the nearest pillar, wrapping his arms around it, even as Carson lost his footing and stumbled backwards towards the red door. Rodney watched in horror, everything seeming to happen in slow motion, as Carson fell onto the door and it swung open, and his friend fell out through the open doorway, disappearing from sight with a bellow of terror. It happened so quickly – and at the same time so slowly – that it felt like it was a dream. A nightmare. And then he was jerked back to wakefulness by a sudden jolting weight that nearly pulled the rope from his hands. The rope. He was still holding the rope. And Carson had been holding the other end. Wrapped around the pillar, he clung onto the rope for dear life.
"Carson!" Sheppard yelled desperately.
Carson voice floated back up to them, panicked and echoing. "I'm down here! Rodney, don't let go!"
Rodney didn't want to let go. He really didn't want to let go and let Carson fall to his death. But Carson's weight on the rope felt like it was slowly pulling his arms out of his sockets, his shoulders screaming with the strain, the rope burning in his hands. Desperately, he tried to grip tighter.
There was a scraping sound as Sheppard clumsily pushed aside a crate blocking his path. Unable to even stand, let alone walk, Sheppard resorted to pulling himself across the floor, his splinted right leg dragging limply behind him, his face twisted in pain and determination. He got as far as the door and leaned his head out to look down into the chasm.
Rodney's arms were trembling, his palms burning.
"Rodney, don't let go!" Carson begged from far below.
Sheppard pulled his head back in and turned to look at him, his expression tense. "Rodney?" he asked.
Rodney knew what he was asking. He knew. But he couldn't. He couldn't do it. His hands, his arms, his shoulders, his back were all screaming and he couldn't hold on much longer. Carson was going to fall and it would be his fault. "John, I can't hold it!" he gasped.
"Yes, you can!" Sheppard encouraged.
Rodney's arms were being pulled out of his sockets. He let out a noise that sounded worryingly like a whimper. "No, no, I've never been good at holding heavy things," he panicked. "I had an old lady's grocery cart when I was in college; it's one of the reasons I didn't date as much as I could have!"
"Stay focussed!" Sheppard insisted. "You need to pull him up!"
If he hadn't been so terrified, Rodney would have laughed at the ridiculousness of that statement. He settled instead for a little pointed sarcasm. "Oh, really?! I was just getting used to the idea of not letting go here!" he snapped.
"He can't hang here forever, Rodney!" Sheppard warned.
"Well, help me!" Rodney begged. He couldn't do this on his own. He wasn't strong enough.
"Help you?" Sheppard grimaced. "I can't even stand up!" he gritted, his frustration tangible. "You're gonna have to pull him up on your own."
Oh god. He couldn't do this. But if he didn't, Carson was dead. Desperately, gritting his teeth, Rodney let go with one hand just long enough to let go of the pillar before grabbing hold again tightly. In the fraction of a second that he let go, Carson's weight dragged him further forward down the steep slope of the floor, towards the open door, and he heard Carson yelp as he dropped a few feet. Straining under the weight, Rodney set his stance and leaned his body weight back, using his own weight as a counter-balance. Slowly, painfully, he began to haul on the rope, inching Carson gradually back up towards the doorway.
"Hang on, wait a minute! Don't pull me up!" Carson's voice floated up from below.
Focused on his misery, on the strain of Carson's weight, on the desperate fear of losing his grip, of the rope slipping through his hands, Rodney looked up in disbelief. "What?! Why?!" he demanded.
"I see light!" Carson called, his voice sounding distant and echoey. Rodney panicked. Was Carson hurt? Was he slipping away from them even as Rodney tried desperately to pull him back to safety?
"No-no-no-no-no!" he yelled. "Don't go towards the light! You wanna stay in the land of the living!"
"No! Daylight!" Carson shouted back and Rodney felt an almost physical flush of relief. "There's a mineshaft down there. I see daylight!"
