The Killing Frost

Season/spoilers: Set sometime after "The Long Goodbye". They have the Daedalus, but not the Orion; fit it in canon anywhere you like. Spoilers are mostly vague ones for seasons 1 and 2; there is a small mention of a thing about Rodney's past that's revealed in "McKay & Mrs. Miller".
Rating: T, for language and quite a bit of violence
Genre: Action/adventure, suspense gen, friendship
Disclaimer: These guys belong to MGM. I only play with them.

After writing "Running on Empty", which was almost entirely Sheppard and McKay, I felt the need to do a story with an Atlantis-wide focus, in which everybody gets at least a little time in the sun. Sheppard and McKay probably have the largest roles, though. I just can't help myself.

Impact plus 0 hours, 4 minutes

He woke to darkness, broken by the fizzling sound and leaping blue sparks of torn electrical wires. Somewhere, something was burning -- he choked on the smoke, but couldn't see flames. There were people around him in the dark; he could hear moans, cries, soft voices in a hush of panic.

For a minute he didn't know where he was or how he got here. He thought maybe a bomb had gone off. He'd been in the Middle East, been in Bosnia. This was very like the aftermath of an IED. Then he began to remember, and a shudder went through him, leaving him wrung out and aching. He couldn't believe any of them were still alive.

After a moment's panic when he found he couldn't move his legs, he realized that something heavy was on top of him, pinning him down. Further investigation proved that the heavy thing was one of his people; he touched a jacket-clad arm, but couldn't tell who it was, or even if he or she was alive.

Sitting up, he caught the unknown person's head under his hand and felt a military buzz cut. He thought it might be Sgt. Barrett; the young technician's station was near his own. Touching the throat, he felt a strong pulse and breathed out slowly in relief, lowering the young man gently to the floor and sliding his legs free.

When he tried to stand, a wave of dizziness made him clutch for a hard object which proved to be the edge of his command chair. He used it to lever himself upright, and discovered that at least part of his disorientation was due to the Daedalus's deck listing about fifteen degrees towards the back of the ship. Wherever they were, they hadn't fetched up level.

He still couldn't believe they were alive -- he remembered too vividly how the planet's surface had swooped towards them in the viewscreen, in an instant leaping from a small bright ball to a blue and white quilt of clouds filling the screens; remembered Barrett screaming that they were going much too fast, Hermiod's calm voice over the ship's intercom saying that he was going to try to dump inertia in the ship's atmosphere; remembered turning to look at Weir -- she'd been on the bridge, standing behind his chair -- and seeing the planet's swirling surface reflected in her wide, frightened eyes. And then it was all gone in a jumble of noise and violent motion. He couldn't put the pieces together. He touched his forehead and brought his hand away wet. Concussion, maybe.

But he could stand, and right now, he needed to figure out how bad their situation was. "I need a report," he said loudly, pitching his voice above the soft moans and frightened whispers. "And if anyone has a flashlight, let's get a look around."

"Colonel Caldwell, thank God, sir." He recognized the fervent voice as belonging to Major Perry, his executive officer. A moment later, several flashlights snapped on throughout the room, illuminating a haze of smoke hanging in the air. The bridge did, indeed, look as if a bomb had gone off. Various members of the crew were picking themselves up or leaning on each other as they struggled out from under the debris. Someone was crying softly; he heard another voice, trying to soothe, and heard the weeping person say, "I think my leg's gone."

"Power's totally out, sir," Perry reported from one of the consoles.

Caldwell's radio crackled. "Bridge, this is Engineering. Is anyone alive up there?" It sounded like Novak, although her voice was harsh and rasping, and she broke off in a coughing fit.

"This is Caldwell. We're still getting things sorted out up here. How is it on your end?"

There was a hesitation. "Not so good, sir," Novak said. "We've got fires down here -- we're trying to get them out, but we have no power at all, no lights, and we're having trouble finding the fire extinguishers. Everything's turned upside down."

In the background, Caldwell could hear rapid, raised voices, including the unmistakable, strident tones of Dr. McKay -- complaining about someone's ineptitude, from the sound of things. Obviously he hadn't been injured in the crash, at least not too badly. "Casualties?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. Lots of injuries, at least two dead, I think." In the background, Caldwell heard McKay say, "Where has that lazy Czech gotten off to --" and then breaking off, in a voice of pure horror, "Oh shit, Radek!"

"We could use some medical help down here, sir," Novak added. "I have to go --"

"I'll try to raise the sickbay, and also see if I can get someone down there to help you with the fires."

"Thank you, sir." Novak signed off, but not before Caldwell heard McKay speaking again in the background, in a low, broken-sounding voice, and he realized that he didn't want to know if the soft-spoken Czech scientist was one of the two dead people Novak had mentioned.

It should have been so simple. Just a short hop through the Pegasus Galaxy, escorting some of the physicists to take readings from a couple of nebulas in the hopes of finding a new way to track Wraith ships in hyperspace. McKay had a theory about energy trails in interstellar dust clouds -- Caldwell didn't understand it, hadn't really paid attention to the explanation, but the important thing was that they might have a new weapon to use in the war, and he'd readily agreed when Elizabeth had asked for his help. And when Elizabeth herself wanted to come along ... well, what was one more civilian added to the bunch? It was a 12-hour round trip, they'd hardly be gone long enough for her seat to get cold back in Atlantis, and if Elizabeth Weir wanted to see a nebula up close with her own eyes, why not.

He remembered the look of her eyes in the light from the screens as they dove into the planet's gravity well ... remembered the calm terror on her face. Wondered how many civilians they'd lost on this "simple" trip, how many of his people they'd lost.

"Sickbay, this is Caldwell. Report."

"Ling here," came the brisk voice of his CMO. "Good to hear your voice, sir. We're ... pretty shaken up down here. From the look of things, I think we're going to be very busy for a while." She paused, then asked, "What happened?"

"Don't know yet." All he knew was that one minute they'd been in hyperspace, the next they'd dropped out and were about to smack into a planet. "We've got casualties up here and in Engineering. Let me know when you're kitted up and ready to go."

"Yes sir. Ling out."

"Colonel?" Perry was kneeling in the mess of debris behind Caldwell's chair; it looked as if part of the ceiling had collapsed. "I've found Dr. Weir, sir."

That didn't sound good. "Is she alive?"

There was a brief, ominous pause. "I don't know, sir."


Impact plus 0 hours, 5 minutes

"Colonel Sheppard, we've lost contact with the Daedalus."

In Elizabeth's office, Sheppard raised his head from the card house he'd been meticulously constructing with the piles of paperwork on her desk. His original idea had been that he'd surprise Elizabeth with his energy and efficiency -- prove that he wasn't just a place-filler, holding her spot until she got back, but actually capable of doing her job, and maybe doing it even better than she could. That was before he found out just how stultifyingly boring Elizabeth's job actually was.

"What do you mean, you've lost contact?"

"Just that, sir," said the Canadian tech, Grodin's replacement, whose name Sheppard still couldn't remember. "We were receiving a transmission from the ship when it all suddenly went dead. We didn't get a distress call. It's just -- gone."

Sheppard swept a hand through his fragile construction and watched it flutter down as he rose from the desk, trying to think like Elizabeth and to damp down the part of his brain that wanted to immediately charge to the rescue. "What could cause that?"

The tech hesitated. "Well, a lot of things could cause interference -- but just cutting out like that? I'm not sure, sir. Something must have happened to their communication array. There were no problems at all beforehand. They were in hyperspace and had called in to send us some of their data from the nebula cloud, when we quit receiving from them."

"Hang on, I'm coming down there." As he trotted down to the gateroom, Sheppard asked, "Could something in the nebula have done it?"

"I don't think so, sir. They were well out of it."

"Are they near enough that we can pick them up on our long-range scanners?"

"No, sir. Not at all."

"Could they have been attacked?" He didn't want to think of it ... but damn, a Wraith hiveship could have dropped out of hyperspace right on top of them.

"I have no way to know, sir. We just have nothing to work with. I'm trying to get them back, but ..."

The gateroom was in what Sheppard recognized as its quiet emergency mode -- no panicking and there was no immediate threat, but everyone was moving with a sense of purpose and urgency. Feeling useless, Sheppard stared up at the hanging computer screens that he couldn't decipher, and tried not to listen to the tiny voice in the back of his head chanting Elizabeth and Rodney are on that ship.

He needed to do something, needed to help somehow. He'd run search-and-rescue operations before, in Afghanistan and elsewhere on Earth, even for Rodney after his puddlejumper crashed into Atlantis's sea ... but never in space. He felt desperately out of his depth, didn't even know where to begin. What would Elizabeth do? She'd probably be coordinating things, calling people, getting experts down here. Experts ... scientists ... Sheppard tapped his radio. "Science department, this is Colonel Sheppard. I need to talk to ... er, whoever's in charge down there." Embarrassingly, he really had no idea how the chain of command ran in the civilian areas of the city. When Rodney was gone, he'd normally pass science questions to Zelenka -- but, of course, Zelenka was on the Daedalus as well, leaving Sheppard without a go-to person in the labs.

A crisp female voice came back: "This is Dr. Simpson. Is there a problem?"

"I'm not sure yet," Sheppard admitted. "We've lost contact with the Daedalus. It may be nothing, but I'd like to get a science team started on it, in case they don't resume contact on their own."

To her credit, Simpson didn't argue and didn't ask stupid questions. "You're in the gateroom?" At his affirmative, she said, "I'll be right up there. Please fill me in."

As Sheppard began speaking, he felt himself settling into the familiar pattern of doing something. It didn't matter what; as long as he wasn't sitting idle while his friends were in trouble, he wouldn't be twisting himself into knots. The worry was there, but he could submerge it in the back of his mind, and do what needed to be done.


