Author's Note: This was written for the 2008 Secret Santa on the LiveJournal Sheppard_hc board. I was given this prompt from ga_unicorn: whump, obviously; preferable Sheppard, but feel free to whump them all. I currently enjoy reading stories where Sheppard interacts with the Marines under his command, but if you can't write the military in a positive manner - please don't. I'd like something with Sheppard and at least one other team member (or Lorne!), something happening in the city, and bring his ATA gene into it.
Well, this is what my addled brain came up with. My apologies for the lateness - in the last six weeks work and real life reared up and pile drived my ass through the sweat stained mat of reality.... The good news is things are finally getting back on track. :) So enjoy!
A Hair's Breadth
John learned pretty early on in his first few weeks on Atlantis that when he finally got the chance to retire to his quarters at the end of his day, he didn't dare take his boots off, or even change into civvies for that matter, until at least three hours had passed just in case any major emergencies reared their ugly heads. And being Atlantis … well, anything was possible, and he'd prefer running to the emergency with his pants and boots on, thank you very much. People teased him about his short little bed all the time, but it actually did serve a purpose – when bedding was at a premium that first year he didn't have to worry about his boots ruining his limited supply since his feet jutted out over the end. He tended to sleep curled up on his side anyway, so when he did crawl in after his emergency buffer period, the shortness didn't matter.
Most nights he'd flip through any magazines he might have, new or old and dog-eared, or the occasional comic book until he couldn't focus his eyes any more. He'd only pull out Tolstoy at the last minute – a few pages of that worked better than a glass of warm milk and a full body message. Nearly five years, and he still hadn't finished the silly thing. And if he was wound up, well, he found first person shooter computer games incredibly relaxing, and that was something he didn't dare tell the new shrink on base. He was a bit … anal, and even though he passed through the SGC's and IOA's hoops with flying colors, John swore the guy was a bit prejudiced towards the military. It was just something about the way he smiled at him or his boys – it was just so fake.
John was nearing the end of his vigil, the latest Hellboy graphic novel to show up on base tented on his chest as he yawned and rubbed his dry eyes, and decided the rest would have to wait. Rodney was still two days out on the Daedalus so he couldn't bug him to stay awake any longer – he still couldn't believe Keller went with him to that scientific demo. It just boggled his mind because he was sure something was going to happen between her and Ronon…. Even Teyla was leaning that way. Eh, it just proved he never, ever saw things like that coming.
He was about to bag it and actually consider turning in early when his radio chirped and Lorne's voice came over the com. "Colonel Sheppard, please come in."
John glanced at his watch. Damn, ten more minutes…. Shortly followed by, wow, they're up late. He tapped his ear piece. "Sheppard here. What's up, Major?" He tried to keep his tone light, but he was so tired his voice came out sounding like he'd gargled with sand.
"Sorry to disturb you, Sir, but Zelenka found something that, ah, he thought you really need to take a look at."
Normally the guy had a drawl that could rival his, but not right now. Huh, he sounds excited, John thought as he tossed the novel onto his desk and sat up. "Do I need to gear up? Put on a biohazard suit?" Bring C4….
"No, Sir." Lorne's grin travelled clearly over the link.
"Say, do I need to worry about anything exploding? Or melting down? Because really, if something catastrophic happens, McKay is going to be so put out that he missed it." John was grinning as he left his quarters.
"I don't think we have to worry about disappointing him too much, Sir. Well, maybe a little. We're on the North Pier, building Foxtrot-Beta-Niner. I'll meet you at the transporter."
Ah, John knew which building that was. The survey crew started the exploration and cataloguing of the North Pier a few weeks ago, and there was one tower that was this short, rounded, actually somewhat ugly thing that the Marines protecting the crew coined "The Fat Bastard". Of all the buildings on Atlantis, it truly was a bit of an eyesore. The designation stuck, even with the scientists, so it became FB9, the nine just indicating it was the ninth one on the list. "All right, Major. Be there shortly. Sheppard out." He made a quick detour to the mess and grabbed three coffees, then, with a quick jab to a screen, found himself on the far side of the city. The doors opened up on the biggest, cheesiest grin he'd ever seen on the guy. "Must be good," John said as he handed over a go cup.
"You have no idea, Sir." He raised the cup in a thank you salute before he pulled the lid off and took a drink. They started down the dim corridor. "Zelenka has been beside himself – I swear only every fifth word is actually in English."
"Where's the rest of your crew?" John saw Lorne flinch faintly out of the corner of his eye.
"The rest of the scientists left hours ago – I volunteered to babysit the doc and sent my boys to bed."
"Huh." Okay, he'd give the Major that. This time. Things had been pretty quiet, after all. It must have something to do with Rodney's absence…. While the catastrophe magnet was away, the mice got to breathe big fat hairy sighs of relief.
