Title: Cauldron

Author: stella_pegasi

Rating: K +

Genres: Gen, Action/Adventure

Word Count: ~10,000

Spoilers: Set after Season 5

Warnings: couple of minor "bad" words.

Characters: John Sheppard, Rodney McKay, others

Disclaimer: I do not own them; I would have treated them better.

Summary: Sheppard and McKay go off-world to investigate an Ancient Outpost located on a world harboring a secret.

Author's Notes: This story was written for the LiveJournal community Sheppard_hc's Summer Pic-Fic Challenge. A picture prompt was given for each story. If you would like to see the pic prompts, and the story banner I made from the prompts, please visit my journal on LiveJournal. The journal is entitled (surprise!), stella_pegasi.

And yes the next installment of Road Trip is in the works…I'm about half-way through, but very busy with my job and elderly parents. I took time out to write Cauldron after a request from a friend. SGA writers are dwindling so we are trying to make certain the stories continue. I hope to post RT by October but can't promise a specific time. I will promise there will be an ending to Road Trip; although I really hate to see RT end. I am very pleased many of you have enjoyed the story so much. I have to admit, I have enjoyed it as well…those guys are just too much fun to write!

Thanks for your patience!


Cauldron

By stella_pegasi

Colonel John Sheppard was irritated, his long fingers absently tapping the pilot's seat armrest. Glancing at his watch, he fumed, "He's got five minutes."

The allotted five minutes were about to expire when Dr. Rodney McKay rushed into the jumper. He plopped down in the copilot's seat, asking, and "Ready?"

"You're late."

Looking down at his tablet, McKay brushed him off with a wave of his hand, "Busy man here. Had to finish a couple of things and make certain that Zelenka didn't blow up Atlantis while we're gone."

Seconds passed without Sheppard commenting; nervously, McKay glanced sideways at his friend. Sheppard was facing him; arms folded across his chest, an annoyed expression on his face.

With a slight tremor in his voice, McKay said, "Uh…sorry." Quickly changing the subject, he asked, "Where's Teyla and Ronon?"

Sheppard swiveled his chair to face forward, "They got tired of waiting." He tapped the jumper's COM, "Flight. Jumper 2 is finally ready to depart."

"So… it's just us?"

Hovering over the open bay doors waiting for the stargate to engage, Sheppard replied, "Just us. Teyla and Kanaan are off-world with Lorne's team, some kind of trade summit. Ronon is on the mainland conducting survival training with a group of Marines and scientists. So… just us."

Lowering into the gate room, Sheppard snapped a salute to flight control, and eased the throttle forward, taking the jumper through the gate.

~oOo~

Intense, blinding glare flooded the cockpit as they exited the event horizon. Sheppard grabbed his sunglasses from his TAC vest and slipped them on; uttering a slight gasp as his vision adjusted.

"Uh… McKay… you might want to put on your shades."

McKay fumbled with a flap on his vest, pulling out his sunglasses. A similar gasp escaped from the scientist's throat as he looked out the viewport.

Dominating the deep-blue sky, painted with wispy clouds, was a gas giant; the enormous orb barely visible in the blinding sunlight. The planet was pale gray in color, white striated bands encircling the circumference.

"We're on a moon."

"Brilliant deduction, Sherlock," McKay snarked as he pulled up a screen on his tablet. "The Ancients didn't mention anything about the outpost being on a moon."

Sheppard shrugged, "Not the first time the Ancients kept something to themselves." He looped the jumper around the stargate heading for the coordinates of the outpost. Both men were silent as they absorbed the view in front of them.

The moon's terrain was barren, rocky; hues of purple-brown, gray, and taupe stretched toward a bright azure sea. The stargate sat on a towering ridge approximately two miles from the craggy shoreline. To their right, a mile closer to coast was the outpost, sitting on level ground, which appeared carved out of the sloping rock.

"No guessing whether the building is of Ancient design. Looks just like one of the towers on the West pier."

McKay grunted in reply, not looking at the structure but at his tablet, "I'm getting some…" he stopped as the HUD popped up.

Sheppard squinted to see the HUD display, faded against the bright light, "Temp's a hundred and six degrees… that's pretty hot."

"If my suspicions are correct, that's not the worst of it. Take us over the water."

Approaching the water's edge, they spotted a large lagoon, crisscrossed with ridges of deep yellow, white and red sediment, jutting into the rocks. Pools of water enclosed by the sediment varied in color from the deepest turquoise green to pale blue. Dotted across the lagoon were open cones of sediment, pillars of steam rising from beneath the surface.

Circling the lagoon, Sheppard asked, "What do you suspect?"

"Don't suspect, know…this entire area is a caldera, and it's active."

"Active as in about to erupt active or just active?"

"Active is active…how close to eruption, I don't know."

"Then we should head back to the gate."

"No… no sign it's about to erupt in the next ten minutes, but there is indication of minor tremors. Let's check out the outpost since we're here."

Casting an unsettled glance at McKay, Sheppard said, "Okay; but I'm giving you thirty minutes to look around, then we go."

"Wha… I need more time than that."

"I'm not getting caught on this planet like we did on Taranis. We were lucky to get out of that mess."

"And who got us out of that mess, flyboy? I did… so…"

"So nothing, no arguments, take readings of the volcano, we'll check out the outpost, then we'll go back to Atlantis. You can review the data and determine if it's safe to bring a science team back here."

McKay opened his mouth to argue, but a sharp glance from Sheppard gave him pause. He looked at his pad, then at the HUD. "There are lots of toxic chemicals in the air but there is a prevailing wind blowing toward the water. I think the air around the outpost should be fine."

The jumper was crossing over a large fumarole when an explosive burst of steam and gas erupted from the vent. The large cloud of vapor engulfed the ship, and the immense energy blast rocked the jumper, causing Sheppard to wrestle with the controls. After leveling the ship, he said, "Not real active, huh? Thirty minutes, that's all you get."

McKay remained silent, pecking on his pad and occasionally glancing at the HUD display while Sheppard headed for the outpost.

The outpost was circular, four stories, constructed from the same metal alloy as Atlantis. A slender sensor tower rose extended from the roof. As Sheppard descended toward what appeared to be a landing pad next to the building, he spotted numerous rocks of various sizes littering the area.

"McKay…what are those? The ground looks like it was leveled, about the size for a couple of jumpers to land, so why all the rocks? Doesn't look like there's been erosion."

Peering out the viewport, McKay nodded, "Volcanic bombs and big ones…those things can be flung from a volcano up to seven kilometers, maybe more with the gravitational pull from the planet. They can do a lot of damage."