Impact plus 0 hours 7 minutes

"Oh shit ... Radek!"

The only light in the Daedalus's engineering room came from the fires -- tongues of orange and blue flame, eating the insulation in the bulkheads and filling the room with toxic smoke. By that flickering, lurid glow, Rodney had initially thought Zelenka was unconscious, slumped against the wall on the gently slanting floor -- until he got a good look at the piece of twisted metal protruding from Radek's chest, pinning him to the wall like a butterfly in a collector's case.

"Radek ... God ... Zelenka, can you hear me?" He heard himself speak, felt himself kneeling on the floor, all with a detached sense of unreality. This couldn't be happening. It had been such a straightforward project -- just a quick jaunt to the nebula and back in time for dinner. And then they'd crashed, and he still wanted to know why ... but would never know, because now he was going to asphyxiate, could already feel the bands of suffocation constricting across his chest ... and Radek was dead, nailed to the wall.

This was a stupid way to die. Around him, he sensed a bustle of frantic activity and knew that he should be helping try to extinguish the flames, but his horrified attention was still fixed on Zelenka's pale face.

"Doc! Hey!" Someone was shaking his shoulder -- Caldwell's chief engineer, a big guy, with arms like tree trunks, whose name Rodney had never bothered to learn. "Somebody found fire extinguishers, Doc -- we need all the hands we can get."

Rodney nodded numbly, let himself be helped to his feet. When the Daedalus had come to a stop and he'd finally grasped the idea that he wasn't going to die -- at least, not immediately -- his first reaction had been to snap into immediate action, giving orders to the handful of scientists he could find. This had lasted until he'd gotten his first good look at Zelenka, and then it had all come crashing down. He couldn't think anymore. Turning around as a fire extinguisher was shoved into his hands, he tripped over a pair of legs, and his eyes followed them up to the once-beautiful face of another scientist -- Greta or Girda, he thought her name was ... something Norwegian, anyway. She was very clearly dead. The back of her skull had been crushed, and her eyes were open.

This wasn't supposed to happen.

"Doc!" It was another of the engineers, a lanky blond guy with a weather-beaten face. He gripped Rodney's shoulder, shook him gently. As Rodney came slowly out of his fugue state, the engineer released him with a reassuring smile and turned to help someone else before Rodney could even protest the invasion of his personal space. Putting a sleeve over his face to shut out the smoke, he gritted his teeth and tried to drag his brain back to the here-and-now. It was extremely difficult to stay upright; the deck tilted underfoot, and his head swam from the fumes pouring from the fire. His entire body felt like one giant bruise -- he'd been shaken around in the crash like dice in a cup, and for all he knew, the growing headache was because of internal bleeding. He'd probably keel over any minute. Couldn't that happen after an accident, where you thought you were okay and then turned out to be bleeding inside and --

Novak came running into the room, coughing. She went straight to the chief engineer, but Rodney could hear her: "Bad news, sir. We're blocked in. The passageway is crumpled -- it looks like it was rammed by something huge."

Claustrophobia surged up in Rodney. Better to have died in the crash than to suffocate or burn to death here. A coughing fit doubled him over, and as he straightened, he felt something bump against his foot. Looking down, he saw that Zelenka's leg had twitched.

"Radek!" The fire extinguisher and even the threat of painful fiery death were forgotten. Rodney dropped to his knees beside the Czech scientist. "Radek -- Zelenka -- hey!"

Zelenka's head rolled to the side; he coughed wetly and mumbled something in Czech. Rodney gripped his shoulder, started to shake him, then thought better of it; he just left his hand there. "Radek?"

A flicker showed beneath Zelenka's eyelids. His glasses had been knocked off in the crash and he looked -- fragile. Breakable. He spoke again, snatches of words that were not English, then his head slumped onto his shoulder.

Rodney gave up. "It's, uh, it'll be all right," he attempted, inanely, and gave Radek a pat on the shoulder before letting go and straightening up with the fire extinguisher clenched in his hands like a weapon.

The air was getting thick -- Rodney had to take small gasps, and tried not to think about what the searing stuff was doing to his lungs. And it was hot. "Damn fire's inside the bulkheads -- I don't think we can get it," one of the engineers said. He laid a hand against the wall and then jerked it away with a hiss.

Rodney cast an anxious glance at Radek. Noting flames creeping uncomfortably close to the unconscious scientist, he sprayed them with the extinguisher, driving them back for the moment.

Novak was holding a flashlight for Hermiod. The Asgard did not appear to have been injured in the crash, and had been completely ignoring the fire while frantically working on one of the consoles, muttering softly to himself in his own language. Rodney joined them. "Can you actually fix that?" he demanded, incredulous.

The Asgard gave Rodney an unreadable stare from his large dark eyes. "I do not have time to answer stupid questions." He ducked back under the console, ignoring Rodney's spluttering.

"He's trying to get the fire suppression systems up and running," Novak explained, shifting the flashlight. Rodney noticed that she was holding it with her left hand; the right was tucked up against her body.

Rodney started to reply, when a blast of frigid air startled him and made him turn. Everyone else reacted as well; there was no way you could avoid feeling it, with the air turning to an oven around them. The breeze was coming from the far end of the slanting deck, disturbing the smoke and pushing it out of the way in lazy swirls.

"Found a way out!" The lanky blond engineer with personal-space confusion issues appeared from the smoke, with a broad grin on his tanned face. "There's a big hole in the side of the ship, right up that way. It looks like we got ripped open on some kind of gigantic rock -- that's what buckled the corridors outside. Had to wiggle through an air conduit to get to it, but it's not too tight a fit."

"We can't abandon the engine room, Armstrong, not if we want to get home," the chief engineer protested.

One of the scientists -- Dr. Westlake, Rodney thought it was -- cried out, "If it's that or our lives, we sure as hell can! You really think this ship is going anywhere?" A couple of people were already making moves in that direction, as cold air flowed into the room and began to dissipate some of the smoke.

The utter frigidity of the breeze made Rodney's stomach sink. Clearly it was cold outside. On the other hand, they were getting air in, not venting it out, so at least they hadn't crashed on some airless moon somewhere.

"We could at least get the wounded out," Novak said, looking sympathetically towards Radek and the handful of others who were huddled on the floor, unconscious or moaning.

This gave them something to do, and under the chief engineer's direction -- Rodney finally overheard someone use his name; it was Dewey -- began moving the wounded towards the air vent. The smoke was getting thicker and as Rodney ducked past one of the bulkheads, he saw to his horror that it was starting to develop glowing red hot spots.

"Dr. McKay!" Novak beckoned him. She was assisting a thin, blond woman who was doubled over and whimpering in pain. Reluctantly Rodney offered a shoulder, trying not to get bled on.

Between the two of them, they lifted the woman up to the hole in the ceiling, with Novak pulling and Rodney pushing from underneath. Then Rodney scrambled up after them and helped Novak pull her along what must once have been a nearly vertical ventilation shaft. Now it canted at a steep angle, difficult to navigate but not impossible. And the air, though cold, was clear of smoke; Rodney gulped it down in huge lungfuls, tasting plastic on the back of his tongue.

Novak gave a small, startled cry and vanished. Rodney caught hold of the blond woman and kept her from being dragged after, then peeked out, and his jaw dropped.

He was looking down the side of a sweeping expanse of snow-covered mountain. Snow-covered boulders and pointy, piney trees fell away into a steep valley which then rose to become another impossibly tall mountain. These were Himalaya-class mountains. A low gray ceiling of clouds hid the tops of the mountain peaks, hid the sun and made it impossible to tell what time of day it was.

A wind skirled the snow around the base of the Daedalus, and Rodney shrank back from the cold. Looking down, around the shoulder of the half-conscious blond woman, he saw that Novak had fallen a meter or so. She was sitting in the snow with her legs splayed out and her injured arm drawn up to her chest, hiccuping softly in pain.

"Hey, uh ... you okay down there?"

Novak sniffled, nodded and struggled to her feet. The snow was churned up in great heaps around the bulk of the Daedalus, mixed with car-sized boulders and splintered pine trees. She teetered from one great block of snow to another until she steadied herself on the side of the ship and helped Rodney hand down the blond woman. One of the engineers took custody of her. Looking along the sweep of the ship's hull, Rodney saw that another tear in the hull, some way down, was being used as an entry point by the straggling refugees from the engine room. He turned his head to look the other way and his jaw dropped at the mind-boggling swathe the ship had torn down the side of the mountain.

"Dr. McKay." Novak hesitantly broke in on his thoughts. "I need to get back in -- the fire --"

"Oh. Right, right." Awkwardly, Rodney wriggled backwards down the ventilation shaft and dropped out into what felt like a furnace. A stifling, smoky furnace. Novak scrambled out after him.

All the wounded had been evacuated except for Zelenka and a Daedalus engineer with a crushed pelvis who was too badly injured to risk moving her. The remainder of the Daedalus crew and Rodney's own scientists moved like silent ghosts through the smoke, hopelessly battling the fire and trying to assist Hermiod.

Rodney glanced at Novak and saw that her eyes had gone to Zelenka.

"I don't see how we can move him," she said softly, voicing Rodney's own thoughts. "It's going to take a cutting torch to get him free."

Which meant that Zelenka's life was wholly dependent upon stopping the fire. Assuming that Zelenka was still alive to save. Rodney had never seen anyone who looked that dead and wasn't actually dead. Even Sheppard with the bug on his neck hadn't looked that bad.


Impact plus 0 hours 14 minutes

The bridge of the Daedalus was dark, but calm. Caldwell and the less injured among the bridge crew had performed a quick triage, assessing injuries and binding wounds as best they could with only their single first-aid kit. One of the technicians had been killed when his console blew up on his face on impact; otherwise the most severely wounded on the bridge were a security officer, Airman McKinney, whose leg had been severed at the knee ... and Elizabeth Weir.