"Of course!" Sheppard realised, peering out the edge, as though he might be able to see the mineshafts himself. "Just like the ones on the other side of the mine. We should have thought of that."
Rodney's arms were burning, his legs starting to tremble. He didn't know how much longer he could keep this up. "Guys!" He yelled desperately. "What do you want me to do? What do I do?!"
"Lower me!" Carson shouted.
"What?! Lower you?!" First pull him up, then lower him… what did they think he was, superman?!
"It's about ten feet away," Carson explained. "I just need to swing over."
Okay, so there was a way out down there. Maybe. If the tunnels even lead out and not just deeper into the mine. "If the mineshaft is harder to get out of than this chamber..." he warned.
"We've already lost our exit, Rodney." Sheppard said, still peering down at Carson dangling below.
"What?" For a moment Rodney didn't understand, and then he looked up and saw that the hole in the ceiling was gone, covered over with solid-looking earth. With a sinking heart he realised that the room had tilted so far that the ceiling had shifted under the layer of earth above, effectively blocking off the hole. There was no way they were getting out that way. Which meant their only option was to go out the door, down into the chasm and up the mineshafts.
"I'll take my chances." Carson cried, panic tingeing his words. "Just lower me. I can't hold on forever!"
Hanging on grimly to the rope, Rodney muttered a heartfelt, "You and me both," and began to slowly, gingerly, inch his hands back up the rope, feeding it out and letting Carson gradually sink further into the chasm.
He'd played out a few feet of rope when Carson shouted, "Okay, good! Stop!"
Rodney hurt everywhere. He dug in, grimacing with the strain, and gritted tensely, "Gladly."
Sheppard was still sprawled on the floor, leaning his head out the doorway to watch. Rodney could tell when Carson began to swing; he could feel it through the rope, feel the pull and drag and twist, the scrape of the rope moving over the lip of the doorway, the added strain on his arms, his back, as Carson's weight swung first one way and then the other.
"You're doing great, Rodney." Sheppard called over his shoulder, splitting his attention between Carson swinging far below and Rodney straining to hold the rope. "You're doing just great."
"No," he disagreed despairingly. "'Great' is a beach with a fibreoptic hook-up. This is just complete agony."
He hung on desperately, leaning back as he tried to brace himself, biting his lip as he tried to keep a grip on the moving rope… and then, without warning, the weight was gone, the rope slackening abruptly in his hands, and he was falling. He toppled backwards and hit the ground with a thud.
"I made it!" Carson announced belatedly from somewhere below.
Exhausted, trembling and aching all over, Rodney struggled to a sitting position and groused, "You could have warned me!"
He felt like he'd aged about 30 years as he clambered tiredly to his feet. His entire body hurt and his arms and legs felt shaky and weak.
The huge space of the empty cavern made Carson's voice echo as he yelled excitedly. "This thing leads straight out! It's a nice steady slope! Come on, you guys, you've gotta get down here!"
Sheppard was pushing himself up to a sitting position once again, his leg dragging limply, and scooted across until he could lean heavily against the wall beside the door. He looked ill, his face pale and pinched and yet infused with a mulish determination that Rodney knew far too well. "You go," Sheppard gasped.
Rodney was more indignant than surprised. "What? No way!" he argued.
Sheppard was breathing heavily, the pain of moving even such a short distance exhausting him. "There's no way I'm gonna be able to lower myself," he explained simply.
"You won't have to," Rodney said immediately. "I'll lower you." Leaving Sheppard behind was not an option. They were all getting out of here.
Sheppard pulled a face, looking almost pained as he waved a hand in Rodney's general direction. "Rodney… your hands," he said.
Surprised, Rodney looked down his hands. They were shaking and he couldn't make them still. His palms were bloody, angry rope burns marring the skin. He was vaguely aware that they hurt like hell but it was just one pain amongst many, one element of the all-encompassing ache that was his body. It didn't matter. He wasn't leaving Sheppard. If the only way for them to get out was for him to lower Sheppard out the door on a rope, then that's what he'd do.