Sheppard eased the jumper onto clearest section of the ground, grabbed his P-90, and stood up. "Come on." As he headed for the hatch, a deep rumble sounded and the jumper shook. Behind him, McKay grabbed on to a rear seat to keep from falling.

"That was a tremor, Rodney."

"I know, but just a little one. Look we need to check this place out; more than likely, the Ancients were investigating this caldera as a power source like they used on Taranis. There could be really valuable info in that outpost."

Sheppard scowled but continued toward the rear of the jumper, signaling the ramp to lower. Extremely hot, acrid air filled the jumper.

"Geez…that stinks," Sheppard's nose wrinkled, and he pulled a black bandana from his vest, tying it over his face. "I hate the smell of sulfur."

McKay rushed past him, anxious to get to the outpost opening, approximately twenty yards away. He was half-way to the door when another tremor hit. Losing his balance, he stumbled over a large rock; behind him, Sheppard remained on his feet, bracing against the tremor.

When the shaking subsided, Sheppard helped McKay to his feet, saying, and "Many more of these and you don't get thirty minutes."

McKay ran the remaining distance to the door, Sheppard on his heels. Sheppard tapped the scientist on the shoulder, "Look at the walls, there's impact and scorch marks all over and huge cracks in some places."

"Some of those volcanic blocks must have stuck the building." Arriving at the entrance, McKay said, "Let's see about getting this open."

Swiping his hand across the familiar sensor embedded next to the door, McKay grunted as the doors remained closed. After trying again, he turned to Sheppard, jabbing his finger toward the door, "You try."

Sheppard stepped forward; his brow furrowed slightly as he concentrated on opening the door. After a few seconds, the panel began to move, jerkily at first, then slid open, hot musty air rushing out. Turning on the light atop his P-90, Sheppard entered the building. As he moved forward, lights began to turn on.

"Out of my way," McKay brushed past into the building.

Layers of grayish-brown dust coated the shiny tarps protecting several consoles placed along the building's circumference. In the center was a raised platform where a larger console stood. An opening in the far wall appeared to be a transporter for access to the upper levels.

Hurrying up the short flight of stairs to the large console, McKay shouted, "Get those covers off the other consoles. I need to see what they look like."

"Sure, Rodney…I'll get right on that Rodney."

McKay glared at him, then turned his attention to the console. Sheppard chuckled, exactly the reaction he wanted; he loved getting McKay riled. He was pulling off the first tarp when McKay yelled.

"Get up here, the damn thing won't come on."

Sheppard hopped up the steps, the console activating as he neared. Pulling the bandana away from his face, he exposed an impish grin, "Couldn't do this without me, could you?"

With brusque wave of his hand, McKay said, "Go activate the other ones."

Just as Sheppard's boot hit the top step, another tremor, this one more powerful than the last, hit. The outpost shook and Sheppard tumbled down the steps, landing on his right shoulder, and rolled into one of the consoles, striking his head.

McKay ducked under the console, not realizing Sheppard had fallen. When the tremor stopped, he emerged trying to see through the dust laden air. "Sheppard, where are you?" A soft moan was the only answer.

"Sheppard…"

"Over here."

McKay rushed to Sheppard, who was struggling to his feet. He grabbed the colonel's right arm, causing Sheppard to yelp. "Ow…hit my shoulder pretty hard."

"That's not all; you're bleeding, there's a gash on your forehead. Sit down."

McKay pulled a bandage and a small foil package from his TAC vest as Sheppard wiped the blood from over his right eye. Leaning back against a console, Sheppard mumbled, "Great, this is turning out to be fun."

"Sit still," McKay groused as he swiped an antiseptic pad across Sheppard's wound, then placed large bandage over the cut. "Doesn't look too deep, bleeding has stopped." He stood up, "Now let me finish checking these consoles."

Rivulets of sweat dripped off Sheppard's chin, trailing down his neck; his shirt and pants damp from excessive humidity. He unzipped his TAC vest, tugging his BDU shirt and t-shirt away from his chest. After removing the last console cover, he wiped his face with his bandana and took a long drink of water from his canteen.

The same sense of déjà vu he always felt when visiting an Ancient structure off world was with him, but also a sense of emptiness. The familiar awareness he received from Atlantis was absent. There was no soul left on the outpost, and Sheppard was disappointed. He wanted to believe some day they would stumble onto a world where the Ancients were not so ancient.

An excited whoop from the central console caused Sheppard to spin around quickly, and a wave of nausea swept over him. Grabbing onto a chair, he stood still until the dizziness passed, then headed for McKay.

"You just squealed like you'd found a ZPM."

"I did not squeal," McKay griped, then flashed a puckish grin, "but I did find this…," he waved a crystal disk in the air. "It's a hologram disk, same etched symbols as the ones on Atlantis."

"Get on with it, I'm hot, and I'd like to get out of here."

As McKay slid the crystal into a slot on the console another, much lighter, tremor rumbled, scattering more dust into the air. Sheppard punched him in the arm, "Make this quick."

A narrow beam of shimmering light emerged from the console, morphing into the holographic image of a man dressed in the monochromatic beige tunic and pants favored by the Atlantis Ancients. His clothes were marred with dark smudges; his face streaked with sweat and grime.

What immediately separated this Ancient from others they had encountered was his demeanor. The Ancients they were familiar with exuded an air of arrogant self-confidence; this man was flustered, anxious, and most un-Ancient. Running his fingers through his mussed brown hair, his voice quivered as he spoke.

"Atlantis, the volcano is erupting; boulders expelled with the magma are striking the outpost and many have been injured. Vesan loaded the injured on her jumper and headed for the Porta but a large rock struck the ship, which fell into the ocean. She never surfaced, and Marda refuses to leave until he attempts a rescue."

The Ancient froze as another massive tremor struck, he grabbed the railing encircling the same platform Sheppard and McKay were standing on. A loud boom reverberated as something large struck the outpost. The man flinched and when he looked back into the recorder, his eyes were wide, fearful.

"We are downloading what data we can and covering the consoles, in hopes to protect them." Another tremor hit, nearly knocking him over, "If Marda does not return soon, we are going to try to make it to the gate on foot."

A young man appeared, "Alvo we've lost contact with Marda after the last barrage." The younger Ancient paused, "The data transfer is complete; we should head to the Porta."

Alvo nodded and dropped his head as if to compose himself. When he spoke, his voice was strong "If we do not make it, you should know what we have learned in the last few days. We expected the underwater volcano would allow us to learn how to harness this power source. As we discussed, this moon wasn't capable of sustaining a colony, much less seed it with life, but would be a wonderful laboratory."