She was buried in debris. One look with a flashlight let Caldwell know that digging her out by hand wasn't really an option, at least not without a lot of strong men and a lot of time -- and he'd want a medical team standing by in any case. Several large beams from the ceiling had pinned her, and then further debris had completely buried her. Perry had found her accidentally by stepping on one of her hands, which hadn't even drawn a twitch. The hand was the only part of her that was visible at the moment. Perry hadn't been able to find a pulse at first, and in fact wasn't even sure if the hand was still attached, but after trying a few times he said that he'd gotten something, and when he squeezed her hand she'd squeezed back, very weakly. Caldwell thought that this might just be wishful thinking, but he didn't say anything.

Reports were coming back from the rest of the ship, and they weren't good. The fire in Engineering was out of control, and they had two dead bodies down there, along with two people -- Dr. Zelenka and Sgt. Packee -- who, from the sound of things, would be dead soon if they didn't get medical help. No deaths had been reported in the sickbay, but there were some pretty bad injuries, and the medical staff couldn't get out at the moment to help anyone else -- they'd suffered a hull breach in the crash and the computers had slammed shut the emergency doors throughout the ship, before going down along with the power. Now the ship was divided into compartments and they had no way to undo it. Caldwell and his flight crew were stuck on the bridge; some people were trapped in hallways; one unlucky tech was locked in a bathroom and apparently panicking.

They had cutting torches on board, but getting to them was going to be next to impossible, and even if they could, the torches required electricity to work ... which made them useless unless Hermiod could get the power back on.

Unable to do anything else, Caldwell paced and tried to keep people calm over the radios, while brainstorming with the rest of his bridge crew -- those of them who were coherent enough, anyway -- on possible strategies for opening up the sealed sections of the ship.

"I hate to say it," Perry said, "but I think we're basically looking at explosives. There's nothing else that'll get those doors open, considering what we have to work with and the time frame we're looking at."

Caldwell had more or less come to the same conclusion himself. The idea of blowing up parts of his own ship was galling -- he'd rather cut off his own hand. But slowly suffocating behind the bulkheads didn't seem like much of an alternative. They weren't out of oxygen yet, but with the life support down and the air hazy with smoke from minor electrical fires, it was already getting a bit stuffy.

"How many demolitions experts do we have?" he asked Perry. "There's Sgt. Theodore in Weapons ..."

"And Lt. Cadman," Perry supplied. The Lieutenant was currently on the Daedalus at Sheppard's request. It wasn't often that they took this sort of short trip within the galaxy, and Sheppard wanted some of his regular people to get experience on a starship. He figured that he might have to outfit his own starship crew on short notice -- between hiveships and Ancient ships littered around the galaxy, you just never knew when you were going to suddenly find yourself in possession of a ship. "I imagine most of us can set C4 if we have to, though, sir."

"It wouldn't necessarily be C4 ..." One thing about the Daedalus: it had no shortage of things that went 'boom'. Caldwell tapped his radio. "Cadman? Where are you?"

"In the mess, sir." Her frustrated voice came back immediately.

"Are you hurt?"

"Ankle's a bit twisted, sir, but I'm fine, I think."

"I have a job for you, Lieutenant," Caldwell began, and then broke off at the sound of a very small moan from under the pile of debris at his feet. He gestured frantically to Perry, who came over and knelt down to take Elizabeth's hand while Caldwell discussed explosives and timing and routes around the ship with Cadman. By the time they got that sorted out, the moaning had stopped. Caldwell leaned down by Perry, who looked up at him with his long, thin face half obscured by shadows. "She's passed out again, sir," he said.

"I guessed." Caldwell frowned down at the small white shape of Elizabeth's hand. She was his responsibility, goddammit. All of them were. He hated this, and he still wanted to know what had happened to his ship and his people. Not that he didn't have an inkling.

"Need to talk to you for a minute, Perry." His XO released Elizabeth's wrist and got up to follow him to a quiet corner of the bridge, where Caldwell leaned unobtrusively against the wall. His head was still throbbing; he didn't think he was actually concussed, but he kept getting dizzy when he moved too quickly, and the slanting deck didn't help at all. Lowering his voice so that he couldn't be heard in the rest of the room, Caldwell said, "Did you get any signals before we dropped out of hyperspace -- any readings that were off, any strange radio transmissions, anything at all?"

"No, sir. But then, I wasn't looking for anything, either." Perry frowned. "Do you have a theory, sir?"

Caldwell knew full well what he was asking, and that Perry knew why his CO had taken him aside, where they couldn't be heard. "I certainly don't have a suspect. I trust my crew. Then again, I trusted me until a few months ago." Most of the Daedalus crew, particularly the current crew, didn't know what had happened to their captain with the Goa'uld -- all they knew was that he'd been wounded somehow on Atlantis. The officers were aware of the situation, though, and particularly Perry, who was close to a friend. "It could easily have been a hyperdrive malfunction -- although if so, I sure as hell want some heavy-duty testing done before I take this ship back into space."

Perry said nothing about the odds of this ship ever flying anywhere again. "Hermiod would probably know if the hyperdrive was functioning normally before our ... accident."

"Hermiod's a little busy at the moment. But, yes, as soon as we have the survival problem nailed down, I do intend to ask him. In the meantime, stay alert, Major. If this was deliberate, I have no intention of letting the individual, or individuals, responsible get away with it. Stay alert and be careful."


Impact plus 0 hours 21 minutes

"Rodney, get out of here," Zelenka managed to say in a hoarse whisper.

"Did I ask you? I don't remember asking you," Rodney snapped, stepping quickly across him with a fire extinguisher.

The engine room was an oven, wrapped in a haze of smoke. They seemed to be able to contain the spread of the fire in the room itself, but they could do nothing about the fire behind the bulkheads, and it was slowly baking them alive.

Novak brought Rodney a bottle of water before darting back to help Hermiod at the console. He drank half of it without thinking, astounded at how thirsty he was, then knelt down beside Zelenka. "Here. Drink."

Zelenka tried to swallow, but ended up coughing most of it back up; water dribbled down his chin to mingle with sweat and blood. Even in the reddish light, his face was pale. "What happened?" he asked softly.

"We crashed."

Though white as a sheet and too weak to raise his head, Zelenka managed to look annoyed. "I do know that much, Rodney."

"What kind of answer are you looking for, then? Do I look like some sort of federal spaceflight disaster investigator to you? Maybe Hermiod can't fly straight and ran into a planet. I don't know."

The corners of Zelenka's mouth twitched. "You need to calm down, Rodney. Stress is not good for you." His eyelids fluttered shut.

"Stress? Gee, I wonder why I'm stressed! We're all about to burn to death and you've got a fucking steel beam sticking out of your chest!"

The soft eyes opened again. "Rodney, I am serious. Don't stay on my account. Get out when you have to."

"When did I ever say I was sticking around because of you? I'm here because if the engines go up in flames, we'll end up eating each other's frozen corpses on this rock. That's assuming that we don't all perish in a giant fireball within the next few minutes, considering the quantity of various exploding elements within close proximity of where we now sit."

Zelenka just smiled a little bit and his head flopped over to the side.

"Quit passing out, would you? It makes you very difficult to talk to," Rodney muttered. After a moment, he shrugged out of his jacket and rolled it up against Zelenka's shoulder, to prop up his head.

Without the jacket, it was a little less oppressively hot, but, paradoxically, he shivered in the searing blasts of icy air that swirled around the room each time the wind blew outside. Some of the engineers had had the idea of bringing in snow from outside to try to extinguish the fire or at least cool down the wall, which had resulted in the floor on the downslope side being awash in sooty water, and his shoes were soaked ... just another little bit of misery. Coughing on burning plastic fumes, he sloshed out of the puddles to the main engineering console, where the only visible part of Hermiod was his feet. Rodney had tried several times to offer assistance -- well, "offer" wasn't really the best word, more like "impose" -- only to be firmly rebuffed. However, standing around waiting to burn to death while other people fixed the problem was simply not in his nature. Also, the sheer idiocy of not taking advantage of his intellect at a time like this floored him ... especially since he was probably losing brain cells by the thousands due to the fumes; they'd better use his brain while he still had it!

"Hermiod--" he began.

The feet stiffened. Novak opened her mouth to say something, then stopped and reached for her radio. And there was another thing -- they hadn't given him a radio. All the crew had them; however, the civilians on the Daedalus did not. He'd actually contemplated taking one from a dead engineer, but couldn't quite bring himself to do it.

Feeling annoyed, worried, ignored and useless, Rodney glowered balefully at Novak while she talked to Caldwell in a soft urgent voice. Occasionally she glanced at him and then her eyes skittered hastily away as he continued to glare. As soon as she finished talking, he demanded, "Well? Now what?"

"They're planning to use explosives to blow the sealed emergency doors in the rest of the ship. But they can't get to the cargo holds where the explosives are kept -- we, however, can."

"We can?" He glanced automatically towards the corridor leading into the rest of the ship -- which had been crumpled and blocked in the crash. "No, we can't."

Novak gestured towards the ventilation shaft, then winced, as she'd used her injured hand. "From outside. That's where we took the wounded -- into one of the cargo bays."

Oh, right. The other big hole in the hull. "And they want us to go dig out explosives for them?" Rodney demanded, incredulous. "We're a little busy here, considering that the ship's on fire!" Then, reflecting back on what he'd said, he paused and his mouth dropped open.

"All the more reason to blow the emergency doors so everyone can get out," Novak said. Then she noticed the look on his face. "What is it?"

"Explosives! Fire!" Rodney snapped his fingers. "That's how they extinguish oil well fires -- with dynamite!"