The corridor their footsteps echoed in was very plain, even by Ancient standards, and paneled in a heavy dark material that seemed to suck in all the light as they traveled deeper into the tower. The water filled columns were even absent, and it took John a moment to realize there weren't any windows, either. One thing about the Ancients – they loved their stained glass and their balconies and their potted plants. Of all the buildings he'd been in in the city over the years, this was the first that actually screamed military to him. He cocked his head and listened for the constant, nearly musical hum in the back of his mind that was Atlantis herself, and even her song seemed slightly subdued here.
All the little hairs on the back of his neck rippled. "So, what has Radek about ready to stroke out?"
Lorne's grin disappeared before he deadpanned, "He thinks this is a drone manufacturing facility." His eyes were still dancing, however.
John stopped dead in his tracks. He blinked at the Major. "Really?" His voice cracked and he took a sip of coffee. "Holy crap!"
Lorne nodded, his grin returning full force.
"I thought McKay had poured over the database, said there wasn't anything like that here." He could feel a crooked grin slowly coming to the surface, and he sure as hell didn't need the caffeine jolt anymore. "Oh man, he's going to shit himself when he gets back." He was about to shit himself…. "Really?" he repeated, the word this time coming out at a little more manly tone.
Again Lorne nodded and started walking. The hall had a definite curve to it, and when they reached a t-section the mutterings of one very excited Czech talking to himself drifted from the right hand branch. They followed the sound to the only door in that section and stepped into a room only slightly brighter than the hallway. The opposite wall was open, a heavy railing the only barrier between banks of control panels and a black so deep it appeared solid. Each of the control panels – looked like eight of them total – had one of those transparent screens hanging above it. Zelenka was at the panel in the dead center of the room, Ancient text scrolling across the screen and the green letters practically laser bright against the black backdrop. He had a laptop hooked into the panel, and at the moment it seemed he was running maybe a translation program.
"Hey, doc – hear you hit the mother lode," John said as he ambled up to the scientist.
Zelenka's rambling stopped in mid-word and his eyes focused immediately on the coffee. "Děkuji! You are, are požehnání." He took the Styrofoam cup in both hands and cradled it like a precious treasure.
Lorne smirked at John. "Told you."
Zelenka snorted at Lorne. "Yes, have found mother lode," he finally answered after drinking half of the cup down. Good thing it wasn't scalding hot…. He waved John over to the control panel. "The system is sealed – I imagine security protocols very strict."
John wasn't hiding his grin – not only did Radek resort to Czech when he was excited or upset, his English got pretty bad.
"I've been running Rodney's encryption program, but does not seem to be working."
"Better watch it, Radek – that gets back to McKay, he's liable to take them as fighting words."
Zelenka looked at John, then just waved a hand and made a disgusted raspberry. "The man no longer frightens me – I have become, what is word? Acclimated." He set his cup down. "This system was completely ve spaní, ah, dormant when we found it, and this was the only panel Lorne could wake with his gene." He pooched his lips out faintly and looked up at John. "Got me thinking – perhaps system can only be operated by Ancients. Or…." He lifted his eyebrows.
"Someone with a stronger gene," Lorne added.
John was trying to keep a serious face as he nodded, while inside he was pretty sure he hadn't been this excited about Ancient tech since he, well, threw Rodney off the 'Gate Room balcony. "I see." The grin finally won. "I suppose I could give it a try," he drawled out.
Zelenka beamed as he stepped aside and gestured to a round gold tinted crystal mounted in the center of the panel. It looked a lot like the activation pad on a DHD without all the 'gate symbols around it. "Just place hand there – if I read text correctly, it will activate control room for now."
John reached for it and it started to glow before his hand even touched it. Even then, he paused, palm a mere inch away, and raised an eyebrow. "You sure this is safe?" Not only was his question out loud to Zelenka, it was also an internal inquiry to Atlantis herself.
"I would be lež, lying if I said yes. But this is Atlantis." He shrugged. "Crap shoots are part of daily life, no?"
John kept his face dead pan, but Lorne snorted. "All right," John said rather reluctantly. At least Radek was giving him a moment – if Rodney was here right now, the guy would be grabbing his hand and pushing it down onto the crystal. He listened to Atlantis for a moment – she wasn't wailing or screaming, yet, so he took that as a good enough answer to his previous question – and started thinking as loud as he could only activate the panels, only activate the control panels, and put his hand down. His next thought was only one word:
At first absolutely nothing happened. Then the panels and hanging crystal screens lit up all around them as a deep hum seemed to start on one side of the room and move to the other. John pulled his hand back like he'd been bitten, then glanced worriedly at Zelenka, but the scientist was already focused on his computer. Information flashed across the various hanging screens, and having run diagnostics on the 'jumpers many times, he recognized the routines. The hum turned into a vibration he could feel through the soles of his boots, and he and Lorne glanced at each other. "Ah, Radek? Should that be happening?"