He let his hands drop and raised his head defiantly. "Look, I'm not leaving you behind," he told Sheppard stubbornly. "Come on – I'll make you a seat."
Finding a sturdy enough piece of wood to use to make a seat wasn't difficult but tying it all together was; his battered hands complicated the process, feeling unfamiliar and clumsy, the fingers stiff and unresponsive as he tried to pull the knots tight. Sheppard insisted on helping, pointing out that his leg was broken, not his arms. He took the wood and rope off Rodney, placing it in his lap, and with a sympathetic grimace, commanded Rodney to at least wrap the angry burns across his palms.
There were some scraps of cloth left over from building Rodney's improvised canon; they were old and grimy and not remotely hygienic and Rodney quailed a little at the thought. But he didn't have much choice; he needed to be able to be able to lower Sheppard far enough down for him to reach the mineshaft and to do that he needed to be able to use his hands. Unsanitary or not, the rags were the only thing he had to protect his injured hands from the rough surface of the rope. Right now infection was the least of his worries.
He tore the cloth into long strips and began wrapping a wide strip gingerly around one palm, wincing as the fabric pressed against raw flesh. He was struggling to knot the cloth in place, fumbling with stiff fingers and teeth, when Sheppard interrupted him.
He looked up to find that Sheppard had finished the rudimentary seat already, the rope tied firmly around the centre of the length of wood. Sheppard beckoned him over and gestured for him to hold out his half-bandaged hand.
"Broken leg, Rodney. Arms work fine," he commented dryly, pulling the bandage tight and tying off the ends firmly. For a moment, it was nice to let someone else take charge and Rodney almost meekly let Sheppard wrap his other hand, knotting the rags firmly into place. And then the brief respite was over; the seat was ready, Rodney's hands were bandaged as best they were able, and it was time to get the hell out of here.
Getting Sheppard onto the seat and ready to be lowered was a painful process – literally, for Sheppard. He used his arms to scoot himself closer to the open doorway, his face pale and pinched as his injured leg dragged across the floor. Having chance to prepare this time, Rodney looped the rope around the pillar, giving himself at least a basic pulley system so that all the weight wasn't transferring straight to his back and arms. He'd also thought about the practicalities of getting Sheppard across to the mineshaft once he was low enough – he wasn't going to be able to swing himself with the agility that Carson had so Rodney had come up with a simple solution; the seat had been tied so that an extra length of rope hung below the piece of wood, rope that Sheppard now coiled up and slung over one shoulder. Once he was low enough, he could throw the rope to Carson and Carson could just reel him in.
Sheppard rolled awkwardly from side to side as he slipped the piece of wood between his legs and settled it under his ass. He was breathing heavily by the time he sat up and gave Rodney a grimly determined nod. Rodney braced himself, biting his lip at a flush of hot pain as he closed his battered hands around the rope and took up the slack. He saw a flash of an answering grimace on Sheppard's face as he swung his legs around, using his hands to lift and move his right leg as carefully as possible, and shuffled forward until he was perched on the lip of the drop, his legs dangling over the edge. Even though he knew this should work, even though he'd checked and double-checked everything, Rodney still felt a cold tremor of fear up his spine. For the next few moments, Sheppard's life was going to be literally in Rodney's hands.
Getting out the door was the worst part. Sheppard tried to transition his weight from the floor to the rope as smoothly as possible, trying to twist his body around and bear some of his weight on his arms as he slipped himself over the edge but it was awkward and, despite Rodney being braced, Sheppard's sudden weight on the rope pulled him a staggering step forward before he managed to tighten his grip on the rope. Sheppard yelped, tipped off balance by the sudden drop, and Rodney's heart leapt into his throat as he felt the rope twist and swing wildly.
"Sheppard?" he yelled.
