It was dark, stuffy and wet.
John was overwhelmed by the sour smell of rotted leaves and wet bodies and his stomach lurched alarmingly. He swallowed hard to hold down the unexpected nausea, then realized that he didn't know where he was or why he had a sudden fear of opening his eyes to find out.
"What happened?" He really hoped there was someone nearby who would answer.
"Holy Hawking! Again?"
"Hush, Rodney. John, you're injured. You've suffered a blow to the head and you need to lie still."
"We're all here, Sheppard. You don't need to open your eyes."
Despite a flutter of relief at the sound of all three voices, John took the warning as a challenge. He split his lids apart only to slam them closed again when the world outside refused to stand still. He swallowed again, then sucked in gulps of moist, moldy air. The chortle that came from somewhere over his left shoulder was pure Ronon.
"Where?...Where?" he managed after holding back more nausea with willpower and a fair amount of practice. He had a vague memory of sodden woods, flashing lights and…growling?
"For the fourth time, we're in a cave sheltering from stormageddon on P42-659. And since you've asked the same thing four times before, I'm going to go ahead and tell you that I don't know how long the storm will last, I don't know if we'll be able to send radio signals to and from the stargate in the charged atmosphere, and no, I don't know how to make a lightening shield out of treebark and a modified LSD, so don't ask."
John lay quiet for a while after Rodney's rant, trying to piece together his memory from the swirling maelstrom inside his head. It was something like trying to hear a single voice in a crowded room – he couldn't quite get enough to follow the conversation.
The few things he did understand bordered on the ridiculously obvious: Teyla had said "blow to the head", which explained the thick throbbing along the left side of his scalp and the splitting headache. He was on his right shoulder, curled into a ball against the pounding between his ears. A storm explained the flashes and the growling (thunder) and why he was soaked.
He wasn't cold, though. After a moment of concentration that took more effort than it should, John recognized the loud, close sounds of breathing and the persistent weight of figures leaning on or next to him. Wherever they were, they were wedged in tight. A sudden suspicion heated his face and he squirmed, almost lifted his head off the warm and firm surface his cheek rested upon.
"Be still, John. I need to put another compress on your wound."
Teyla's soft words were firm, but it wasn't her command that kept him from moving further. Even the slight motion he'd managed brought a flare of pain that sucked out any thought beyond blind agony. Weird sparks pulsed inside his tightly squeezed eyelids, and a gasp might have escaped because Teyla's hand on his shoulder tightened in sympathy.
Eventually the pain faded back into a pounding ache, but the flashing continued. There was a strange growling all around him. The air was muggy and stank like a locker room in Georgia.
"What happened?" He hoped someone would answer because he found himself reluctant to open his eyes and find out for himself.
"For the love of -! Should he keep doing that?" Rodney's voice was loud and panicky, and John tensed in an effort not to react – not to move. Something deep inside him kept screaming that he really didn't want to move.
"I am also concerned, Rodney. He seems very disoriented. If his memory does not improve, I fear it may mean he is suffering from more than just a concussion."
"Is he awake? Shouldn't we keep him awake if he's got a concussion? I thought you were supposed to keep people who hit their heads awake!"
"Zip it, McKay. The man's head hurts."
John was more grateful to Ronon at that moment than ever before.
"That is a false practice, Rodney. I am watching him closely and I believe he is awake, just confused."
"M'wake," John managed, finally figuring out that they were talking about him. He was too dizzy to sleep – the disturbing feeling of vertigo, even when his eyes were closed, made his existence much too uncomfortable to fall asleep. He ached with the tension of trying not to move and trying not to wretch. A gust of damp air blew against his face, the cool freshness offering a brief moment of relief from nausea at least. "Answer question?" he prompted. John heard Rodney sigh, but didn't understand the man's exasperation.
"You hit your head, John." Unlike Rodney's grating worry, Teyla's voice was silken comfort. John relaxed just a bit, some of the tension bleeding out of his frame at her calming words. "You hit your head and we are very worried about you."
"Thanks. How?" he whispered, half because he truly couldn't remember getting hit and half to keep Teyla talking.
"Do you remember the storm?"
John tried to sort out the whirly-gig of memories spinning in his head, then gave up. "No."
"Then I will start from the beginning…"
Teyla stared out at the forest for a moment before continuing. Night had fallen completely as they waited out the storm. But it was night interrupted by constant lightning. Trees and jumbled rocks were exposed in white light with each flash, looking almost skeletal, like bones against the black background of one of Jennifer's x-ray pictures. The air snapped and clapped with each strike.
"We found the Ancient power station just where Atlantis' database described it, but it had long been destroyed by vegetation and the elements. A simple hunting village occupies the ruins now. We spoke with the leader of the village and then decided to return home before dark."
"Village?" John whispered.
Teyla adjusted the compress she held tightly against the bloody lump above John's left ear so she could see his face. His cheek rested heavily on her thigh and he was curled tightly into himself beside her. Though her legs were tingling with discomfort, she didn't dare move. Even the slightest motion seemed to cause him great pain.
Though more relaxed than before, John's eyes were pinched tightly closed and his lips were split in a snarl of endurance. Dried blood coated his ear, temple, and cheek, but any attempt to wipe away the mess caused him more discomfort. She insisted only on the chemical cold pack that had finally seemed to numb the wound enough that John no longer fought its pressure against his skull.
"They hunt the large birds that nest in this forest and build their houses out of bark panels that they peel away from the largest trees."
Even in their frightening situation, Teyla could admire the trees that grew amazingly tall and wide in this forest. John had compared them to trees called "Redwoods" from his planet. Teyla had never seen any others like them. Some were so tall they sometimes pierced the lowest layers of clouds that seemed constant on this world. Some were so wide, she, Ronon, Rodney, and John could hold hands side-by-side and still not reach around the bole. The bark the villagers stripped from these largest trees made panels as wide and tall as a stargate.