Novak stared at him. "You want to blow up Engineering to put out the fire?"

Hermiod's bald gray head popped up from behind the console. "That does not sound like a prudent course of action."

"Oh really? Well, it seems to me that at the rate things are going, we're all going to burn to death while we wait for you to fix the fire suppression system!"

The Asgard's dark eyes narrowed dangerously.

Novak pointed nervously towards the ventilation shaft leading outside. "I have to, er, go find explosives for Col. Caldwell ..." She scuttled off in great haste.

Rodney and Hermiod continued to glare at each other. Rodney lost; he had to look away when he dissolved into a coughing fit because of the smoke. Hermiod, muttering to himself in Asgard, vanished beneath the console again.

"Coward," Rodney grumbled. Privately, he sent annoyed vibes in Sheppard's general direction for corrupting him so badly that he now found the whole idea of deliberately blowing things up to be an eminently sensible response in a crisis.

He wondered, briefly, what Sheppard was doing right now, and if anyone on Atlantis had any idea of their plight.


Impact plus 0 hours 27 minutes

As far as Sheppard could tell, nearly half an hour after losing contact with the Daedalus, they still didn't know any more than they had at first: namely, that it was gone without a trace, taking over 200 people with it ... not the least of them, from Sheppard's point of view, being Elizabeth and Rodney.

The scientists, along with the gateroom staff, were plotting out the ship's hyperspace course to try to figure out where it might be. And Sheppard paced, frustrated and angry and unable to do anything.

He looked up when Beckett barreled into the gateroom at a near run. The doctor paused, looked around, zeroed in on Sheppard and made a beeline for him. "Colonel, there's a rumor running around the infirmary that something's happened to the Daedalus."

That was what he got for speaking on an open channel. All of Atlantis probably knew by now. "We're having some kind of communication problem, Doc; we don't know if it's worse than that yet."

"I see." Carson sat down in the nearest available chair and clasped his hands on top of the console. Sheppard remembered belatedly that not only were Elizabeth and Rodney on the Daedalus at the moment -- probably Carson's two closest friends -- but Lt. Cadman was as well. Damn. No wonder he looked white.

Simpson looked up from her displays. "We have an estimate for the approximate location of the Daedalus, Colonel, based on its speed, trajectory and the time that we lost contact. Assuming that the Daedalus dropped out of hyperspace when it stopped broadcasting, there are a few different Stargates in systems in the area that we could try dialing to see if we can get a signal from them."

Sheppard nodded. "Do it."

As one of the other technicians began dialing the gate, Beckett asked quietly, "What if they're still in hyperspace?"

"Then they'll have to contact us, because we have no other way of locating them. They're too far out for the long-range scanners to pick them up. We've been hailing them for the last half hour and haven't gotten a response."

Sheppard sat down on the edge of a console. "And if they dropped out of hyperspace sometime between when we lost contact and now?"

Simpson's face darkened. "Then they could be anywhere within a few hundred light-years of their last known position. We'd probably never find them."

Sheppard looked up at the gate as the familiar burst of blue light ka-whooshed and settled into steady rippling. "Then I guess we better hope that's not the case, Doc."


Impact plus 0 hours 30 minutes

"Rodney, I'm telling you how to do it; it isn't my fault you keep refusing to listen to me."

"I'm listening dammit!" Except that he kept tuning her out by sheer habit. Having Laura Cadman's voice speaking in his ear, even if it was only into a radio, brought back memories that he'd rather not dwell on. And having her tell him what to do, especially when he was perfectly confident that he could have figured it out on his own if he'd just been allowed to sit still for a moment without annoying blond Lieutenants yakking at him ...

Novak had provided him a radio, and Cadman, still trapped in her own section of the ship, was talking them through the process of setting the explosives to contain the fire.

"As soon as they go off, you'll need to be ready with extinguishers. This should put out most of the flames, but you'll still have hot spots and they can easily re-ignite. You don't really want to do this twice ... or more."

"We get it, we get it," Rodney muttered.

"Are you ready?"

"Yes, yes -- ready." Retreating from the bulkhead, he paused to untuck his jacket from under Radek's neck and threw it over the unconscious scientist's head and torso, in the hopes of shielding him from debris. If they got a backwash of flames -- which Cadman had told them was a possibility -- there wasn't a damn thing he could do to prevent Zelenka from becoming scientist flambe-on-a-stick, but at least he could prevent him from getting rakish scars that would attract every eligible woman in the labs.

Cadman spoke over the general channel in a calm, businesslike voice. "We're setting off explosives in the engineering section. All nonessential personnel need to clear out. As soon as we get the all-clear, Colonel, do we have permission to proceed?"

"You have permission to do whatever you need to do in order to ensure the safety of the people on this ship, Lieutenant," Caldwell retorted brusquely.

"We're clear," Novak's voice came over the radio.

"Okay, Rodney. Like we talked about. Go."

Rodney tried to figure out just how, exactly, he'd ended up being the one setting off the explosives. Well, maybe because it was his idea, but still ...

Sheppard would never let him live this down.

He hit the button.

There was a muffled WHOOMPH and a concussive wave of air momentarily blew the smoke out of the room. As the haze rushed back, the designated fire brigade of relatively-uninjured engineers and scientists sprang into action, using extinguishers and snow to eliminate what was left of the fire.

"Dewey, McKay, report," Caldwell ordered.

Rodney promptly opened his mouth to object that Caldwell had no authority over him, but the chief engineer spoke first, with fervent relief in his voice. "I think that got it, sir. We're still cleaning up the hot spots, but I think that did it."

"Well done, you guys!" Cadman chirped cheerfully, and then turned her attention to the next priority -- blowing the doors in the sickbay. Rodney tuned her out as he sank against the wall with a long sigh of relief.

Novak edged up next to him. "Nice work," she said quietly.

"Um, thanks." He glanced sideways at her -- smoke, dirt and blood had made a mess of her face, and he suspected that he probably didn't look any better. She was still holding her arm tucked up to her chest, the awkward posture making him think of a wounded bird, and he felt as if he should say something. "Uh, are you -- is that, eh, broken, do you think?"

"I'm trying really hard not to think about it. At least," she added with a nervous laugh, "I was until you asked me about it."

"Oh. Sorry." He still couldn't get his brains together. He felt as if something vital to his intellectual integrity had been lost, left behind in space, and now he was just scrambling to keep up with everyone else.

"Were you hurt, in the crash?"

"I ..." This was the first time he'd realized that he'd never really taken inventory. He was bruised, he knew that, and from the feel of things he had one gigantic bruise over his right thigh that he didn't even want to look at. It amazed him to find that he wasn't all that worried about internal bleeding, crushed-limb trauma or any of the other things that he would normally be worrying about. Hypochondria, too, had been left behind, submerged in the much greater crises of the people around him. "Not really," he managed to say.

Novak nodded as if she understood.


Impact plus 0 hours 34 minutes

Caldwell could tell when they began blowing the doors. The muffled vibration of explosions elsewhere in the ship was transmitted up through his feet and through the hand that he'd rested against a wall. It was hard, so hard to accept the necessity of damaging the ship even more than it had been damaged in the crash. But the ship was only plastic and steel. There were lives at stake.

"We're through the sickbay doors, sir," Cadman reported. "There are still at least two sets that are going to have to be blown before they can make it to you, though."

"Do what you need to, Lieutenant."

It was hard, too, to stand here doing nothing. He wanted to be out there, helping them.

"Dewey, what's it looking like down in Engineering?"

The engineer's voice sounded strained. Major Brian Dewey was a quiet man with a cool head in a crisis, definitely the sort of person you wanted running your engines in a combat situation. Caldwell had never seen him ruffled, even with Wraith ships bearing down on them and circuitry exploding everywhere. The fact that he sounded so stressed was a strong indication of how bad it was. "The fire's out, sir, but we're still assessing the extent of the damage. At the very least, we're not going anywhere anytime soon."

Understatement of the year. "Any chance you can get the power back online?"

"Hermiod's working on it, sir, but honestly ... I doubt it. There's just too much damage, and we don't dare bring the power core back online without extensive repairs."

"Understood." Which meant they were stuck here. "You people have access to the outside, right? What's it look like out there?"

There was a brief hesitation. "I haven't actually been out there yet, sir. I'm going to turn you over to someone who has. Lt. Armstrong? You're outside, right?"

"Here, sir."

Armstrong. Native Minnesotan, Caldwell recalled, and a skilled outdoorsman who'd been stationed in both the Arctic and Antarctic. "Lieutenant, report. Where've we touched down?"

"We're on a mountain, sir." There was a pause and he could hear crunching sounds -- boots in snow, he guessed, even before the lieutenant said, "It's winter, sir -- either that or we're very high up, or it's a very cold planet, or both. High, sharp mountains all around us. Glaciated. No sign of habitation that I can see anywhere. Lots of snow. Actually, if it wasn't for the snow we'd probably have taken a lot more damage to the ship. I can only imagine that it helped cushion our landing a bit."

"Guess Lady Luck works in mysterious ways, Lieutenant."

There was a short laugh. "Yes, sir. You want me to explore a little?"

"Negative, Lieutenant. Nobody goes anywhere until we get everyone together and take care of the wounded. It looks like we're on our own, so our first priority is assembling in one place and taking stock of our supplies."

"Yes, sir."

Caldwell signed off and leaned against the wall for a moment. Captain Kleinman, who was bent over one of the darkened consoles with a flashlight, said without looking up, "Did I hear correctly? Ice planet?"

"Or something like it. You like the snow, Captain?"

Kleinman grinned. "I'm a city boy myself, Colonel. You?"

"Grew up on a farm, actually. But I'm not much for snow. Guess you can always teach an old dog new tricks, though." He gestured at the equipment. "How's that coming?"