"Here…" Sheppard's voice was raw and pain-filled but it eased the knot of tension in Rodney's stomach, just a little bit. He twisted and leaned over to his right a little and found that he could just see the top of Sheppard's messy mop of hair over the lip of the doorframe.
"You okay?" he fretted.
Sheppard's head was bowed, leaning into the taut rope as he swung cumbersomely just below the door. "I'm good," he called up, after a moment. "Start lowering…"
Rodney's hands were already killing him, his tight grip pressing the rope painfully against his raw flesh, even through the cloth wrapping. Gritting his teeth, he began to slowly feed the rope through his hands, a whimper escaping him as the movement brought further pain.
An answering groan floated up from the echoing cavern and he guessed that this ride was no fun for Sheppard either. He kept passing the rope from hand to hand, leaning further backwards to try and counterbalance the weight, feeling the strain in his shoulders and arms. His jaw was starting to ache from being clenched with effort, his teeth gritted together. He groaned as he felt the muscles in his back tremble and burn. The rope slipped a little and he clamped his hands hard around it, nearly crying out with the pain. Somewhere down below, Sheppard gave a pained grunt. It was hard to feed the rope smoothly and every jerky, incremental descent must be jarring Sheppard's broken leg, Rodney realised.
After about a millennia or so, Sheppard finally called up, his voice rough and a little shaky, "Okay, that's good! Stop!"
"Stopping!" Rodney called back with relief. Now came the fun part. Sheppard would have to throw the second length of rope over the Carson. And Carson would have to catch it. Despite the broken leg thing and being dangling over a chasm on a twisting rope seat, Rodney had no concerns over Sheppard's ability to throw the rope accurately. He wasn't quite so confident in Carson's ability to catch said rope. He only hoped it didn't take them too many tries. His hands were on fire.
There was a shout from below. Carson yelling, "Okay!"
Then he felt the rope move in his hands as Carson obviously began to pull Sheppard over towards the mineshaft entrance. After a moment, Carson shouted again. "Almost there! Just give me a few more feet of slack!"
Carefully, painfully, Rodney fed out a couple more feet of rope.
For a moment or two there was silence and then Carson yelled, "Okay, I've got him!"
Rodney sagged with relief, his breath escaping in a gasp of exhaustion as he let the rope drop.
"You're up, McKay!" Carson shouted from far below.
Rodney was frozen to the spot, leaning exhaustedly forward, his body angled to compensate for the steep tilt of the floor, and the last thing he felt like doing right now was moving. He wasn't even sure he could move; every muscle in his body ached and he didn't think he'd ever felt this tired.
"Oh great! Great!" he called back weakly, fatigue robbing his sarcasm of some of its bite. "You know, I was just thinking what would be awesome would be more physical exertion!" He flapped a hand tiredly and even that hurt.
He just needed a moment to catch his breath, that was all. Just a moment.
"Yeah, yeah. Coming," he mumbled. And pushed himself reluctantly into motion.
Climbing down the dangling, swaying rope was a new level of hell. He'd tied the end off as securely as he could to the metal pillar and had lowered himself to sit in the open doorway, legs dangling out over space, trying his hardest not to look down at, not to even think about, the immense drop below him. It had taken all his courage to wrap his legs around the rope, grab on tight with his aching hands, and slip his weight over the lip of the doorway and out into nothingness. The rope had swung wildly as he put his full weight on it, making him close his eyes and cling to it in terror.
"Come on, Rodney! You're doing fine!" Carson's encouragement from what seemed impossibly far below had gotten him to open his eyes and slowly, cautiously, begin to inch his way down the knotted rope. Carson continued to shout out encouragement from below as Rodney swung around on the rope. He was so tired, so damn tired, and every time he shifted his hands on the rope it brought a fresh sting of pain. It seemed to take an age until his feet bumped against the wooden crossbar and he fumbled it around for a moment until he had one foot on either side of it and could take some of the weight off his feet.