Once more, a tremor struck; Alvo sucked in a deep breath, "We discovered this moon is in an elliptical orbit around the gas planet. The planet's enormous gravitational field exerts tremendous pressure on the moon at perigee and triggers the volcanic activity. Over the centuries as the planet gets close, the eruptions have become stronger, and more unstable, and eventually, the moon will be ripped apart. My recommendation is to abandon this project, and…"

A shrill voice stopped Alvo, "Marda has returned; Vesan's jumper is lost. We need to go now."

Alvo turned to the recorder, "Heed my words, Atlantis. We have lost good people today, and we may not survive. Abandon this outpost."

The transmission ended, and silence hung in the air.

Sheppard spoke first, "Let's get out of here."

"No, I need to download the data." McKay looked around the room, "That kid came from down there; the database crystals must be on one of the stations on the main floor." Without waiting for Sheppard, McKay raced down the stairs, running from one console to another, searching.

Sheppard almost caught up with him, when another more powerful quake hit; a loud thud shook the building, then another.

"Rodney, come on…we need to go."

McKay had stopped in front of a small console, and popped open the crystal tray underneath the control panel. "Yes…this is it!" Quickly pulling a data adaptor from his rucksack, he pushed the adaptor end into a slot and then connected it to his tablet.

Sheppard walked up behind him, "We don't have time for this."

"We make time; we may never get this chance to get this kind of data again."

"In case you haven't noticed, it's getting pretty wild out there. That guy said the volcano erupted when the moon was closest to the planet? Did you even check to see if that's happening?"

"Uh… no… not yet; hang on," McKay rushed to another console. His face, beet red from the heat, turned pale, "The moon is nearly at perigee with the planet, only a matter of hours."

"In other words, that damn thing is about to blow."

"Probably."

"McKay, hurry up, we need to go…"

Another tremor stuck, larger than any previous quake. A spider-web shaped crack, caused by the impact of debris, spread across the outpost wall.

"McKay… now."

Sheppard started to grab McKay's arm, but the crack in the wall gave way and debris fell onto both men. Sheppard fell on top of McKay in an attempt to shield the scientist. When the tremor stopped, he realized a chunk of the wall material was resting on McKay's leg.

"Come on, we're going." As Sheppard pushed off the floor, a wave of nausea overcame him. He managed to rise onto his knees, pressing his palms against the floor, attempting to get his breath and fight off the dizziness. Once the queasiness subsided, Sheppard pushed the rock off the scientist leg. The sharp edged rock had ripped McKay's BDU pants and a large bruise, already turning purple and blue, was visible. Sheppard struggled to his feed, holding out his hand to McKay.

"We need to go…why the hell don't you just take the crystals out of that drawer?

"Uh..." McKay stared at Sheppard, then turned quickly and fell, his leg giving out beneath him. Sheppard caught him, gritting from the pain that ripped through his shoulder.

"Can you stand?"

"Yeah…I'll get the crystals." Limping back to the station, McKay unhooked the cable and began to pull crystals from the drawer.

Sheppard hurried toward the door, which opened very slowly as he approached. Conditions had worsened in the short time they had been inside the outpost. The scorching air was thick with steam, and the stench of sulfur was overpowering. He pulled the bandana up to cover his nose and walked outside and around the building to view the coastline.

The water in the lagoon was roiling, reminding Sheppard of a witch's cauldron. Geysers of steam poured from the fumaroles and the volcano ejected rocks and magma from underground. Sheppard turned, intending physically to pull McKay out, when a red-hot boulder slammed against the jumper.

He ran around to the doorway, "McKay… now and I mean it… we've gotta get out of here!"

"I'm coming."

McKay was ten feet from the door when another volcanic rock hit the weakened side of the building. The large crack broke completely open and debris rained down, covering McKay. Rushing inside, Sheppard grabbed and pushed at wall panels, light sconces and other debris to free his friend.

McKay stood up, unsteady, but waved Sheppard off and the two men headed for the jumper. The air was so thick with fumes McKay began coughing uncontrollably and pulled his t-shirt up over his face. As he did so, hot magma flung off a volcanic rock struck his left forearm. He screamed.

Sheppard, who was already on the jumper, ran back and helped McKay inside, closing the ramp as they cleared it. He eased McKay into the copilot seat, grabbed the first-aid kit, pulling a sterile cloth and saline bottle out, handing them to McKay.

"Put that cloth over the burn and pour the saline on it. Just hang on, we'll be back on Atlantis in a few minutes."

Another wave of nausea and dizziness overcame Sheppard as he sat down in the pilot's seat.

Attributing how he felt to the extreme heat, he fought through the nausea and powered up the jumper, activating the HUD as they rose from the ground. They were a hundred yards from the outpost when an enormous volcanic rock struck the roof, sinking into the structure. Sheppard shuddered as he realized they'd be dead if they hadn't fled the building when they did.

Taking the jumper on a serpentine route to avoid debris, Sheppard searched for a clear path to the stargate. Though his vision was blurred, he spotted an opening, throttled up and held his breath. As they skirted past a rock, he exhaled, thinking they might get clear of the eruption. He glanced over at McKay, who was pale, obviously in pain from the burn on his arm.

"Hang in there, Rodney; we'll be at the…"

Sheppard never finished his remark, distracted as the jumper lurched to the left from a powerful impact. As the ship began gyrating uncontrollably, he caught sight of a massive boulder careening away from them. Concentrating, he increased speed but the jumper continued to spin, losing altitude. The impact flung them over the lagoon.

"McKay, I've lost navigation and I can't get her stable, see if you can re-route power to the nav system."

McKay grimaced and grabbed his pad. He managed to get out of his seat, struggling to stay on his feet as he headed for the rear of the jumper. Reaching the engine control panel, he had just opened the cover when he heard Sheppard yell.

"Grab onto something, I can't keep control of her. We're going in…"

His eyes scanning the water, Sheppard searched for a place to enter the water devoid of fumaroles and the crystalline sulfur deposits crusted around them. His head was pounding, but he focused on maintaining what little control he had of the jumper and managed to move away from the densest areas. He struggled to slow the still spinning jumper down, but the ship hit the surface hard, sending a plume of water high into the air.

Sea water rushed across the viewport as Sheppard continued to wrestle with the controls. He tried to slow the jumper's momentum, but was unsuccessful; the jumper continued to rotate under water. A burst of light from a stream of bright yellow magma flooded the viewport as the jumper slammed against a jagged ridge of rock flinging Sheppard out of the pilot's seat and against the bulkhead. As the jumper settled on a narrow ledge of volcanic rock, Sheppard and McKay lay unconscious.