"I think our emergency beacon is transmitting, sir, though it's hard to be sure. But otherwise, without power, our external communications are totally down. And we can't boost the signals on the radios without it, either, which means we're very limited in how far we can go while staying in touch with each other."

Perry asked from nearby, "What about the F302s?"

There was a point. Caldwell tapped his radio. "Anyone got a status report on the hangar bay?"

After a moment, Dewey responded. "I can't tell you firsthand, sir, but looking at the way the ship is situated and what it looks like outside Engineering, I wouldn't be surprised if it's completely inaccessible. A lot of the access corridors on that side of the ship are crumpled."

Cadman's voice came on to ask, "Is that a priority, sir? I can divert --"

"Negative, Lieutenant. Only if there are people trapped there, and nobody's reported back from that section." He refused to consider what that might mean. "People first. That's your top priority."

"Yes, sir. Cadman out."

"Sir?" one of the bridge security crew -- Airman Seavey -- called from her position next to the pile of rubble burying Elizabeth Weir. "You wanted to know if she woke up, sir. I think she's awake."

Caldwell knelt beside the young Airman, and laid his hand in Weir's cold palm. Immediately the fingers responded, curling around his own. They felt like ice. "Dr. Weir? Seavey tells me you've decided to rejoin us."

There was a soft, dry cough, then Elizabeth's voice said softly, "The flight was very enjoyable, but I can't say I think much of your landings, Colonel."

Caldwell smiled in the dark. "Yes, I'll have to speak to someone about that." Another dry cough came from under the pile of rubble, and he asked, "At the risk of sounding like a bit of an idiot, Doctor, how do you feel?"

After a moment's silence, Weir said, "Strange."

"In what way?"

"Disconnected." Her voice did, indeed, have a sort of dreamy quality to it. "I can't move, really, but nothing seems to hurt. Well, it hurts, but not in an ... urgent sort of way."

He wished he could see her, because it was damned hard to gauge a person's physical health when all you had to go by was some rambling from under a pile of rubble. "We'll have a medical team up here fairly soon." As if to emphasize his words, the deck trembled slightly as another explosion shook the ship.

Something groaned and shifted in the pile of debris covering Elizabeth. She gave a small, startled gasp, and her hand on Caldwell's flinched.

"Dr. Weir?" he asked sharply.

"I'm ... I'm here." After a hesitation, she said, "I felt something move."

"I know, but I think the pile on top of you is fairly stable -- it just shifted a little. Just relax; we'll have you out of there as quickly as possible." He gave her hand a final squeeze and straightened, allowing Airman Seavey to move in and take his position. Looking around, he saw Perry meet his eyes across the heap of debris, and picked his way around its edge, climbing over a beam, so that he could speak to his XO out of Elizabeth's earshot.

"That's very bad," Perry murmured.

"I know. But I can't exactly tell Cadman to stop blowing doors. We can't stay trapped in here forever, and there really isn't any other way." He knew that he was trying to justify his decision to himself, even knowing that it was the correct one. They had wounded people up here, including Elizabeth herself, who urgently needed medical attention. And without more manpower and equipment, there was very little chance that they could get her out alive anyway. As he'd said, there was no other way -- the risk of accidentally crushing her was one they simply had to take.

Didn't mean he had to like it. Didn't mean he liked being the one to make the call, either.

"I don't just mean her situation," Perry murmured. He gestured around them. "Who knows how stable the whole thing is? And there may be others buried like she is."

Caldwell sucked in his breath through his teeth, thinking, hating the conclusions he was coming to. "I know. And there's still no choice. What else can we do, try to cut ourselves out with hand tools?" He tapped his radio, and said, "Cadman. Channel 6, please."

"Sir," Cadman said after a moment over the relatively private channel.

"Lieutenant, we've had a concern arise over possibly bringing down some of the badly damaged sections of the ship with the vibrations from the explosives."

"I don't think it's that badly damaged, sir, and we're taking that into account."

"That may be, but we've noticed a bit of shifting up here. And we have one badly injured person who's trapped under debris, who may not be the only one. I'm not telling you to stop, Lieutenant, because we need what you're doing. But use the absolute minimum charges that you can, and if you don't absolutely have to blow something to rescue a trapped person, then don't do it."

"Oh." She sounded subdued. "I take it we're using a private channel because this isn't public knowledge, sir?"

"You'd be right, Lieutenant. Be discrete, be careful, and keep blowing things up."

"Yes, sir."


Impact plus 0 hours 39 minutes

"It's not really through his chest so much as it's through his shoulder," the medic explained. She was a petite strawberry-blond woman who had introduced herself as Cora something-or-other. At any other time, Rodney wouldn't have been able to keep his eyes off her, but at the moment, all he could do was jitter nervously from foot to foot as she checked over Zelenka from a portable medical bag and began setting up an IV.

As she straightened up and began calmly entering numbers into a clipboard, Rodney finally lost mouth containment. "But -- but -- you're just leaving it there? Isn't that some kind of clear violation of the Hippocratic Oath? I don't care if it's in his shoulder, his thorax or his left ventricle -- it's still definitely not supposed to be in any part of a human body!"

Cora Somebody-or-Other marched up into Rodney's personal space, her neatly plucked brows drawn together with a fine line between them. "Mister McKay, we have no electricity, no heat, no way to move any surgical equipment from the sickbay if it's not small and portable, and only one doctor on the ship. We are not performing any surgeries at the moment unless we absolutely have to ... and your friend is not bleeding that badly."

"But ... metal! In his chest!"

"Shoulder," the medic corrected grimly. "Now, I'm giving him fluids, antibiotics, painkillers and a mild sedative. If you want to help him, you can head down to sickbay or one of the supply bays and get some blankets. He may be here for a while, and it's going to get cold. But first, let me take a look at you."

Rodney, a bit dazedly, allowed her to flash a light in his eyes and slap a blood pressure cuff on his arm. "I'm fine," he said.

"I'll be the judge of that. We have people walking around here with so much adrenaline in their bodies that they're telling us they're perfectly fine while dragging broken limbs." She tore the cuff off his arm. "Any pain? Deformity? Dizziness? Trouble walking?"

"I told you. I'm fine. Quit that!" he snapped as she stuck a thermometer in his ear.

"You do seem to be fine -- thankfully, because I'm sure you'd be a delightful patient if you weren't. Now go make yourself useful and bring your friend some blankets."

"Your bedside manner sucks!" Rodney told her retreating back as she headed towards Novak.

He had to pity the medics, though. There weren't very many of them, and they had to tend to nearly 200 people, many of whom appeared to have major injuries. But still ... metal! Stuck in Zelenka's chest! There had to be something wrong with that. It made him feel ill just looking at it. All he wanted to do was get as far away as possible. Surely there had to be something useful he could be doing elsewhere in the ship ... Nonetheless, he couldn't explain why he found himself crouching down next to the injured scientist. "Hey, Radek. You in there?"

The light eyes cracked open. "Rodney," he acknowledged, and rolled his head to the side, peering up at the IV.

"You feel any better? Someone who is not a doctor, and not really much of a nurse, gave you this." Rodney twitched at the IV line with his fingertips. "Supposed to be some happy drugs in there."

"Cold," Zelenka whispered.

"Yes, well, that would be because we're on some kind of ice planet. I'm off to pick you up some blankets, doctor's orders. You want anything else? Water, food, hot and cold running nurses? I'm taking requests." He tried to smile. This was somehow easier with Sheppard, even in situations like this -- and heaven knew they did get into a lot of situations like this. Well, not exactly like this ... but the whole "waiting for a friend to live or die" thing -- with Sheppard, he was sort of getting used to it. And he felt responsible for Zelenka, in a lot of ways, not the least of them being that Zelenka wouldn't even be here if he hadn't pitched this stupid idea to Caldwell in the first place.

In fact, none of them would be here. "Oh God," Rodney murmured as realization dawned. "I've killed us all, haven't I?"

"I see that your ego is as large as ever." Zelenka's eyes drifted shut. "Somehow you have missed the part where we are adults and doing things of our own free will."

"Girda's dead," Rodney said, around a choking lump in his throat. He hadn't even really known the woman, but damn, he was tired of his staff dropping dead because of his mistakes. At this rate he wasn't going to have any scientists left by the New Year.

"Her name is ... was Greta ... Greta Estvaag." Zelenka blinked sleepily up at Rodney. "And yes ... yes I know. I saw her die. She was in front of me. She has two sisters ... and a cat ..."

"God, Radek, I'm so sorry," Rodney whispered. "For all of this."

Zelenka's eyelids slid shut. "If you're truly sorry, then how about some blankets ... and maybe that nice lab by the transporters, when we get back to Atlantis."

"The lab -- you mean the one where I run spectrographic analysis?"

"Where you used to run spectrographic analysis." His voice faded, trailing into sleep. "I have been thinking it would be very nice for spreading out jumper circuit diagrams ... and repairing broken control crystals ... very nice indeed ..."

"Radek?" Rodney nudged at him lightly, felt for a pulse, almost panicked when he couldn't feel anything and then realized it was because he didn't have his fingers anywhere near an artery. "Blankets," he said to himself, "blankets are good," and straightened up, wincing a little as his bruises twinged at him. Maybe he'd spoken too soon to whatsername, Cora, about being fine. Maybe she had Tylenol or something.

It was definitely getting colder in the engine room. As he made his way to the ventilation shaft that still provided their only way in and out of the room, Rodney looked over at Hermiod and wondered how Asgard dealt with the cold. Could you put a parka on an Asgard? Would it wear it? For that matter, did they have any parkas on the ship? We'd better, he thought, and remembered to retrieve his jacket before climbing up the shaft's diagonal slant.