The rope was twisting slowly, spinning him around as he stood on the makeshift seat. Over to his right he could see Carson hovering in the opening of the mineshaft, a welcoming grin on his face. Behind him, Sheppard lay slumped against the wall further up the tunnel. He was half hidden in shadows and Rodney couldn't see enough to tell what his condition was, but he could see that he was moving a little so that had to be a good sign. All he had to do now was get over to the mineshaft himself. He was just so damned tired though and it seemed so much effort. More effort than he had left in him.
"Come on," Carson called out encouragingly. "Now start swinging."
Clinging to the rope, spinning gently in space, Rodney felt like every single muscle in his body was shaking with fatigue.
"Rodney, you have to use your body and start swinging," Carson pushed. "Come on, you're so close."
Just hanging on the rope was killing him. The thought of having to move… "No, I've given everything I've got to get this far," Rodney argued.
"So that's it, then? You're quitting? You're just gonna die there on the rope?"
Rodney frowned at Carson's tone, even as he grimaced in discomfort. "No," he argued, a little defensively. "No, I'm just taking a little rest."
Just a little rest to get his strength back. Frankly, he was amazed he'd made it this far. Playing the action hero was Sheppard's job, not his. Somehow, Sheppard always managed to make it look easy but Rodney knew for a fact that it was anything but. How did he get into these situations anyway? He'd come to the Pegasus galaxy expecting to sit in a lab and make incredible scientific discoveries that would change the course of human history. And somehow he'd found himself travelling to alien worlds, shooting guns, escaping from deadly situations and having crazy adventures like some insane Indiana Jones-wannabe. And it really rather took the fun out of it to find out that the stuff that looked so exciting and thrilling on the movie screen always turned out to be nothing but painful and terrifying in real life.
Trying to gather the strength to even think about moving, Rodney mused out loud, just a little plaintively, "You know, I might ... be like a real-life action star, kinda…"
"What?" Carson asked, clearly nonplussed.
"You know: shooting guns, running around, saving people," Rodney explained. He tried to shift his position a little and the resulting pain made him scrunch his eyes closed. He carried on talking, trying to distract himself. "You think I'd be... you think this'd be easy for me now. You think I'd be, like, super-buff by now."
"Well, come on, Schwarzenegger," Carson teased, "start swinging."
"Just a second more," Rodney hedged, closing his eyes. He just needed to get his strength back. Just one last push, and he'd be…
An ominous creaking sound came from above, echoing loudly in the cavern, and Rodney's eyes shot open and turned upwards, adrenalin flooding through him.
"Okay. Break's over!" he gabbled. Fear leant him strength and he grit his teeth as he leant backwards, letting the off-centre distribution of his weight push the rope forwards. Using his arms to tilt his weight backwards and back up again was agony but the rope was starting to swing in a larger and larger arc, away from the mineshaft and then closer, away and then a little bit closer again. Carson was reaching out for him but he wasn't quite close enough. Another swing. Almost there. Another swing and this time Carson's hand closed around his arm and pulled him closer.
He'd almost got his feet onto solid ground when suddenly the rope snapped and he was dropped unceremoniously into the mineshaft, his momentum thankfully carrying him forwards to sprawl on the ground, knocking Carson off his feet as the severed rope whipcracked past the mineshaft entrance and disappeared. He scrabbled hurriedly back from the edge of the shaft, a thrill of fear running through him at his narrow escape.
"That was close!" he gasped.
Just a second later soil and chunks of rock began to rain past the mineshaft opening and Rodney watched in awe as the entire room, the metal box they had just spent the last few hours trapped in, plunged past them, it's cumbersome mass completely obscuring the view of the cavern for a second or two, before hitting the cavern floor with a distant and grinding crash.
"Great!" he corrected himself with feeling. "That was close!"
Carson nodded wordlessly, a reassuring hand on Rodney's shoulder, before clambering to his feet, crouching in the low-ceilinged tunnel.
"Okay. C'mon." He threw a look over his shoulder and told Rodney, "You need to help me."