Zelenka was typing as fast as Rodney. "Yes, yes, all is fine. Just system warm up." He scrolled through displays on his laptop. "I think."
The vibration cut off abruptly, then all screens flashed once and went dark for a moment before steady displays popped up. Zelenka's hands came up as well. "I believe … we are good to go." He looked like he didn't believe his own words, so he spent the next few minutes going from station to station reading data – the translation program Rodney had integrated into the mainframe was doing its job and converting the Ancient text into English. John and Lorne trailed right behind him, and pretty soon their own inner geeks were just as happy and, well, bouncy as Zelenka was.
"Systems appear to be operational," Zelenka said once he was back at the main console. "There are problems, yes – but understandable after ten thousand years. Facility could be fully operational in…." He stuck his lips out again and shrugged. "Few weeks. Maybe less."
John wandered over to the railing and tried to see into the darkness beyond. "And this is the main manufacturing area, right?" His voice echoed faintly in the black void. At least that's what he concluded from the data on the screen to his right as they were bouncing around.
"Yes." Zelenka scrolled through some more data. "Ah I have found…."
John was thinking lights, on at that moment and got what he asked for. The darkness was instantly replaced by a harsh blue-white glare that made him squint and turn his head away.
"…Objasnění." Zelenka's mouth hung open and he shuffled over to the railing as well. Lorne joined him a moment later, his own face slack in awe.
"Holy crap," John muttered once the everything quit looking green whenever he blinked and turned back to a normal color. Apparently the center of FB9 was hollow – the cavernous space was round and rose a good four stories above them, and easily another five below. That explained the stubby shape of the building from the outside…. The enormous room was filled with an almost Rube Goldbergian selection of suspended equipment, crystalline webbing and conduits, catwalks and platforms, conveyors that led to the depths, and empty tanks. Hundreds, no, thousands of empty, oval tanks the size of bathtubs. Everything sparkled in the bright light and John felt like he was looking at the inside of a giant geode that made things that went boom instead of pretty jewelry.
"Wow," was all Lorne could say.
Zelenka's mouth opened and closed a few times. "Initial analysis of drones had evidence of organic base, but …." He just shook his head, fly-away hair drifting in its own breeze.
"They're grown," John added softly. He and the Czech had seen a similar set up, but on a decidedly much smaller scale, in a room deep in a temple whose sole purpose was to grow a single clone…. "Oh, man – McKay is going to swallow his tongue when he hears about this."
Lorne had his face screwed up in an odd, but amused grimace. "When Abernathy hears the 'space sperm' are grown, he's gonna freak. He can't stand to touch them now." He suddenly found the room's other two occupants staring at him.
"'Space sperm'?" John said.
"Yeah, that's what some of the boys call 'em."
John snorted. "I always thought of them as 'squids' myself." He grimaced and shook his head. "Gyah, that is just, just wrong."
"I think 'squid' much better," Zelenka added. "Makes firing them less, less … ah, shutting up now." To hide his discomfort he leaned over the railing for a better look, and whistled. The sound echoed back faintly. "Rodney will need oxygen and medic." Then he twisted around and looked up. "I don't see access to equipment. Do you?"
Pretty soon John and Lorne were leaning over the railing and craning their necks around, too. Then John spotted something below them. "Hey, Radek, step back." Zelenka did, and John knelt down where the man had been standing and felt over the edge. Yup, there was in indentation there – it wasn't just a shadow he spotted – and when he looked at the railing the center section of crossbars seemed smaller than the others. "Let me try something." He stood and concentrated on the floor and pictured in his mind a catwalk extending. He felt a vibration under his feet, and a moment later something did happen. A catwalk about six feet wide slid silently from the floor and connected with a sizeable round suspended platform that was approximately fifty feet out. Once it locked home with a soft bump, the railing slid back and offered access. Zelenka took a few more steps back, and John raised an eyebrow at him. "What?"
"Ah, you two may go." He waved them onward. "I will stay here, monitor systems."
"Don't like heights, doc?" Lorne asked.
"Heights, no problem. Lack of handrails, very problematický."
John smiled in understanding. "Okay. We'll go check out Cerebro – you start making a list of what needs fixing first. Because, man, when Rodney gets back, he's going to be itching to go." Hell, he was ready to start grabbing tools and getting to work. If they could make their own drones…. He glanced at Lorne and had a feeling the Major was thinking along the same lines, because the man eyes were just glittering. He twitched his chin towards the catwalk. "Shall we?"
Lorne swept a hand out. "Please, after you, Sir."