Dropping out of the opening in the side of the ship was like plunging into ice water. He may as well have left the jacket where it was, covering Zelenka's legs, because the wind went straight through it. They'd better have cold-weather gear, or they were all going to be a bunch of popsicles by the end of the day.

The region alongside the hull of the Daedalus was like an avalanche zone, huge broken chunks of ice and boulders and frozen ground. Rodney slipped and slithered his way to the big rip in the hull that apparently, judging from what he'd heard, led into the cargo bays. Unfortunately the opening didn't reach all the way to the ground, so he had to grab hold of the jagged edges of the metal and pull himself up ... not really his forte even on a good day. Fortunately, someone inside noticed his difficulty and a warm hand closed over his half-frozen one, hauling him up. It was the big blond guy -- Armstrong -- and Rodney couldn't help noticing he was wearing a parka.

"We have coats?" he asked, feeling pathetic as he tucked his hands into his sleeves.

Armstrong nodded and pointed deeper into the wide-open space. Rodney saw lights farther in, and trekked that way, hoping that the presence of light meant that some kind of electricity had been turned on.

It turned out that the light came from a variety of non-electrical sources -- glowsticks and Coleman lanterns which had been set on top of crates or spread around to illuminate a large area. This was immediately evident as the ship's impromptu center of operations. There were already fifty or sixty people assembled, opening crates and arranging supplies under the watchful eyes of several officers, and more bedraggled-looking refugees kept trickling in. Cots had been set up for the wounded. Due to the way that the ship had twisted during the crash, the floor was very nearly level here, which made a nice change of pace.

Rodney looked around for any of his people, and soon located the remaining scientists besides Zelenka and Greta, all huddled in a knot near a big pile of crates. Obviously, no one had given them anything to do and they were feeling isolated and scared. He forged towards them through the mass of soldiers, and they came to meet him, looking pathetically overjoyed to see him. He was a lot more accustomed to being greeted with fear or at least a hasty scramble to look busy. Abject gratitude made him deeply uncomfortable and he tried to brush them off.

"How's Rad -- uh, Dr. Zelenka?" asked one of the Russian physicists.

"Impaled," Rodney said shortly. "They tell me it's not as bad as it looks. I suspect they're right, because if it was, he'd be dead. What are you all standing around for? Isn't there anything you can do to make yourselves less useless?" Strange how having people to order around helped him to shake off his own lethargy and fear.

He soon had the scientists scrambling off to help the military contingent in various ways, and he'd gotten himself a parka and an armload of blankets. Why in the world the Daedalus carried Arctic survival gear was beyond him; he'd also seen a couple of rubber rafts and wetsuits in the same area, so maybe they just hauled survival equipment for all conceivable conditions as a general rule. He could tell by looking, though, that there weren't very many parkas -- which meant it was a good thing he'd managed to grab one early. No way he was letting his valuable brain freeze, and Caldwell had better see it that way too, because now that he was in his parka, they would have to pry it off his cold dead corpse.

Hmm. Bad thought.

He added a couple bottles of water from another crate to his Radek care package, then slithered down into the snow and scrambled back to the ventilation hole. This time he paused for a moment to study just how, exactly, a completely enclosed ventilation shaft had become an opening to the outside. It wasn't a pretty picture -- the skin of the Daedalus had actually been peeled back from that part of the hull like the lid of a tin can. Rodney shuddered as he threw the blankets into the opening and climbed in after them.

Zelenka was unconscious and unresponsive when he got back to the engine room. Rodney hoped that it was because of Cora's promised drugs and not because of something more sinister and lethal. He carefully tucked several of the blankets around the too-still scientist, then set a bottle of water by his hand and went off to give the blankets to one of the medics.

Having done that, he made a beeline for the main engineering console where Hermiod and Novak had their heads together ... because, dammit, his brains were totally going to waste on playing gofer, Radek was dying in the hands of people who clearly had no medical qualifications whatsoever, and they had to get off this frozen wasteland before he went crazy.

Novak was murmuring something in an undertone. She broke off abruptly when Rodney walked up. She and Hermiod shared a look.

"What?" he demanded. "I'm here to help. And I'm not taking no for an answer this time."

"That's not it," Novak said. She looked at Hermiod again. He blinked his large eyes and gave her a small, slow nod. She smiled a little and reached into a pocket of her BDUs with her uninjured hand, while Rodney watched with no attempt to conceal his impatience.

"Well? What?"

"I believe I have learned the reason for our mishap," Hermiod said quietly, tilting his head to one side.

Novak dropped a small object into Rodney's palm. As soon as he got a good look at it, he tried to recoil from the greasy-smooth feel of semiorganic circuitry. Raising his eyes, he saw both of them watching him, Novak with a certain eager hope and Hermiod with his usual inscrutability.

"This is Wraith."

Hermiod nodded and spoke very quietly. "We were sabotaged."


Impact plus 0 hours 45 minutes

"Trying the seventh gate address, sir."

They were going through Simpson's list of possible Stargates as quickly as possible: dialing the gate, sending signals on all the radio frequencies used by the Daedalus, listening for a reply, then shutting the gate down and dialing another. As Simpson pointed out, they could easily be missing a signal, especially if it was weak -- but if the Daedalus was in trouble, time might be of the essence. They could do a more thorough investigation of each gate if the initial sweep found nothing.

Beckett sat very quietly at the side of the room, not interrupting, just watching. Teyla and Ronon had also joined them; Sheppard realized that he had no idea when the pair of them had turned up in the room. They were just there, Ronon leaning on a wall and Teyla sitting lightly on the top of the steps leading down to the gate. Just watching, all of them watching.

"How many more to go after this one?" Sheppard asked.


Sheppard whistled. "That's a lot." But not a lot, not total, not when those gates could be the only chance to find their missing people. Still, knowing how spread out the Stargates were, it seemed to cover an alarmingly huge area. Using the jumpers to search the same area would take them hundreds of years, he thought, feeling slightly ill.

"Hyperspace is fast," the scientist replied tersely, eyes on her screens as she typed quickly. "We're dealing with rough estimates here, too, regarding their speed and course heading. I'm starting with what I consider the most likely possibilities and expanding out --"

"Sir!" The Canadian technician swiveled back around, looking torn between joy and worry. "We're getting a signal from this one. Just a second, I'm boosting it ... It's the emergency distress beacon from the Daedalus. We've found it!"

Sheppard caught his breath. From the corner of his eye, he saw Teyla smiling and Ronon sitting up with an alert expression. Yes, they had found it ... but the ship was clearly in trouble, or it wouldn't be broadcasting a distress call. "Hail them," Sheppard said.

"Daedalus, this is Atlantis. Come in, Daedalus, do you read?"

He repeated it a few more times before shaking his head. "No answer. They either can't receive us or can't broadcast."

Sheppard swallowed against the dryness in his throat, then turned when one of the other technicians made a startled sound. "There's something else broadcasting in this system, sir."

"Oh my God," Simpson whispered, bending over his shoulder.

Sheppard looked, but the readouts meant nothing to him. "What is it?"

The tech looked up at him, all color drained from his face. "It's a Wraith distress beacon, sir."


Impact plus 0 hours 48 minutes

"Colonel? We've reached your position, sir. We're ready to blow the last set of doors. You folks might want to get behind something."

Faintly, a pounding sound came from the emergency doors sealing off the bridge.

"Acknowledged, Cadman. Wait for my mark." The bridge crew, isolated from most of the rest of the ship and sealed behind more bulkheads, were one of the last groups to be freed. As Perry quietly and efficiently directed the evacuation of the wounded to the far side of the bridge, Caldwell leaned down beside Airman Seavey. The young soldier seemed to be taking her responsibility to the injured Dr. Weir very seriously -- she had remained crouched at Elizabeth's side, rubbing the woman's cold hand and talking to her softly. Sensing her CO's presence at her side, she looked up with wide eyes.

"At ease, Airman. Suggest you take cover."

"Yes, sir, but ..." She looked down at her hand, still folded over Elizabeth's, dark skin on pale. "What about her, sir?"

"She's more sheltered than we are, Airman." If only that were true. The debris over Elizabeth had shifted and settled several more times as the Daedalus trembled from Cadman's detonations. So far, nothing important seemed to have moved, but Caldwell could sense that the pile of rubble was in precarious balance. Elizabeth's life hung by a thousand threads -- each one suspending a piece of debris that could crash down and sever a limb, an artery.

"She's been awake, off and on, sir," Airman Seavey told him, reluctantly relinquishing her position at Elizabeth's side as Perry tugged on her shoulder. "I think she's conscious now, but she's just listening. She's been quiet."

Caldwell nodded thanks to Perry, who led the young woman to join some of the others behind an intact console near the forward viewports, and leaned forward to lay his hand on top of Elizabeth's. It was strange and a bit awkward, lending this sort of physical comfort to someone with whom he'd always had a much more distant working relationship. But he'd been in enough combat zones to know how human contact could calm fear and pain, even between strangers -- or relative strangers such as the two of them. It would be better for Elizabeth if one of her friends were here to hold her hand. But none were, and so her cold, shaky fingers curled around his own.

"You're not Keisha," said the soft, quizzical voice of the trapped woman.

Elizabeth had somehow managed to get on a first-name basis with half his bridge crew just in the few short hours she'd been on the ship. "No, Seavey's taken shelter. They're about to detonate explosives to open the doors to the bridge. Then we'll be able to dig you out."

Quiet, so quiet he could barely hear her: "You're not doing me any favors with half-truths, Steven."