~oOo~

Chuck Campbell stood in the doorway of Richard Woolsey's office waiting for the Atlantis Director to look up. The newly promoted lieutenant from the Canadian Air Force and senior gate technician had been on Atlantis for over six years, but he remained uncomfortable interrupting the boss.

Woolsey was pouring over a report from the Pegasus Coalition regarding an uprising on Plauta, a former slave planet recently liberated by a joint Atlantis/Coalition force. He was well aware Chuck was standing at his doorway and waited to see if the young man would find his voice. Woolsey liked being the Atlantis Director, but he didn't wish to be feared. Those days of being an IOA hack were over for him. So, he waited, smiling internally as Chuck cleared his throat and spoke.

"Mr. Woolsey, sir?"

Looking up from his pad, "Yes, what is it?"

"Sir, Colonel Sheppard was due back an hour ago, and we haven't heard from him. He has a new personnel review scheduled with General Landry at 1300 hours and its 1218 hours now."

Woolsey felt a tightening in his gut. That Sheppard was late to return from a mission was not news, but for him to miss a scheduled meeting with General Landry was not in his nature. He rose from his desk and walked to the doorway, "Where were Sheppard and McKay going?"

"To check out an outpost listed in the Ancient database; something about a power source Dr. McKay wanted to check out."

"It's always about a power source with McKay. Have you tried to raise them?"

"Not yet, sir. We're not at the past one-hour late mark."

"Dial their location."

Chuck dropped into his chair and referring to his monitor, dialed the gate address. After the event horizon settled, Woolsey called for Sheppard with no response. He asked Chuck "Could they be out of range?"

"They could be, sir," Chuck flipped his monitor to another page, "but according to the mission briefing, the outpost is located near the gate. They should be in range, unless…"

"Unless they got distracted by something."

Chuck gave Woolsey a sly grin, "We know that never happens, Mr. Woolsey."

Nodding, Woolsey replied, "Never. Keep trying to raise Sheppard. If we haven't made contact by the time the gate shuts down, we'll send a jumper to check on them."

Thirty-eight minutes later, Woolsey heard the gate disengage, and he walked into the control room. "Since apparently there is no word from the colonel, dial Earth and inform General Landry that Colonel Sheppard has been delayed off world."

Chuck began dialing Earth as Woolsey asked, "Major Lorne still off world?" Chuck answered yes and Woolsey asked, "Teldy on the mainland with Ronon?" Again Chuck said yes, prompting a sigh from the director, "Get them back here; I've got a bad feeling about this."

~oOo~

McKay opened his eyes slowly; his head was throbbing, and every muscle in his body was on fire. As he became more lucid, he was aware of searing pain along his arm. He screamed out, as he pulled his burned arm away from the floor grate. Pushing himself up, he braced against a bench, trying to catch his breath, wondering what happened.

Images of the outpost, the volcano, and taking off in the jumper, headed for the gate flashed in his memory. He remembered the jumper spinning erratically after impact from an enormous volcanic rock. Sheppard attempted to maintain control, but they had crashed into the water. Sheppard… where was Sheppard?

"Sheppard? Sheppard, you okay?"

He began crawling toward the front compartment, pushing fallen equipment and storage cases out of his way. Sweat was pouring off his face and as he wiped his brow, he realized it wasn't just sweat, but sweat mixed with blood. Using his t-shirt to wipe his face, he kept on crawling.

The jumper's emergency lighting was on, casting a dim glow in the cockpit. An occasional burst of bright light signaled another eruption occurring. As he approached the bulkhead opening, McKay was trying to determine what was lying across the doorway, then he realized what was blocking his way. It was Sheppard.

Reaching for his friend, McKay shook him, "John, can you hear me? John…"

Only silence greeted McKay, and using what little strength he had left he turned Sheppard's face toward him, gripped with dread when he saw blood coating the left side of Sheppard's face. He pressed his fingers against Sheppard's throat, panic subsiding a bit when he felt a pulse, weak but present.

Dizzy and exhausted from exertion, McKay laid his head on a case that fell from the overhead bin and passed out.

~oOo~

Major Teldy, Ronon, and Captain Stackhouse's team were back on Atlantis by the time Major Lorne's team, along with Teyla returned through the gate. Woolsey assembled them in the conference room.

"I called you back because we have not heard from Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay, and it is past time for them to return to Atlantis. We have dialed the planet three times now and have not been able to make contact."

Lorne spoke, "If I remember correctly, they were going to checkout an Ancient outpost McKay found in the database. The colonel expected they would only be off world for an hour or two."

Woolsey nodded, "That's correct. A conference call between Sheppard and General Landry was scheduled at 1300 hours."

"Colonel Sheppard told me they planned on discussing the new personnel arriving on the next Daedalus run. The Daedalus is leaving Earth tomorrow. The colonel wouldn't miss that meeting."

"Exactly my point," Woolsey said.

Ronon stood up, "Then let's go get them."

Lorne rose, "Couldn't have put it any better myself." He turned to Teldy, "Major, with Waters on leave I want you to remain here on Atlantis, in case we need backup. Captain Stackhouse, Lieutenant Franklin can pilot your jumper. Ronon, Teyla…you're with me and someone contact Dr. Beckett and Zelenka. We're probably going to need them. Wheels up in fifteen."

~oOo~

Sheppard managed to open his eyes to narrow slits, closing them quickly as a blinding flash of light flooded the jumper. His head throbbed; the metallic taste of copper filled his mouth, his fingers covered in wet, sticky blood when he touched his face. For a moment, he was bewildered by visions of the ground rushing up toward the jumper until he remembered, they crashed into the sea; he had to get them out.

He realized he was lying on the deck and struggled to rise but pain radiating from his abdomen forced him to lie still, taking short, shallow breaths. Ragged jabs of pain flared through his left ankle when he tried to move his leg; his right leg was pinned against the bulkhead. As he attempted with little success to will the pain away, he heard soft labored breathing close by.

"Rodney?" His voice was raspy, barely audible. He tried again, a bit stronger, "Rodney…"

A soft moan from nearby confirmed McKay was alive. He prodded, "McKay, wake up…come on, wake up."

"Sheppard…" McKay's voice was groggy, his speech slurred, "You okay?"

"I'm fine…"

"Can you move?"

Sheppard attempted to sit up, but the pain took his breath, "Uh… that would be no."

"Are you stuck?"

"Maybe…not sure…"

"Let me get around you."

Sheppard was wedged with his back to the bulkhead; his torso stretched across the opening, blocking his way. McKay pressed his right arm against the bench seat and pushed up, groaning as he got to his feet.