John took a few cautious steps out, but the catwalk was as solid as the floor he just left and he upped the pace. Yeah, nice and solid. Even then, Lorne still waited until he was almost to the other end and just a few steps from the platform before he stepped out and followed. The moment John's foot set down on the platform, the banks of panels ringing its edge lit up. Crystalline screens rose silently from them but stayed dark. John couldn't stop the quiet whoa that escaped him, and from behind him he could hear Lorne echo the sentiment. The round platform was the largest one he could see and seemed to sit in the heart of the complex, and quite honestly, he thought it was way cooler than Cerebro.
The screens suddenly lit up, one after the other in a green cascade of light. Only one screen stayed black, and another had a Teslian display of emerald lightning bolts radiating from a dark spot near the bottom left hand corner. John approached the panel, and when he got closer he could see the spot was actually a hole the size of his thumb, perfectly round, and bored through the screen at roughly a forty-five degree angle. He dropped to one knee and looked under the console, and found matching holes in the back of the thing as well as in the floor, their edges canted, too. "Looks like we have some meteor damage," he called over his shoulder to Zelenka.
"Not surprising," the engineer called back. "Over a year, and still patching holes."
For a second John had a stab of guilt and grimaced. Sorry 'bout that, old girl, he thought as he stood back up again. He wasn't sure, but for a second he thought he heard Atlantis sigh. He touched the command crystal to see if anything would come up, and the panel sparked weakly and went dark, but the screen kept up its crackling display. He still jumped back with a yelp, and then was grimacing guiltily at Zelenka. "Well, this panel's fried."
Zelenka just blinked, pushed his glasses up, then started muttering in Czech as he focused back on his computer.
Lorne smirked, but it disappeared at the glare from his CO. "So's this one, doc," he called out. "Don't see any holes, but the underside is pretty black. Looks like something blew."
John wandered along the line of panels, his hands tucked into his armpits so he would resist touching things. "Hey, Radek, any idea what this stuff's for?" He was trying to make sense of some of the data that was coming up, but the translation program didn't seem to be working here, and the charts and diagrams seemed pretty, well, generic. Rodney would probably recognize them. He wound up standing next to Lorne, and they just stood back and watched the pretty lights.
"I am searching," Zelenka replied. "All systems can be controlled from in here." He shook his head and continued his quiet muttering as he scrolled through data. "Wait – that is primary bio-systems control. It runs tanks."
Far above John and Lorne something hummed to life. The lights dimmed briefly and everything vibrated for a second. The two men were instantly alert and both craned their heads back and started scanning the area above them. All they could see were the undersides of a few more smaller platforms and narrow catwalks and some more access points from above – crystalline webbing and supports obscured anything beyond that.
"What did you touch?" Zelenka blurted out.
"Nothing!" The word came out pretty high. He glanced at Lorne, and the major shook his head.
John knew that phrase – hell, everyone on Atlantis used it with startling regularity. "What?" His voice managed not to crack that time.
"No, no, not good. Reading energy spikes…."
High up in the artificial cavern something blew and the platform shook as if in an earthquake. Sparks flew across the high dome, the crystalline webbing refracting the cast light like a warped disco ball and filling the interior of the facility with purple streaks. John and Lorne didn't need any encouragement – they were halfway across the catwalk before the echo of the explosion even died. Something above tore loose with a scream of tortured metal, and a second later the air was filled with the nearly musical ping of the webbing shattering as whatever it was started crashing down.
"Shut it down!" John yelled as he followed a couple steps behind Lorne on the catwalk, which was shaking a little too hard for his liking right now. Their shadows seemed to be racing them to the safety of the control room and its solid floor.
Zelenka's fingers were flying like a concert pianist's as he tried to do just that. "I can't – controls not responding."
Oh, hell, John thought. He could hear Atlantis's content humming song kick up a notch. Okay, baby, I know you can hear me. Shut it down, please, shut it down NOW!
There was a deafening crash behind him and the catwalk suddenly tilted back towards the platform and dropped several feet. Lorne dove forward and barely rolled into the control room.
John jumped while he still had some footing on the canted walkway.
His fingers just barely caught on the edge but he could tell it wasn't enough. Lorne dove forward and just missed catching his hands as he slid backwards down the ramp. He flattened his palms on the floor to try to slow his descent, but he could tell it was useless before the burn set in. Still he tried, and when he started to veer to the side and towards the edge, he rolled onto his opposite hip and straightened his slide. Now he could see the platform again, and one of the tanks sitting atop crushed panels. It was still intact, and in slow motion it toppled backwards and disappeared.
John was heading straight for the gap. The moment he hit the wider space of the platform he rolled to the side, and a second later he landed, knees flexed, a panel and a half away from certain doom. He hooked the toes of his boots into the brackets holding it in place and grabbed hold of one under another panel. He was under the bank of controls now, which was a good thing because debris was still raining down from above and it afforded him some protection. Even then, he still had to turn his face away and hold his left arm up to protect his face from crystal shards striking the platform and exploding like sparkly shrapnel.