Rodney struggled to his feet, feeling roughly 190 years old, and shakily followed Carson up the tunnel to where Sheppard lay half-leaning against the wall. He looked ill, his face pale and drawn under a coating of dirt. It quickly became apparent that the only way to get Sheppard out of the low-ceilinged tunnel would be for Carson and Rodney to carry him. There was no way he could stand unaided and the tunnel was too cramped for them to try and support him between them. Rodney grimaced; he felt like he could barely carry his own weight right now, let alone Sheppard's, and no matter how careful they were, this was going to be no picnic for Sheppard.
"Okay," Carson murmured. "One, two, three!"
Moving as one, Carson and Rodney lifted, Rodney's hands under Sheppard's armpits, Carson cradling his legs as gently as possible. Sheppard gave a yelp and went white as a sheet.
"Okay, carefully now," Carson advised. "But as quickly as we can, please. Let's get this bit over and done with." Rodney began to shuffle backwards up the incline of the tunnel slope, Carson following, his arms wrapped around Sheppard's knees. It was cramped and uncomfortable, the low ceiling forcing Rodney to bend forward over Sheppard as he felt his way carefully with his feet, unable to see where he was going. Sheppard was tight-lipped and sweating, obviously in great pain. Once or twice Rodney fumbled his steps and Sheppard groaned helplessly as Rodney and Carson struggled to hold him steady.
Finally, they emerged from the mineshaft into a grassy field not unlike the one that had unceremoniously dumped Rodney into the Genii mining facility in the first place. Rodney had never been so pleased to see the sun and the pale blue sky above. He helped Carson lay Sheppard gently down in the grass and then slowly, painfully, and deliberately lowered himself to the ground and flopped exhaustedly onto his back with a hearty sigh. He was still lying there, not moving and not planning to ever move again if he had his way, when Carson's face loomed into view overhead.
"The Colonel's stable enough for now," Carson stated, "but I really need to get him back to Atlantis and under a scanner."
Rodney groaned despairingly. Depending on where exactly they'd come out, the gate was at least a 20 minute walk away. 20 minutes walk for someone whose every muscle didn't ache and who wasn't carrying an injured team mate. There was no way Sheppard could walk and the mere thought of them having to carry him that far…
"I need you to keep an eye on John," Carson was explaining. "I'm going to head back to the gate and call for a jumper."
Rodney breathed a sigh of relief as Carson continued, "I don't want to move him more than I have to and from the look of your hands I don't want you doing any more lifting."
Rodney struggled reluctantly to a sitting position as Carson straightened and stepped back. Sheppard was lying where they'd set him down, white-faced and breathless, his head turned to watch as Carson set off with a promised, "I'll be back shortly with a jumper and a medical team." He gave a brief wave and turned away.
"Hey," Rodney mumbled tiredly, grimacing as he forced aching muscles to scootch him closer to Sheppard.
"Hey," Sheppard agreed roughly. He lifted his head for a moment, his face wrinkling with the effort, to glance down at his splinted leg, now resting on Carson's wadded-up uniform jacket, before flopping back with a sigh.
Rodney gave his own sigh as he let himself flop back into the grass again.
The sunlight was warm and the sky was a pale shade of blue, crisscrossed by streaks and dots of cloud here and there. After hours trapped underground in a dark and dingy – and unstable – metal box, it was one of the loveliest sights he'd ever seen.
He was still gazing up at it when the jumper flew smoothly overhead and circled round to set down in the field.
Rodney's hands were the only bit of him that didn't ache. They'd been cleaned and slathered in ointment – and boy had they'd looked nasty once the makeshift bandages had been (painfully) peeled off and the dirt cleaned away! – and a medic was finishing up wrapping a dressing around his right hand, his left already looking like it was wrapped in a white fingerless glove. Carson, his hands also bandaged, was hovering nearby, reading reports that a lackey was having to hold up for him on a datapad. Rodney sighed, looking at his bandaged hands; he somehow doubted any of his staff would be willing to meekly hold reports up for him and be his surrogate hands while his injuries healed. Damn, this was going to be annoying…
"Looks good. Okay, thank you." Carson dismissed the lackey and Rodney caught his attention.