Sheppard asked, his voice slurred, each word taking effort. "How bad…are you hurt? How's your arm?"

"I don't know…hurt all over, and the arm's pretty bad." His voice broke at he put weight on his leg, injured by debris at the outpost. "Ow... let me get a lightstick."

McKay felt around, until he located a case holding extra lightsticks. He activated one and headed back to the front compartment. Stumbling over an ammo case his knee slammed into Sheppard's back, and he nearly fell over him.

"Ahhhhh…" Sheppard groaned.

"Sorry…" McKay stepped across Sheppard, kneeling down gingerly he placed the lightstick on the edge of a seat, illuminating Sheppard.

"Uh… you're a mess, looks like a deep cut on your forehead, and there's blood dripping from your nose. Did you hit your head?"

"Don't know…got thrown…" Sheppard tried to push off the deck, but winced in pain. "Can't move my right leg. Gotta get up, get us… out of here."

"Stay put, let me see where we are." McKay stood up, putting all of his weight on his good leg, and turned around, taking a couple of gingerly steps toward the viewport.

"Oh…this is not good." A large burst of light filled the jumper. McKay turned toward Sheppard, "You're right; we need to get out of here. We're in the middle of this eruption, and we're sitting on a ledge, right next to a huge fumarole."

"Help me up…"

McKay returned to Sheppard's side, "You look pretty banged up, you sure you should try to move?"

"Get my leg free…"

Holding the lightstick over the area where Sheppard's leg was pinned, McKay discovered the science station console was broken, and a large section was lying across Sheppard's leg. He pushed against the section until it gave and rolled against the wall. Sheppard groaned as the weight lifted from his right calf and blood streamed from a jagged cut.

"Damn it, you're bleeding, let me get…"

"That can wait, help… me get up; I need to get to the controls."

Reluctantly, McKay grabbed Sheppard's outstretched arm, intending on pulling him to his feet, but an anguished moan escaped from Sheppard as he tried to move. "Wait…"

"What's wrong?"

His breath ragged, Sheppard said, "Chest hurts, hard… to breathe."

"Just lay there, I'll move the jumper." McKay started to stand but Sheppard grabbed him by the wrist.

"No… help me up…."

"Sheppard…," McKay hushed as, even in the dim light, the expression on Sheppard's face clearly warned McKay to back off. "Okay, but let me try to get my arm under you."

McKay stepped over Sheppard and knelt behind him, sliding his good arm under his friend's shoulders. Pushing off with his good leg, McKay pulled as Sheppard pushed against a seat until he was on his feet.

Sheppard was shivering, woozy, and nauseated; he was barely able to put any weight on his left ankle, and sharp pains knifed through his chest with each shallow breath. He knew something was very wrong inside, but he had to get McKay to safety.

"Gotta sit down…," Sheppard, with McKay's assistance, made it to the pilot's seat. He dropped into the seat, stifling a groan.

"John, let me do this."

"You can't… remember…nav system's out…you gotta fix it, or we don't go anywhere."

For a moment, both men stared at the scene outside the jumper, mesmerized by underwater vents spewing billowing gas and silt toward the surface. Magma erupted violently from cracks in the ridges of rock surrounding them. A bright yellow fissure developed along a ridge to their right, exploding and sending chucks of the ridge toward the surface along with rapidly cooling balls of expelled lava. The force of the explosion sent a wave of water, silt, and rock toward them; the impact slid the jumper along the ledge.

"McKay, we need to…go… I need power and navi…navigation."

"On it," McKay said, "first power." McKay sat down on the deck and pulled a panel away from the dialing device. "Oh hell, this is a mess. The impact cracked some of the crystals."

"You can fix it."

"Oh yeah, I can fix anything…" McKay snarked, "It's always 'Rodney fix it.'"

Sheppard leaned his head against the back of his seat, searing pain gripped his chest, trying to appear calm, "If you can't, who can?"

McKay looked up at his friend, "I..." Sheppard was pale, beads of sweat covered his face; congealed blood trailed down the left side of his face and from his nose. "I'll fix it; you rest."

~oOo~

"Oh, to je vybuchující sopka!"

"Zelenka what…" Lorne asked sharply as he banked the jumper to clear the gate for Franklin's jumper. He turned the jumper back toward the coastline, staring at the carnage raging before them. The caldera was spewing plumes of steam into the air, chunk of volcanic rock emerging from underwater like mortars, the surface of the water roiling.

Teyla rose from her seat, gripping the back of Lorne's chair, "What is that? Some type of explosion?

"Ne, ne to je Kaldera," Zelenka said. The Czech scientist's head was bouncing between looking out the viewport and staring at the data on his pad.

"English, please, Doc. What's going on here?"

"There's a huge volcano underwater, and it's erupting."

"Exploding's more like it." Lorne pulled up the HUD, "No sign of Sheppard's jumper. You got anything, Doc?"

Zelenka shook his head, prompting Lorne to contact Franklin, "Jumper 2… you have a visual on the colonel's jumper?"

"Negative, Major; nothing but flying rocks."

Zelenka leaned forward to look out the viewport, squinting in the glare, "Bože můj! We are on a moon of a gas giant; that planet is enormous."

"That fact in the database, Doc?"

"No, Rodney never mentioned the outpost was on a moon"

Lorne glanced at Zelenka, pointing to the outpost, "There's the outpost. How close can we get?"

"Not very, those rocks can be thrown for a lot further than we are from the caldera."

Ronon leaned forward, "We can't just wait here."

Lorne frowned, "No we can't. Franklin stay near the gate, we're going to check out the outpost." Turning to his passengers, he said, "Hang on; I'm going to make a straight pass over the outpost and turn back quickly."

Dr. Carson Beckett, who was standing in the bulkhead door, scrambled to sit down on a bench in the rear compartment next to Sergeant Johnston. The six foot-five inch, two hundred-fifty pound Marine smiled and grabbed the back of Beckett's TAC vest, 'You ain't going anywhere, Doc; don't worry."

As the jumper neared the outpost, the damage done by the impact of the large volcanic rock was clearly visible. Once they passed the structure, Lorne turned the jumper in a tight arc and headed back toward the gate.

Zelenka muttered something in Czech under his breath, causing Lorne to ask, "What are you thinking, Doc?"

He pushed his glasses up before he answered Lorne, "The volcanic rock that struck the outpost had to be very large with a lot of momentum to do the damage it did. The outpost appears to be made of the same material as the structures on Atlantis. If these rocks can destroy the outpost…"

"Then they can do some damage to a jumper."

"Yes, Major… I fear so."