He heard Lorne's voice in his ear, and for a split second he thought the major had slid down with him. But it was his radio. "I'm fine," he replied, then flinched when a particularly large shard hit the decking. He felt stinging along his exposed forearm. "For now."
Then the lights went out.
Now she listens, John thought, then instantly apologized. He could hear something else big coming down now and got as far under the control panel as possible. It struck the platform, hard, and dead on, and more than just the lights went out for John.
It was a voice that brought John up out of a nightmare about being buried alive with Ronon a crushed corpse next to him, his dreds caked with blood and brains and sightless eyes staring at him accusingly. For a moment he expected to smell smoke again, taste dust and blood, but when he opened his eyes it was dark and quiet. He could still taste blood, however, and the voice was in his head. Shh, baby - I'm fine, I'm fine. Still breathing. Shh. Atlantis's song changed from a wail to a fast tempo but still worried sounding hum. It's okay. Shh.
Another voice intruded, this one in his ear. "Colonel Sheppard! Please respond!"
"Yeah," John replied, his voice low and a little raspy. "Here, Major."
The relief in Lorne's voice when he replied was nearly palpable in the darkness. "Good to hear your voice, Sir."
"Glad to be able to speak," John muttered.
"Are you hurt?"
"Gimme a sec." He started with the basics – he could feel his fingers and toes. Good. He could wiggle said fingers and toes. Even better. There was something heavy across his legs – uncomfortable, yes, but not agonizing, and he could actually move them a fraction. Okay, looking better. Something was shoved hard against his lower back, and it felt like his ass was in a hole. Uncomfortable but survivable. Something sharp pressed against his right hip, but it didn't seem to be going into it, and another weight had his right arm and shoulder pressed awkwardly to the floor. His left arm was trapped across his chest, his fingers up near his collar bone. About the only thing he could move was his head. He hurt pretty much everywhere, yes, but nothing felt broken. "I'm still in one piece. And not skewered this time." He heard Lorne heave a big old sigh of relief.
"I got a call into Harris and his crew. They're gearing up, be here in five."
Hell, at this rate, I'll owe him and the rest of the combat engineers an entire brewery. "I'll be here." The dark was getting to him – being trapped, again, was bad enough, but being trapped in pure darkness made it infinitely worse. He wished he had some kind of light…. There was a faint snap, followed by a low buzz, and a sickly pale green light filled the area. John blinked, and when his eyes focused in the dim light he almost wished for the blackness to return. "Oh, fuck," he whispered.
It was one of the crystalline screens that had come to life at his request. It was caught in an impressive tangle of steel, and one corner was sheared off at an alarming angle. The pale green of flickering snow and lightning brought the razor edge into brilliant focus and turned it into a neon highlighted guillotine blade. The sharp point hovered just beyond his nose – he had to literally cross his eyes to see it – and when he turned his head a little to the side he could tell it was about eight inches from his throat.
"Colonel?" This time it was a chorus from both Lorne and Zelenka. "We see some light."
"Yeah, that's me." John couldn't tear his eyes from that glittering edge and wicked point. To distract himself he asked, "So, what the hell happened?"
"As far as I can tell, a damaged power conduit near a cluster of tanks blew, took out support," Zelenka replied. "One tank broke free, came down, took some supports with it."
"A catwalk came down on top of you," Lorne added. "But things haven't moved for about fifteen minutes now."
John wondered how long he'd been out. So, about twenty minutes total – Harris and his crew should be appearing…. He could hear new voices in the background and grinned, but it quickly disappeared when a new voice came over his com.
"Colonel, are you all right?" Woolsey asked in the clipped tone John had come to recognize as his worried but still incredibly annoyed voice. If it had been more clipped, then that meant pissed.
"I'm good, just a bit, ah, cozy is all." He eyed the dangling blade and almost added, And contemplating a really close shave….
"Lt. Harris and his crew are here – I'm sure they'll have you out of there in no time."
John heard more talking in the background, then a low whistle. "I have to say, Colonel, when you make a mess, you make a mess." Harris's upper mid-western drawl always made him think of the movie "Fargo", and he always expected the guy to say oh, cheez after half his sentences. "You fine to sit tight while we scope things out?"
There was a pause. "That didn't sound very confident, Sir. Describe your situation there." John did, and Harris kept up a steady string of uh huh's as he listened. Then came the questions – can you move, what is your range of motion, can you tell how stable the rubble is around you, has anything around you moved in the last few minutes, what do you hear…. Now it was John's turn to respond with mostly huh uh's. At one point he tried to move his left arm off his chest. About all he accomplished was getting his watch hung up on something and the band pulling some hair out. "All right. Sit tight – I'm sending someone down now, Sir. You sing out if anything shifts, got that?"