"How's Sheppard?" he asked.
Carson leaned against the exam bed. "He's gonna be okay," he smiled. "It's a clean break. Still, they're re-setting it and putting him into a cast, which means he's gonna be on crutches for a few weeks or so, but..." He tailed off as the medic neatly tied off the final piece of dressing and gathered up his supplies.
"Thank you," Carson smiled, dismissing the medic with a nod, before coming back to the topic. "He's gonna be fine," he repeated. He cast as glance at Rodney's neatly-wrapped hands. "How're you doing?"
Rodney looked consideringly at his hands and told Carson, "I'd like to take a bath in whatever magical ointment they just put on my hands, 'cause they're the only thing that doesn't hurt." A sudden thought occurred to him. "It's not gonna scar, is it?"
Carson just smiled, straightening up. "Chicks dig scars," he teased with a grin.
"Not the chicks I dig," Rodney muttered. Girls who liked scars liked macho heroes like Sheppard, not science geeks like him.
"You're gonna be fine," Carson relented.
Not entirely convinced, Rodney nodded. He was feeling more tired by the minute, the adrenalin of the last few hours of stress and fear deserting him.
"Thanks, by the way," Carson added, his expression turning serious.
For a moment Rodney was lost. "For what?"
"You saved my life," Carson pointed out. "If you'd let go..."
Rodney smiled a little. He had hadn't he? Maybe he was a bit of a hero after all. "You're welcome," he said magnanimously, before sliding gingerly off the exam bed, a task that was easier said than done with his hands all bandaged up.
"Right, well," he announced, "I'm going back to my room, curling up in the foetal position and sleeping for the next three days."
"Okay," Carson agreed, turning towards his office. "You can bring me the bottle of whiskey later," he added casually as he walked away.
"Hmm? What?" Rodney was almost at the door before his brain finished processing that statement.
"You owe me a bottle of single malt, Rodney," Carson stood in the doorway to his office and grinned. "For the trick I showed you."
"You said if it worked you'd buy me a bottle of single malt," Carson pointed out, his tone reasonable.
"Well, it didn't work, did it?" Rodney argued irritably. "It gave way and Sheppard broke his leg!
"The bridge worked." Carson's expression was deliberately innocent. "It's not my fault if the materials used were sub-standard…"
"Sub-standard?!" For a brief, irrational moment Rodney considered that maybe he should have let go of that rope and let Carson fall. "It was all we had to work with! How is that my fault?!"
"A promise is a promise, Rodney." Carson's innocent smile held for a moment longer before creasing into a smirk. The thought that he should have just let go of that rope crossed Rodney's mind again as he sagged with relief. Carson had been teasing him again.
"Come on," Carson beckoned him into the office. "What say we open that bottle of single malt right now?"
"What?" It seemed Rodney's brain had shut down for that day. He was pretty sure he did actually have more words in his vocabulary than what. "What single malt?" Well, that was a start.
He followed on aching legs as Carson went to his desk and pulled up a second chair, waving Rodney into it. As Rodney semi-collapsed into the seat, Carson unlocked a small drugs cabinet and withdrew a full bottle of something called Dalwhinnie and a couple of glasses. "I've been saving this," Carson commented as he peeled the seal from the bottle and gently worked the cork free.
"So what's the occasion?" Rodney watched numbly as Carson poured a generous measure of light golden liquid into each glass.
"Being alive." Carson handed him a glass with a smile.
Rodney thought about that. He ached all over, his hands were torn up and Sheppard had a broken leg and was going to be on crutches for weeks. But they were all still alive.
He raised his glass and clinked it against Carson's. He could drink to that, he decided.