Ronon grunted, "Where are they?"

"I don't know, but we're going to find them." Lorne called Franklin, "Let's start a search grid; take east of the outpost, I'll take west and keep an eye on those projectiles."

As Lorne and Franklin parted flying in opposite directions, Teyla asked, "If the colonel could, why did he not dial the gate and return to Atlantis?"

Lorne glanced at Ronon, who answered, "He would if he could. You think they've crashed."

"Yes, or the jumper's disabled. But why they would fly away from the gate?" He asked Zelenka, "Can those rocks reach the gate?"

"Yes, Major; they could."

Doctor Beckett had returned to the front compartment, "I hate to ask this Major, but what about the ocean, could they have gone in there?"

Lorne rubbed his forehead, "Sheppard would have done everything he could to keep them away from the eruption, but…"

Ronon finished his thought, "If they were near the outpost when it was hit…"

Nodding, Lorne said, "Yeah, one of those rocks could have knocked the jumper off course." The major fell quiet, then activated the COM, "Franklin…let's finish the first pass over land, then swing around the volcano and approach from the sea. The jumper may have gone down over the water."

As the jumpers began the search, the occupants fell silent, wondering what happened to Sheppard and McKay.

~oOo~

McKay hunched over the power crystal tray, exchanging the broken crystals with ones he could spare. He shifted, taking weight off his injured leg, placing his hand on the deck to brace himself, and felt a wet viscous fluid spread across the deck. Looking at his hand, he gasped when he realized it was blood and the source was the deep gash on Sheppard's leg.

"John, your leg's still bleeding." When Sheppard didn't answer him, McKay looked up to see Sheppard slumped over, his face ashen.

"Damn it, Sheppard…" He stood up gingerly, first checking the colonel's neck for a pulse, slow, weak, but steady. He searched for the first-aid kit Sheppard discarded when they headed for the gate, finding it among the jumble of cases dislodged in the rear compartment. Hurrying back as fast as possible on his badly injured leg, he grabbed a pressure bandage and wrapped it around Sheppard's jagged wound.

McKay pushed himself up, and shook the colonel, trying to wake him up, but Sheppard was out cold. Pushing down his panic, he grabbed a med injector loaded with morphine, and dialed a very low dose, and plunged the needle into his burned arm. He had to concentrate and couldn't the pain.

The air inside the jumper was stifling, perspiration dripping down McKay's face. He muttered to himself, "Just great, Sheppard's unconscious, and it's getting damn hot in here. On top of that, if I can't get the power on soon, we'll run out of air. Next time McKay, just ignore what you find in the damn database."

He spent the next ten minutes pilfering unneeded crystals to replace the cracked ones until he managed to reroute power. When the compartment lights came on, McKay attempted to pull up the HUD, but it wouldn't display. He signed deeply, "Rats, not enough power; Sheppard's got to do this."

Satisfied they at least had limited power, McKay pulled himself to his feet just as a nearby underwater vent spewed more steam into the water. The jumper rocked from side to side and slipped further down the narrow slanted ridge it rested on. McKay stumbled, but regained his footing in time to prevent Sheppard from slipping to the deck. As he eased Sheppard back into the seat, he grumbled, "Damn it, you're heavier than you look." Huffing, he stood up, and with a last look at his unconscious friend, he limped toward the rear compartment to work on the nav system. As another fissure opened up, throwing molten rock into the water, he wondered if this time their luck had run out.

~oOo~

"We're wasting time; they aren't here." Ronon, who had been sitting on the edge of his seat during the search, slouched against the chair back, dejected. Teyla reached over to pat him on the arm, but Ronon didn't acknowledge her.

"We will find them, Ronon. Do not give up hope." Teyla said, and Ronon nodded.

Lorne swung the jumper wide of the caldera and headed toward the sea, Franklin mirroring his movements in the other jumper. Heading several miles out over the water, both jumpers turned and began a search pattern toward the coastline.

Lorne's team, along with Doctor Beckett crowded into the bulkhead door, watching as the jumper skimmed across the water. Lorne and Zelenka were staring at the HUD display, oblivious to the others. Nearly thirty minutes later, after crisscrossing miles of ocean, Lorne slammed his hand down on the dashboard.

"We don't have enough jumpers to cover this adequately. I'm sending Franklin back to the gate to request more help."

Zelenka shrugged his shoulders, "Major… I am not certain that is a good idea. I have been doing some calculations. I suspect this moon is on an elliptical orbit around the planet, and I believe the moon is nearly at its closest approach to the planet. It is exerting tremendous gravitational pressure on the moon and its very unstable volcano. I have not had time to do precise calculations, but I believe this eruption will only get worse."

"So bringing more jumpers just puts more people at risk?" Zelenka nodded, and Lorne fell quiet, gazing out the viewport. Taking a deep breath, he turned toward the others, "I realize the risk, but I know what the colonel would do, he'd never leave until he'd done everything he could to find the missing. That's what we are going to do to find him and Dr. McKay."

"Franklin, return to the gate, give report to Woolsey and have four more jumpers join us to search for…"

Lorne broke off as Franklin interrupted, "Major, we found something, the outline of a jumper about forty feet down."

Without a word, Lorne banked the jumper and headed toward Franklin's coordinates.

~oOo~

Sheppard's eyes snapped open as another huge eruption rocked the jumper; the fourth one since he regained consciousness. He could hear McKay muttering to himself in the back of the jumper and decided not to disturb him, but the explosions were more violent and one had been extremely close to the ridge they were sitting on. He knew when it was time to cajole the acerbic scientist to finish a task, and it was time.

"McKay?" His voice was weak, and he doubted McKay could hear him; he tried again. "Hey, McKay, how's… it going?"

A loud crash and a muffled yelp told him McKay heard; within seconds, his friend was next to his chair.

"You're awake…I just checked on you like ten minutes ago and you were out cold. How are you?"

McKay's expression betrayed his concern, and Sheppard knew there was reason for concern. He was badly injured but couldn't give in to it. Better to let McKay think he was improving, even if he wasn't.

"I feel better, must have needed a nap…uh…what's our status?"

"I managed to get the power up to about fifty percent, and I think a couple more crystals re-routed, and I'll have the nav system up but I can't even get the HUD to come up. You're going to have to do it…my artificial gene's not strong enough without full power."

Sheppard tried to sit up, "You need my gene now?"

"No, not yet…let me get the nav system working, then we'll try it. I don't know how long the power or navigation will work."

"Just has to…work long enough for us to get close to the gate."

McKay gave Sheppard a mirthless smile, "Let's hope." He took a step away from Sheppard, then stopped, "Do you need anything? Water?"