John's eyes were glued to the neon above him, and he could feel drops of sweat starting to roll down his neck, his sides. "Oh, yeah. Like a freakin' canary." For a long time all John could hear was secondary noise from his radio and the occasional how ya doin' from Harris, and even though it may have been a few minutes total, it felt like hours. Then he started to hear noises closer to him, up beyond his head towards the higher end of the canted platform.
"Alright, he's there," Harris added unnecessarily.
"I can hear him," John replied.
"Colonel, I can see the very top of the screen," came a new voice he didn't recognize. "Where are you in relation to it?"
John couldn't hold back the snort. "Directly underneath." He heard the engineer start moving, followed a second later by a low groan that was nearly human in tone. The platform shuddered, and things shifted with a deceptive slowness. "STOP!" John shouted.
The very tip of the screen was resting on his throat.
He could hear Harris shouting in his ear, but at the moment the only thing John could focus on was not swallowing. He could feel the pressure against his Adam's apple, and a faint sting from sweat, but he was frozen. They were asking him to respond – surely they could hear his rapid breathing over the com because it certainly seemed to fill the space around him. Hell, the way his pulse was thundering in his ears, he was surprised they couldn't hear that. When the voices started to get panicked, he hissed out, "Don't…." The pressure intensified only a fraction as he spoke. "…Move."
"What happened?" This time it was Woolsey asking the question before Harris could.
"The pendulum came down," John whispered. "Screen – shifted." Spit seemed to filling his mouth and he absolutely had to swallow. There was a sharp sting, and a second later he could feel a trickle warmer than his sweat start sliding down his neck and towards his collar bone. "It's on my throat." That time when he spoke the pressure seemed less. Oh, crap….
They kept the com open as they discussed what to do. That was just fine by John – hearing their voices was a comfort in itself. He closed his eyes briefly and could see the edge of the blade still, this time superimposed in red over black. That was too much, and his eyes shot back open. A moment later he heard Harris give the order to pull Ramirez back. There was another groan, but nothing moved.
"Okay, Colonel, here's what were going to do," came Harris's voice. He was incredibly calm sounding, and his drawl less pronounced. "There is a catwalk about thirty feet above your position that seems to have its supports intact. Major Lorne is taking my boys up to make sure, and if it is, we're going to lower a man down to your position and get that screen out of the way. In the meantime, can you move away from it at all?"
"I'll try." John had been so fixated on that point that he didn't realize some of the pressure on his left arm had eased. He was able to get his watch free, and after a lot of scraping and swearing, he got his arm partway free and above his head into an open pocket. He groped around until he found a support, then latched on and pulled himself, carefully, to the side. His right shoulder did not like that one bit, but it moved the point off his Adam's apple and by craning his head towards his left shoulder he gave himself some breathing room. He got his left hand back down and felt the point – if it came down any more, it was going to slice the long muscle on that side of his neck before it hit anything vital. He draped his arm over his forehead since it was really the only place to put it now. His forehead was slick with sweat against his arm.
In his mind he heard Rodney's voice saying you are so screwed. He snorted and muttered, "Thanks." He couldn't escape the snark even when the man was still days away.
"I bought a couple inches, that's all." At least he could speak normally without fear of skewering something. "But I'm gonna have one helluva crick in my neck."
"Then have that PT you think is hot message it out," came Ronon's deep voice.
"Hey! What's … said on the mainland, stays on the mainland." John could hear chuckling from several people. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Woolsey called me. Teyla is on her way."
His eyes closed in relief and he allowed himself his first moment of relaxation since he regained consciousness in the dark. But when he spoke, his tone was mildly annoyed. "You should be asleep."
There was a pause, and John could almost see Ronon's shrug. "Wasn't asleep."
"Nor was I," Teyla added, and judging from the greetings in the background from Woolsey and Zelenka she had just stepped into the room.
"You should be with Torren."
"He was asleep. Kanaan can watch him."
"Harris and his boys have things under control. You guys…."
"Are where we need to be," Teyla finished, and though her tone was gentle, John could just imagine the set smile on her face. There would be no arguing with her.
"Okay, okay." He smiled in his little prison. Though he'd never admit it in a million years, their company, even over the radio, was … nice. "So, how nasty does it look from that angle."
"McKay is going to kill you," Ronon replied.
"That bad, huh?"
"You have no idea."
That last was from Woolsey, and it made John blink in surprise. He flinched faintly, then hissed when the point nipped his neck – he'd relaxed his crimped position too much, and he heard several concerned voices in his ear. Even Atlantis seemed worried. "I'm fine." I'm fine, he repeated internally. A second later he was distracted by a flash from above. He tensed, thinking it was something else about to blow.
"We're on the catwalk, Lieutenant. It's solid. Setting up now."