"They are amazing archers. I plan to bring my hunters here to trade for their skill in making bows." John's breath hitched, and Teyla watched him carefully until he relaxed again.
"G'on," he rasped at last. "Village. Bark?"
She shared a look with Ronon that was only partly amused. The cave they huddled within was very small, more a shallow depression in a wall of rock than a true cave. Ronon sprawled against the very back of the hole, turned sideways along its length and resting his back against the opposite side that wasn't more than six feet from the side Teyla leaned against. Rodney crouched, hands around his knees next to Ronon at John's feet. They were out of the wind, but the ground and rock was damp. There was a constant drip of water off the edge of the mouth opening.
"Yes, the villagers use bark to make their homes, here. We were caught in the storm on our return to the stargate. It came upon us very fast. You ordered us to spread out and stand on our toes so as to present a smaller target to the lightening."
"For all the good it did," Rodney interrupted. "I've never seen such a charged atmosphere in any storm anywhere. And I've never seen lighting hit the ground so often. Especially when there are so many trees! I can see why the Ancients put a power plant here if these storms are common. A single storm like this one could power San Francisco for a week if you found a way to harness the electricity."
"Hush, Rodney," Teyla hissed, for she felt John tense and the snarl go tighter.
"Power…power. Village. Bark." John mumbled around a gasp. Teyla held her breath, watching him closely. "What happened?" he said at last.
Teyla threw a glare so fierce at Rodney that he closed his mouth with an audible snap around the outburst that he'd begun at the question.
"We were caught in a storm, John. You ordered us to spread out. We are not certain, but we believe that lightning struck a tree near where you were standing. A branch must have hit you as it fell."
"Ouch," John mumbled.
"It wasn't a branch," Rodney contradicted, though quietly. Teyla looked at him in surprise. Rodney was squirming. He was looking at John and wouldn't meet their eyes.
"What happened?" Teyla prompted with a ghost of a smile on her lips that Rodney returned sheepishly…
Rodney really hated being wet. Even more than the basic physical discomfort of having clothing stick to you, he knew exactly how much heat was being sapped from his body through evaporation (making assumptions about humidity and air pressure, of course) which could lead to potentially debilitating hypothermia, despite the "cozy" conditions of their cramped shelter. He could almost feel the pneumonia taking hold with every calorie he burned to stay warm in his sopping uniform.
But what he hated even more than being wet, more than huddling well within personal space boundaries, and even more than having absolutely no technology available that would get him out of this jam was watching Sheppard go scrambled. He knew what it was like – to lose yourself from the inside out, to know that you knew things but not be able to find them…
Teyla and Ronon were still looking at him, so he sighed, waved a frustrated hand at Sheppard's still, prone body.
"We were close when the lightning struck the tree. The whole tree split in two. It wasn't the biggest tree around here, but it was big enough and it was about to fall on me. I froze. I just stood there and watched it shatter, then fall open like it had been cut with a knife. John comes out of nowhere, screaming about tree bark and shoves me out of the way."
"Tree bark!" John gasped from Teyla's lap and Rodney felt himself go even stiffer with fury. When the tree fell, there had been nothing but noise and light and rain. John had knocked him flat on his back, hard. Rodney had watched the trunk twist as it fell and swipe John off his feet as if he were a rag doll made of cloth and fluff. John was still unconscious when Teyla and Ronon had found him pressing a sopping field compress into the bloody gash on John's head.
"Teyla, we need to get him to Atlantis. If he's hemorrhaging inside that thick skull of his, then we may not have much time. He…may not have much time."
Teyla looked stricken and Ronon shifted angrily, jostling him.
"I'll go," Ronon grunted. "I'll bring back help."
"Is the storm letting up?" Teyla asked.
They all turned to look into the forest that was doing its best impression of a Halloween spook house – strobe lights included. As if to answer her question, a rainstorm of lightening sprinkled the ground with a dozen thin lines of voltage only a hundred meters from the mouth of their cave. The fingers of bright light burned spots into Rodney's vision and he suddenly felt like he was trapped inside one of those Plasma Balls that they sold at cheesy "science" stores.
An instant later, they all slapped their hands over their ears as the aural shockwave, set off by super-heated air from the strike, roared through the forest.
Teyla startled, John screamed and grabbed his head as if it were trying to roll away from his body. By the time they had recovered from their own shock, he was clawing at the ground and shouting incoherent nonsense.
"No! Treebark! Mayday mayday mayday! Rodney! Treebark!"
Teyla wrestled frantically, trying to swat his hands away from his head long enough to get the cold pack back on. Ronon and Rodney pressed on his hips and legs until his thrashing quieted and the shouts faded to anguished panting. At last John gagged with a dry heave and went still except for the ragged, fast breaths.
"John? Can you hear me? John!"
Teyla shook his shoulder, first tentatively, then more firmly.
"I can't wake him," she said, her eyes pleading, but Rodney had nothing. Nothing at all. No technology to help him. No brilliant plans. Not even a harebrained scheme. Those were Sheppard's department and they couldn't wake him. And his brain was scrambled even if they could.
"I'll risk it. I'll go anyway." Ronon's eyes were just as desperate and he kept bumping Rodney as he fidgeted against the cave wall.
"You can't. You'd be fried before you made it halfway to the gate." Another blast of sound, further away but no less frightening, emphasized his statement. "Sheppard wouldn't want you dead," he added, conceding defeat.
Ronon's howl of frustration died amidst the white noise of rain and the growling of thunder.