"No…"

"Okay, I'll… I'll just finish, and then we can get out of here."

"Sounds good…" was all Sheppard could muster, what little strength he had waning. He fell asleep, the sound of McKay's boots on the deck echoing through his head.

When McKay shook him awake, he was groggy and fought the nausea that overtook him. Through the haze, he realized McKay was talking to him, but he didn't comprehend.

"Wha… what?"

"I said it was now or never; I've jury-rigged the nav system as best I can. It's up to you, flyboy."

"Okay." Sheppard pushed against the chair arms, sitting straighter, and gripped the stick.

He inhaled as much air as the pain in his chest allowed, and glanced at McKay.

"Let's get out of here."

~oOo~

Lorne submerged the jumper, and headed for the coordinates Zelenka downloaded from Franklin. The sea was murky; warm eddies created by the eruption flowed in the cooler water nearly five miles from the coastline, stirring the fine silt on the sea floor.

As they drew near the coordinates, the tension inside the jumper was palpable. As much as they wanted to rescue Sheppard and McKay, they were also worried about what they would find.

Lorne was watching the HUD closely, but Ronon spotted the familiar shape of the jumper first. Everyone onboard strained to see the jumper's condition. Slowing down, Lorne cautiously approached the wreck.

The jumper was listing to starboard, but appeared intact at first glance. It was covered with silt and streaked with yellow and white. But as they got closer, something didn't seem right. Lorne settled the jumper on the sea floor and dropped his head before asking Zelenka, "This isn't their jumper, is it?"

"No, it isn't. This jumper has been here for a very long time."

Beckett asked, "How can you tell, laddie?"

Zelenka swiveled his chair to face Beckett, "The salinity and mineral content of this sea is very unusual. This far from the caldera, sulfur and other minerals belched up from the volcano are present in the seawater. The way eddies flow around here these minerals stay circulating in the water; it would take time for the minerals to deposit on an object to show the buildup evident here. There is no life in the sea, at least nothing like barnacles that would build up quickly."

Teyla asked, "So, this jumper has been here since…."

Zelenka said, "Probably since the Ancients were on Atlantis."

Everyone was silent except for Ronon, who uttered a low growl.

Lorne circled the jumper, "I wonder who was in there?" As they reached the opposite side of the ship, a huge scar of twisted metal indicated the jumper met a violent end. "Damn, it looks like they were hit."

"Likely during a previous eruption."

"Then…" Lorne didn't finish.

"Yes, the same thing could have happened to the colonel's jumper."

Without comment, Lorne headed for the surface.

~oOo~

"You done… yet?"

"Give me a minute, almost…"

Sheppard dropped his head against the seat, he needed Rodney to hurry. He didn't know how much time he had left; his abdomen was rigid, the pain increasing, and he was having a difficult time focusing. The fact that he was shivering led him to think he was going into shock, but at least the jumper was hot, slowing down the shock reaction.

He shifted in his seat, putting too much pressure on his left ankle and, though he tried to stifle a groan, he couldn't. McKay heard him and called out to see if he was okay.

"I'm fine… just hurry up… there's a couple of fissures forming real close. We don't have much time."

"Almost got it… be right there."

Sheppard closed his eyes, drifting off to sleep, waking abruptly when McKay shook his arm.

"Wake up, I'm finished, but we may only have one shot. I had to move crystals around, some not designed for the job I'm trying to get them to do. I honestly don't know if it's going to work."

Struggling to concentrate, Sheppard grabbed the stick and sent instructions to the jumper to power up and take off. He could feel the resistance from the ancient ship, but he pushed her, pressing the jumper to do what he needed her to do.

McKay was watching him closely, his concern evident, "John, maybe you shouldn't try this…let me. You're bleeding from the nose again."

"Said it yourself, gene's not strong enough… I… have to do this."

Sheppard chewed on his lower lip, concentrating, willing the jumper to fly. As the ship began to respond, he could feel movement, nearly imperceptible at first, then the ship began to rise from the ridge. Just as the jumper lifted off, a huge fissure, only twenty feet away, broke open, spewing hot magma and rock into the water.

Gripping the arm of his seat, McKay yelled, "Get us away from that…"

"I'm… trying…" Sheppard wrestled with the controls; the nav system was weak, nearly unresponsive but working. Slowly, the jumper gained momentum and began to rise faster, buffeted by the erupting matter flowing from the new fissure. Rocks striking the hull sounded hollow thuds inside the compartment.

"Keep going, Sheppard…we're almost out."

Ignoring McKay, Sheppard gripped the stick, visualizing the jumper breaking through the surface of the water. Just a few more seconds and they would be in open air. Holding his breath, he held the ship steady and broke through the surface, flooding the jumper with daylight.

McKay yelled something, but Sheppard didn't comprehend; he was too busy trying to keep the jumper stable. Small rocks were raining down all around them, steam pouring from the fumaroles making it difficult for him to see. He willed the HUD display on and turned the jumper in the direction of the stargate.

Pushing the jumper as much as he could, Sheppard fought the controls. As they passed over the outpost he told McKay, through gritted teeth, "Get ready to dial the gate…"

Placing his hand over the DHD, McKay was waiting, but he never had a chance to dial. A large volcanic rock, flung from the fissure that exploded as they rose from the sea, struck the jumper and sent it careening toward a ridge, away from the gate.

"Crap…I can't hold her…" Sheppard pulled back on the stick, hoping to keep the jumper level when it crashed. Falling like the rocks circling around it, the jumper slammed into the terrain, throwing fragmented rock from the bow as it slid down a short slope before coming to rest.

~oOo~

Lorne's jumper broke through the surface as Franklin's voice sounded in his COM. "Major, a jumper just emerged from the water, headed for the gate. It took a hit from one of those boulders and crashed; we're heading there now."

Spotting Franklin's jumper, Lorne followed the lieutenant to the crash site. Behind him he could hear the sound of his team reading themselves to exit of the jumper and rescue their people. He glanced over his shoulder to see Ronon staring out of the viewport, while Teyla was helping Doctor Beckett with his med packs.

"We're at the site, getting ready to land."

Zelenka was watching the HUD, "Major the air is very toxic; we need masks."

Looking at Sergeant Johnston, Lorne said, "You heard the man, gas masks for everyone."

Lorne informed Franklin to mask up as well, and once his team was geared up, lowered the ramp.

The jumper was sitting, nose slightly tilted down, resting against a pile of rocks, dislodged as the ship slid. Several big boulders rested against the ramp hatch. Captain Stackhouse and his team, along with Lt. Franklin, were already tugging and pushing boulders out of the way when the rest of the rescue party arrived.