John heard more conversation back and forth between the engineers. The plan was as soon as the screen was away, they were sending someone back down from the control room. The sooner the better as far as he was concerned.
Something pinged, the platform groaned again and dropped a few inches to the right. John yelled as the weight on his right arm moved and clamped down a little tighter, and before he could do anything – not that he could – the screen shifted. The good news was it didn't come straight down. The bad news was it slid a bit sideways before dropping.
The edge was now against his neck, not even a hair's breadth between.
It was at enough of an angle the underside of his chin was resting on the slightly warm surface, and when he swallowed his Adam's apple was clear, but he felt a slight sting on the skin above it. There was also more warmth running lazily towards the hollow formed by his collar bones.
And several voices were yelling in his ear, the loudest being Harris.
"Still. Here," John hissed between his teeth. More warmth trickled down his neck from under his chin.
"What's your condition?" Harris snapped out.
"Uh … not good." He resisted swallowing. "On neck now." He kept his teeth clamped together, and he even tried to keep lip movement down to a bare minimum out of fear that the motion would draw more blood. "So, any day now, guys."
Harris's voice echoed in the dark as he barked orders to the team above, but in his ear Teyla's voice was calm and soothing. "They're lowering someone now, John. It won't be long."
John closed his eyes, his breath practically whistling in and out of his nose, and put his arm across his eyes to further block out the view of the screen. He never had claustrophobia a day in his life, and he mercilessly teased Rodney about his, but right now he could really sympathize with the guy. He wasn't sure what made it worse – his inability to move, or the blade pressed to his throat promising death if he did – but the whole situation made him swear a silent vow to Atlantis that he would never, ever tease Rodney again the next time they were stuck in some tunnel or cave or crawl space. His neck was starting to ache enough it drowned out the other pains now, but he had no choice but to keep his head cocked at the uncomfortable angle, his arm over his eyes helping hold it in place. It was that, or slit his own throat since there was no convenient beam-out available this time.
He didn't realize how long he'd been quiet until Teyla's voice cut through the dark. "Still breathin'," he replied.
"We can hear that," Ronon rumbled.
John snorted, felt a sting. "Don't … make me laugh, Chewie." He could feel a faint tremor starting in his neck, and he clamped down harder with his arm. He heard Ronon just grunt in reply.
"I will hit him if he does," Teyla added.
John smiled in the dark – he could so see her cross her arms and give Ronon her stern glare, the one with the raised eyebrow, and the big guy just smirking back at her. And in the background Woolsey just looking, well, constipated. He clamped down on his lips to keep from snorting again. "Thanks," he choked out a second later. "'Preciate it."
"Happy to help," she replied, and the smile he heard in her voice shone in his mind.
"Parker is in position now," Harris said. "Can you see him?"
John moved his arm enough to look up and saw a white light above him, and for a second he nearly freaked. Okay, John, get a grip…. "Yes," both men replied at the same time.
"Hold on, Colonel," Parker the currently faceless CE said. "This screen has a hole in it – I'm going to thread a cable through it so we can pull it away."
"Hope you have a light touch, Parker."
"Haven't had any complaints yet, Sir."
"Good." John moved his arm back to his forehead so he could keep an eye on things.
It seemed to take forever, but the kid was true to his word. John didn't feel the screen even vibrate as he threaded and clamped down the cable, or even when it started to lift ever so slowly. The moment the pressure released from his neck, John let out a soft, relieved groan, and when the gap between the neon edge and his throat was wide enough, he put his hand there. The stinging was worth it.
The screen flickered then went out the moment the power connection was severed. John was in the dark again, but now it didn't seem so bad. He groaned again as he moved his head back into a more comfortable position.
"I'm fine," he replied to Woolsey's hesitant inquiry. He closed his eyes, and in the back of his head he could hear Atlantis drop her song back down into a soothing hum. He couldn't tell for sure, but it didn't feel like his throat was bleeding too badly. He kept his hand clamped down just in case.
It took them close to four hours to get him out. They had to string several cables to stabilize the platform – the thing dropped another foot when Ramirez climbed back down – and when they finally levered the catwalk up enough to reach him, it came away so easy it was almost anticlimactic. During the course of his rescue, Teyla and Ronon – well, Teyla mainly – kept up a steady stream of conversation. Even Woolsey joined in and told a rather amusing story about the dog he'd lost in his messy divorce. Seemed it had a bit of a vindictive, devious streak that reminded him a lot of McKay – one time when he had caught it chewing on one of his wife's shoes and disciplined it, the dog had gotten its revenge by "doing its duty" in his favorite pair of loafers.
"And to think I actually missed that beast," he said in a deadpan that put Lorne's to shame.