And deliberate use of his first name. They'd never been Steven and Elizabeth to each other, would probably never be. Calculated, as everything she did was calculated -- but, then, he understood that side of her because he was the same way himself. And he did respect her, even if he thought she sometimes allowed emotion to make her careless, deeply careless with her responsibilities and the lives that depended on her. One of his responsibilities had been to bring her and the other civilians back to Atlantis safely, and because he had failed, he owed her the truth. "No, you're right. There's a very real possibility that this is going to destabilize what's on top of you, maybe bring it down."

And so these might be her last seconds of life. He'd been in that position more than once; he knew how it felt. Generally it was different for civilians, but not so much in certain occupations. Police officer. Firefighter. Pegasus Galaxy diplomat. The only response from Elizabeth was a soft sigh, and she asked, "Is there anything I can do to, er ...?"

"Shore it up from underneath?" At her soft affirmative sound, he said, "I don't think so. I've asked the engineers, but it's not as if we can get them up here to take a look, and ... it's pretty much a mess. Can't tell where anything begins or ends."

There was a smile in her voice, but no bitterness, as she said, "So we cross our fingers and hope."

"That's about the size of it." At least she wasn't panicking, though in a way the eerie calmness was more difficult to take than if she'd been screaming and wailing against her fate.

"Sir?" Cadman, on the radio. "Are you ready?"

"We're ready, Lieutenant."

Elizabeth spoke in a soft, dreamy voice. She seemed to be drifting away again, and considering what might happen in the next few seconds, perhaps it was just as well. "Shouldn't you be, I don't know, taking cover somewhere?"

"We aren't that close to the door," Caldwell said, and his grip tightened -- because no one, no matter the personal difference that he had with them, deserved to die alone.

After all of that, the actual explosion turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax: with a WHOOMPH! not much louder than the muffled blasts they'd been hearing from other parts of the ship, the sealed bridge doors shifted inward as if from a giant's kick. "All clear -- could use some help over here!" Cadman yelled through the opening, and several of the bridge crew ran to assist in prying the doors back until there was enough of a gap to admit two medics -- including the CMO, Dr. Ling -- as well as Cadman's impromptu demolitions team.

"Very nice work, Lieutenant," Caldwell told her. Weir's hand had gone unresponsive in his own; he hoped it just meant she'd passed out again, since the debris had not seemed to shift, but there would be no way to know until they dug her out. He dug a finger into her wrist, located the flutter of a pulse, and only then straightened to return the Lieutenant's salute. "How's it going in the rest of the ship?"

"Pretty much done, sir." Cadman dragged a hand across her face, wiping away soot and sweat. Blond hair straggled limply down her forehead. "We've freed most of the trapped personnel -- there are just a few individuals in different parts of the ship that we still have to locate. We've been assembling people in the cargo bay, except for the wounded; we're generally leaving them where they are."

Caldwell glanced at Ling for confirmation of this. His CMO nodded. "We have no power to the sickbay; it's not as if we could do any more for them if we took them there. In a lot of cases, it's better not to try to move them." Drawing a deep breath, she added, "I have a few surgeries to perform. I needed to take a look at the situation up here first, but -- I'll be busy for a while, Colonel."

Surgeries ... without electricity or decent lights, with the temperature steadily creeping lower inside the ship. Caldwell didn't like those odds. "Do what you need to, Major."

Ling nodded briskly and turned to attend to the soldier whose leg had been severed -- they had made her as comfortable as possible, but the heavy metallic tang of blood overlaid even the dust and reek of cordite from the explosives. Caldwell went to give her hand a squeeze and offer her a few words of comfort, then moved among the bridge crew, a bit numbly. So many injured, and the rest of the crew were the same. Only five people were actually dead, according to the reports he'd gotten back from the different sections, but without adequate medical care, they might have more soon...

He finished his circuit to find Cadman, Kleinman and Perry deep in a discussion of how to dig out Weir, and he left them to it, stepping carefully through the half-open doors into a dark, silent hallway. He had a flashlight in his coveralls, but didn't bother with it -- he knew his ship well enough to walk its corridors blindfolded. But his ship was different now, the familiar corridors twisted and half-clogged with debris. After stumbling several times, and ripping his finger open on a jagged edge of metal, he had to stop and get out the flashlight to continue.

Changes. Never anything the same. He moved through the shell of his ship like a sleepwalker, feeling the growing chill in the air as they bled heat to the outside. Heat ... they'd need to do something about that. Food, they had in abundance -- they carried enough to feed the entire crew for a month, and if they hadn't come up with a way to contact Atlantis or Earth by that time, then they were all in a lot of trouble. Water ... they had some, but without life support, they would end up relying on snow for most of their --

"Colonel Caldwell? This is Novak."

"Caldwell here." He realized that he was wandering without purpose, and that wasn't good. Raising his hand to his forehead, he brought it away wet and sticky. Should probably have talked to Ling before leaving the bridge, but she'd been busy with people far more injured than himself.

"Hermiod would like to see you in the engine room, sir. Lt. Cadman says that the bridge doors have been opened."

"That's right. I'll be down shortly." He wiped his hand across his eyes, sweeping away blood. It had been less than an hour since the crash, according to his watch.

It felt like a year.


Impact plus 1 hour 4 minutes

The drugs hadn't taken away the pain -- the beast still crouched at the edge of his awareness, waiting to roar up and take him down again. The only difference the drugs had made was that now he didn't care. He lay still, because he was afraid to move, and gazed up at the bright bars of flashlight beams dancing in the smoke-filled air. They looked solid enough to reach out and touch. Half-formed phrases rose and submerged in the dark waters of his subconscious, words to describe the beauty of the roiling smoke and the wonder that sufficient particles in the air could make light visible. He felt a little poetic and a little drunk, and knew it was from the drugs, but again, he didn't care.

Something sank down next to him with a loud sigh. Rodney. He thought about turning his head, decided that it wasn't worth the risk of waking the beast.


Of course, Rodney was never capable of simply leaving a person alone. When Zelenka ignored him, an insistent hand prodded at his uninjured shoulder until he gave up and mumbled, "Some of us are trying to sleep."

"In English, Radek," Rodney snapped in a voice that sounded strained and ragged.

Sometimes he couldn't tell. He tried to sort out the different languages in his brain. "Is this English now?"

"It must be, since I can understand you. Well, to the extent that I can ever parse what passes for coherent thoughts with you." The hand stayed on his shoulder. This worried him more than anything else so far. McKay was trying to be nice to him ... and that didn't bode well at all for the state of his health.

He moved his head at last, because he couldn't keep staring at the ceiling forever, and also because he wanted to see if Rodney was hurt -- consumed by his own pain, he hadn't even wondered, up until now, about the others here. Elizabeth Weir, Greta Estvaag -- no, Estvaag was dead, wasn't she ... he'd seen her die, her head erupting in a spray of blood in those crazy moments when everything went slow and he saw death coming to meet him with a tearing screech of metal.

He lowered his gaze from the ceiling to see Caldwell and Novak standing close together at the far side of the room, speaking to each other in low urgent tones. Sweeping his eyes slowly to the side, he saw that Rodney was watching them, the blue eyes half-lidded and focused far away. There was an ugly bruise down one side of McKay's face, along with smudges of soot and streaks of blood that didn't seem to be his own, and fine lines of stress surrounded his eyes in a way that Zelenka hadn't seen since the Wraith siege. At some point he'd managed to acquire a military-issue parka; it was unzipped and hung open.

"Rodney?" He wasn't sure if he'd spoken aloud, but he must've made some noise because Rodney's head turned towards him, the eyes coming back from wherever they'd gone. "What happened?"

"We crashed. You've asked me that before."

Everything was foggy. He couldn't get hold of his thoughts. "I know," he said, although he wasn't sure if he'd known or not.

Rodney sighed and leaned closer, speaking in a low murmur with his eyes on the people across the room. "We were sabotaged. And you'd better have your head screwed on straight enough not to go blathering about it to anybody else, you hear me? I know it wasn't one of us -- us Atlanteans, I mean -- but there's no telling who they might talk to. Don't know about Caldwell's people, wouldn't trust his grunts farther than I could throw them. It might not have been any of us. It's Wraith technology."

"Wraith?" Zelenka wondered if he'd heard right, or if his brains were even more scrambled than he'd thought.

"The hyperdrive's been sabotaged. Hermiod found a Wraith decoupler, similar to the ones they use in their drives to divert the --" He broke off, apparently remembering that he was talking to one of the few people in the galaxy who actually understood the difference between Wraith and Asgard drive technology. "Anyway, it shorted out our drive for a few seconds and dropped us out of hyperspace. It wouldn't have been a problem if we hadn't been passing through a star system at the time. What are the odds, hm?"

Zelenka tried to pull together his scattered thoughts. "Someone ... wanted the ship intact."

Rodney looked around and snorted. "Yeah, that plan backfired a tad, didn't it?"

Zelenka laughed a little, broke off with a wince. The hand tightened involuntarily on his shoulder. He pretended not to notice. "You think there are Wraith coming, Rodney?"

"I'll let the utter stupidity of that question pass, since you're drugged." McKay stared across the room at Caldwell and Novak, who had now been joined by Hermiod as well. "Of course they're coming. We know they want to get their hands on an Earth ship to study it. This is probably their latest attempt. We also found a transmitter which Hermiod's deactivated, hopefully in time. The big question is how they managed to sabotage the ship in the first place."

"Perhaps when Caldwell was --"

"Caldwell was a Goa'uld, Radek." While not entirely common knowledge on Atlantis, the story had become known among the various departments' upper echelons. "They're not working with the Wraith. At least, I hope they're not ... Besides, I know the SGC goes over these ships with a fine-toothed comb every time they're in port. Even the U.S. military couldn't be incompetent enough to miss something this obvious. This had to have been added after its last trip back to Earth ... which would tend to point to a saboteur on board."

"A Wraith on the ship," Radek whispered.