His voice muffled through the mask, Stackhouse called to Lorne, "Major… Rodriguez just climbed around the front of the jumper. He spotted the colonel and McKay, both not moving." The tone of his voice told Lorne everything; they didn't know if their CO and science director were alive.

"Get this hatch cleared!"

Several Marines, along with Ronon, were clearing the rocks away. Only one boulder remained and they were struggling with it. Sergeant Johnston waved them away and began to push against the remaining rock. It began to budge, slowly, when Ronon walked up.

"Need some help?"

"Yes, sir; gotta get the colonel out of there."

Together, Ronon and the sergeant pushed the enormous rock out of the way, and Lorne opened the hatch with a remote device. Before the ramp was halfway down, Corporals Brenner and Rodriguez climbed inside. By the time the ramp was down enough for Beckett to enter, the corporals were tending to Sheppard and McKay, placing gas masks on them.

Rodriguez, who had EMT training, called out to Beckett, "Doc, the colonel's hurt bad."

Beckett rushed to the front compartment, where he found Brenner placing a pressure bandage on McKay's head. "He's out cold, has a good-sized gash across his forehead, and looks like a third-degree burn on his arm."

Turing to Rodriguez, Beckett asked, "Ray…"

Rodriguez stepped out of the way, and Beckett got a good look at John Sheppard. Rodriguez said, "He's bad."

Sheppard was pale, blue circles under his eyes, his breathing shallow, blood dripping from his nose and right ear. Beckett quickly ran his hands along the colonel's torso, sighing deeply, "We've got to get him back to Atlantis, now. He's no doubt bleeding internally."

Lorne stuck his head inside, "We need to go, Zelenka says the sea floor is breaking up. It's gonna get real busy around here."

Beckett turned to Ronon, "We need to get them out of here."

Ronon nodded, "Sarge and I will bring them, go on."

Beckett motioned for Rodriguez and Brenner to come with him, as Sergeant Johnston gently lifted the colonel, while Ronon picked up McKay and rushed them to the waiting jumpers.

As soon as the patients were secure, the jumpers, with Lorne in the lead, headed for the gate. Behind them, steam rising from the caldera obliterated the coastline, the outpost a shadow against the foggy backdrop. As the last jumper cleared the gate, the volcano exploded in a plume of lava reaching toward the gas giant hovering above.

~oOo~

"Carson, wake up."

Beckett raised his head, resting on his folded arms, "What…"

"The colonel's pressure is dropping again."

Pushing back from his desk, Beckett headed across the infirmary to the trauma bay at a dead run.

Entering the room, he glanced at Sheppard's vital signs, turning to the nurse, "Raise the dobutamine to 15 mcg/kg/min, and ready another unit of blood. I don't want to give him any more blood if I don't have to, but if saline isn't enough to increase his pressure, we'll have to give him more."

Teyla, who was waiting with Ronon, asked, "Doctor, how is he doing?"

"Considering how badly he was injured, I would have to say he is doing as well as possible. But lassie, he's not out of the woods."

Richard Woolsey walked in as Beckett was speaking, "I take it the last surgery was successful?"

"For now, it appears that way; after three, I hope we're done."

"Can you update me in on his injuries? With the slave revolt on Plauta, I haven't been able to do more than inquire about his condition during the last few hours."

"From what Rodney told us, John may have suffered a concussion when he was knocked off the main dais in the outpost. Then he was thrown across the jumper; his liver lacerated, his lungs bruised, and I'm not going to speculate how many times he hit his head. Not to mention, he has a badly sprained ankle, and a gash on his leg that required surgery to close it up. He has lost a lot of blood, and we are having trouble keeping his blood pressure up."

"And Dr. McKay?"

"Rodney has a minor concussion, a serious laceration across his forehead, a bad bruise on his leg and a third degree burn on his arm. Fortunately, he is resting comfortably and will be fine."

"They never do anything half-way, do they?"

"No, they wouldn't be them if that were the case."

"Sheppard's prognosis?"

"Guarded, at the moment."

~oOo~

"Here…."

McKay looked up to find Ronon holding out a sandwich and a cup of coffee. "Thanks." He sipped the coffee and asked, "Where's Teyla?"

Ronon sat down next to McKay's bed, "Torren was crying, teething; she took him back to their chambers, since Kanaan has not returned from off-world. Said she'd come back when Kanaan returns in a couple of hours. Any change?"

McKay looked over at the bed next to his, where John Sheppard was lying unconscious. "Not yet, Beckett said he should regain consciousness any time now."

"He said that nearly five hours ago, when they moved him out of the trauma bay."

"I know."

"Finish your sandwich. Then you sleep, and I'll stay here."

~oOo~

Six hours later, Ronon remained alone at Sheppard and McKay's bedsides, having convinced Teyla to get some rest. The infirmary was quiet at 0200 hours, yet Ronon almost didn't hear Sheppard's raspy voice. When he realized the colonel was awake, he jumped up.

"Hey, Sheppard, welcome back."

"How… long?"

"Four days, and before you ask, McKay's fine."

"W-Water?"

Ronon gave him a sip of water, and Sheppard asked, "How bad?"

"Beckett said he gets a new journal paper out of this one, whatever that means. But you're gonna be fine."

"Okay…"

Sheppard drifted to sleep and Ronon sat down, satisfied everything was just fine.

~oOo~

"So what is so important that it couldn't wait, McKay?" Sheppard walked into McKay's lab and sat down on a stool, leaning his cane against the bench.

McKay looked up, "Thought you didn't need that thing anymore."

"It's mostly for show; Beckett gets upset if he sees me without it. Went running with Ronon this morning; can't say it didn't hurt, but it felt good. So what's up?"

McKay beamed, "I found something." Sheppard's only reaction was to raise an eyebrow.

"Okay, Colonel Skeptical…but I think I've found an Ancient outpost with a ZPM."

"How much data?"

"Uh…" McKay fiddled with the bandage covering his burn, "Not a lot."

"McKay, I thought we decided no more chasing outposts or energy sources or ZPMs without more information."

"Look, the database says the outpost was used for scientific research, so it stands to reason there might be a ZPM there."

Sheppard smiled, "So you really think there's a ZPM there?"

McKay grinned and nodded his head enthusiastically.

"Wanna go now?"

"Can we?"

"Let's go get Ronon and Teyla, and check it out."

Sheppard started to pick up the cane, then waved his hand toward it and headed out the door, McKay behind him.

"By the way, it's ZPM, not ZedPM, you Canadians really should learn the language."

"Sheppard… bite me."

The end…

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