Lorne and Ronon stayed busy helping the combat engineers between their own smart-assed comments, and Zelenka alternated between egging them on and running a complete systems diagnostic. He found several more compromised power conduits and marked them as first priority in the repair listing.
Exhaustion and pain slowly caught up with John, and several times he found himself nodding off even in his current uncomfortable situation. And each time he'd snap awake when his hand started to slip away from his throat. He couldn't tell, but he thought the bleeding had stopped, but he wasn't about to take any chances. His arm was shaking like he had the DT's by the time they got his right arm and legs unpinned. Parker assured him it wasn't bleeding, but he slapped a field dressing on it anyway before they got a harness around him and hoisted him out. His ass was asleep, and it still felt like it was resting in a hole as he swung through the air. It felt extremely … strange, to say the least. They didn't pull him up to the catwalk like he expected – instead they had a lead line on him and pulled him over to the control room where a med team was waiting. He could barely move and hanging limply in the harness brought out new aches and pains he didn't realize he had. When they finally laid him down on the gurney it felt as soft as a feather bed, and seeing Teyla and Ronon smiling, no, beaming down at him made the nightmare of nearly being decapitated in the dark fade some.
Everyone was absolutely exhausted, but no one was in a pissy mood as they wheeled him out of the room. "Thanks, guys," John croaked out before he finally let his eyelids droop shut. Teyla had a hand on his arm, Ronon one on his shin, and he felt both of them squeeze before he fell asleep.
John snapped awake at the spastic banging on the door to his quarters. He rolled over slowly – he was pretty much a walking bruise right now and had scrapes covering most of his right forearm and dozens of tiny cuts all along the left and that side of his face from the shrapnel – and glared at his clock. The red numbers informed him he'd only been asleep a couple hours, and his mind automatically calculated he'd been out of the infirmary a grand total of nine. He groaned and flipped the covers back as another wave of pounding echoed in his room. The lights came up enough for him to keep from tripping over anything and he sent a quick thanks to Atlantis. He rubbed at the bandage around his neck as he shuffled like an arthritic ninety-year-old to the door, then scratched at his scalp and made his cowlicks stand up even crazier. Unlock, open, he thought as he stopped about five feet from it.
Rodney barged in, and if John had been standing any closer he'd have been knocked on his ass. "Two days! All you had to do was wait two freakin' days – actually, forty-six point three hours – for me to get back. That was all. But no, you and the Czechoslovakian Catastrophe have to go and try to do things yourself and nearly destroy the entire facility in the process. Really, I can't leave this place for a moment before the chimpanzees come out with the sledgehammers. The only good thing about this whole mess is the facility isn't completely and utterly destroyed – only about forty-three percent destroyed, which is miracle from what I understand. Still enough to keep us in drones for the next century, if I read the output stats correctly, but it could have been…." His eyes finally focused on John and went a little wide. "You look like hell."
"Nice to see you, too, Rodney," he drawled. "How was the demo?"
Rodney's mouth worked a few times, and he blinked. "Uh, pretty crappy, actually. We all nearly died … but that's not the point."
John raised an eyebrow, and that even ached a little.
"Um, how's the, ah…." He pointed at his throat. "Heard you had a 'Pit and the Pendulum' moment, ah, there."
"It's okay." Okay as in there were some forty odd tiny little stitches in his neck. "No worse than a shaving nick. Not as bad as the, ah, bug."
Rodney blinked again, then narrowed his eyes. "Huh," was all he said. "Couldn't you have, like, broken your leg or something on your camping trip instead of overachieving as usual and trying to bring an entire tower down on top of you? Would have been a lot easier."
John blinked, then let out a short bark of laughter. His hand immediately went to his throat and Rodney started apologizing. He held a hand up. "Yeah, that would have been easier. But why would I do something easy?"
Rodney grinned a little crookedly. "Yeah, you don't like to do things easy, do you?"
"Just like you don't."
"Um, yeah, well…." Now Rodney grimaced a little guiltily. "I should, ah, let you go back to bed. Because seriously, you look like total crap."
"Thanks." John started to herd Rodney towards the door. "How about at breakfast we can tell each other about our crappy days. Deal?"
"Deal." The door closed on his still slightly guilty but worried and somewhat befuddled expression.
John was just settling down on the edge of his bed when the knocking began again. It was softer, but still just as spastic. "What now?" he groaned as he thought the door open.
Rodney stood there, hand still up. "Um, glad you're okay, Sheppard."
John offered his friend a tired smile. "Thanks." Then he sighed. "Now, can I please go back to sleep now?"
"Okay. See you at breakfast." The door closed on a relieved smile this time.
John carefully laid back down and pulled the covers back up. The lights went out, and for a second he could almost see that neon green edge again. Then Atlantis was humming to him, and the song was soft and comforting. When he fell asleep a short time later, all thoughts of his close shave were washed away on a wave of music and Lortab.