"Or a Wraith sympathizer, yes."

"Or someone who wants us to believe they are Wraith sympathizer."

From the brief, startled hesitation before Rodney spoke again, he hadn't even thought of that. "Well, yes, or it's a decoy, obviously. I'd dismissed the idea because I find it hard to believe that anyone on the Daedalus staff could have gotten their hands on functional Wraith technology."

Good comeback, except ... "Rodney, we could have -- on the planet with the crashed ship, where Brendan --" Zelenka broke off at the look on Rodney's face, resumed hastily: "The point is, galaxy is full of crashed and abandoned Wraith technology on various worlds. Daedalus people, Atlantis people, go back and forth all the time. Anyone could have picked something up on one of the worlds through the Stargate."

"Regardless of the possibility," Rodney said irritably, "it still brings us back to the idea that someone on the Daedalus caused the crash, for whatever reason. The possibility of a stowaway is remote, not on a ship with this many inboard sensors and so few places to hide. Hermiod would have to know about it, if nothing else." He paused. "It couldn't be Hermiod ...?"

Zelenka stared at him. "An Asgard? I am the one on drugs, Rodney, not you."

"Right." Rodney shook himself. "Although I find it hard to believe the Asgard are that advanced. They must have criminals among them. Their PR department just hides 'em when the Earth dignitaries come to visit. Where was I? Oh, right, saboteurs. Hiding. Or hiding in plain sight."

"The SGC screens its personnel very well, Rodney." The debate should have worn him out, but instead, he felt stronger. There was a rightness to arguing with Rodney. This was the way the universe was meant to work. "Obviously not perfectly, since you got through --"

"Oh har. In Sheppard's absence, I can see that you've decided to pick up the slack..."

"--but one of the crew, working with the Wraith? It is hard to imagine."

"Considering that Caldwell walked around for, what, months? as a Goa'uld, I wouldn't count on the acuity of the U.S. military to keep Wraith sympathizers out of their ranks," Rodney said dryly. "I'm thinking we trust no one on general principles -- I mean, except for our own people, obviously; though I admit that it's possible a Goa'uld might have --"

Rodney broke off as Dr. Ling approached them. He hastily withdrew his hand from Zelenka's shoulder, as if guilty to be caught in a moment of weakness, but stayed close.

Of all the crew on the Daedalus -- outside the engineering department, at least -- Carol Ling was the only one that Zelenka knew. He'd known her before Atlantis -- not well, but they'd had a passing acquaintance and had seen each other occasionally at conferences. She had a background in the hard sciences in addition to her medical degree. When he'd learned that she was now serving as the CMO on the Daedalus, he hadn't been in the least surprised.

Carol knelt down next to him and laid her hand on his leg. "How are you feeling, Radek? Any pain?"

"Maybe it would help if you alleged doctors would remove the giant fucking piece of metal from his chest."

"Rodney," Zelenka said, rolling his head to the side so he could look at both of them, "no one asked you. I am not feeling much pain, Carol, no."

"You're on a first-name basis with her?" Rodney asked, startled.

Zelenka decided to ignore that, although the only other thing he had to focus on was the sensation of light pressure as Ling probed gently at his shoulder. He couldn't see what she was doing, and he was just as glad.

"There is fairly significant bruising and trauma, but you don't seem to be bleeding much and it's not threatening any internal organs," she told him. "I'm sorry, Radek -- I'd love to get you free, but we just don't have the resources to do it right now without causing more damage. It will be a risk to move you, a significant one, and I'd rather not take that risk unless I absolutely have to in order to save your life." She looked at the piece of paper that Cora the medic had taped to the wall by his head -- it seemed to be what they were doing for the trauma cases in lieu of formal medication charts -- and, inserting a needle into his IV, she added, "I'm giving you a little more painkiller to make you more comfortable. I don't want to depress your body's metabolism too much because of the cold, though. You'll probably sleep a little, and that's good, but try to move your limbs every half-hour or so, and let someone know if you start to experience numbness." She turned to look at Rodney. "Are you his friend?"

Rodney looked startled. "Define 'friend'. Are we talking about the sort of friendship where you might admit in public that you know them, or do you mean 'donating a kidney' class friendship?"

Dr. Ling gave him one of the puzzled-annoyed looks that new people tended to give Rodney the first time he opened his mouth around them. "I mean the sort of friendship in which you stop by every once in a while and make sure he hasn't frozen his feet."

"Oh. That. Er, there's not going to be anything -- medical involved, is there? Because I'm not good with that."

"Yes, Carol," Zelenka said, drawing her attention back to him. "He is a friend. A very annoying one. And he will check on me. Difficult part will be making him leave."

"No one asked you, Radek," Rodney snapped.

Carol Ling looked back and forth between them, momentarily at a loss for words. She seemed to snap together, pull herself upright, and resume her usual businesslike manner. "All right then. Remember, tell someone immediately if you have any numbness or difficulty moving any part of your body other than the affected arm. I will be down here for a while -- I'll be operating on Sgt. Packee." She nodded towards the badly injured engineer, the other person besides Radek that they hadn't evacuated during the fire. One of the other medics was setting up lanterns and laying out a tray of tools on the slanting floor.

Rodney's voice rose in a squeak. "You're doing that here?"

"Because I have no choice. She's bleeding to death internally." Ling's mouth tightened. "Considering the circumstances and the present condition of the sickbay, I think the odds are marginally better if we don't try to transport critically injured people -- especially from here, where we'd have to do it through a ventilation shaft and then outside. We're treating the worst injuries where they are. If we get the power back up, it might be different ..."

As she stood up, Rodney realized that there was something he hadn't asked yet -- something important. "Elizabeth. Dr. Weir. Do you know if Elizabeth ..." Survived the crash, he was going to say, but faltered and fell silent. He was a rational man and knew that admitting a fear would not make it real. But he couldn't quite bring himself to articulate it. "Is she all right?"

Ling looked down at him grimly. "She's on the bridge. The roof caved in and she's trapped. She is injured, but we don't know how badly. She's conscious --"

Rodney was scrambling to his feet. "Why didn't anyone tell me?"

"They've been a little busy, Rodney," Zelenka said quietly. But he felt guilty, too. He hadn't even wondered where Elizabeth was -- or even how the rest of the ship had survived the crash.

Rodney glanced down at Zelenka, looking torn. "Radek --"

Zelenka snorted, managing to raise a hand, from under the blankets, to wave him off. "Please. It is not as if you could do anything to help here. Are you a surgeon? Go, get your medical degree and come back ... then you will be useful."

"Kindly remember not to freeze while I'm gone, Radek, because then you'll have to deal with these butchers amputating your limbs -- probably without anesthesia, too."

"I will remember." The new painkiller seemed to be taking effect, because the floating feeling had deepened, and his eyelids felt heavy. He allowed them to fall shut. Sleep might be good, right now.

"Radek?" The strained note was back in Rodney's voice. "You'll, ah, be here when I get back, right?"

He grinned a little, wanting to giggle and knowing it was the drugs. "I don't think it is possible for me to move, Rodney. I am nailed to wall."

"That's ... not what I meant."

Reluctantly, Radek blinked open his gritty eyes to see Rodney staring down at him with naked worry on his face. Worry which he'd probably deny to his deathbed, but it was clearly visible at the moment. "Yes, Rodney, I will be here." And, closing his eyes, he stopped holding on and let himself drift away.


Impact plus 1 hour 25 minutes

Each time she woke up, it was the same thing: first, confusion and disorientation, followed by panic as the darkness and sense of weight pressing down on her provided tangible reminders that she was buried alive. Slowly, then, she remembered where she was, and why -- and that there were people out there doing everything in their power to dig her free. With slow, shallow breaths, she calmed herself and made herself remember that since she could hear voices outside her tomb, there must be air getting in and out.

Elizabeth swore to herself that if -- when she got out of this, she'd never, ever make light of Rodney's claustrophobia, or any of his other phobias, ever again.

A hand touched her own: warm small fingers, not Caldwell's big rough ones. "Keisha?" Elizabeth asked. Even after the rescue effort had begun, the young woman had stayed with her, rubbing warmth into her cold flesh and talking softly to her.

"No, ma'am. I'm Cora Ludwick, and I'm a medic. I'll just be taking some readings from you."

Firm fingers gripped her wrist, counting off a pulse. From the sound of her voice, this Cora sounded as young as Keisha. Children, the world was in the hands of children ... and Elizabeth smiled to herself in the dark, amused to find herself having such thoughts at her age. She tried to match a face to the name, and vaguely remembered a serious, intense blond woman who had come to the bridge once to ask Caldwell a question. He'd addressed the young woman as Ludwick, she thought -- it was an unusual name, easy to remember.

Her instinct, in every new situation, was to try to learn as much about the people around her as possible -- and her gift was the ability to retain it, faces and names and personal details. It was one of the things that made her good at what she did. The Daedalus, though, was an ever-changing kaleidoscope of new faces and names. One of the reasons why she'd wanted to come along on this trip -- although she hadn't told Caldwell -- was to become better acquainted with the command crew of the Daedalus, including its captain. Since it seemed that they'd be working together for the foreseeable future, regardless of how either of them felt about it, she thought it was high time she started trying to learn what made the man tick. You learned a lot about a person by watching the behavior of those under their command ... especially in the military.

And despite her many personal differences with Caldwell, she liked what she had seen on the Daedalus. The ship was run with far tighter authority than Elizabeth would ever want to see on Atlantis -- and she did hope, still, that Caldwell never ended up in Sheppard's position, at least not while she was governor of the city -- but the people that she had met here were happy, content and busy. It was obvious that they respected Caldwell highly and wanted to please him. And he had a good eye for people; Airman Keisha Seavey was a good case in point, very young and shy at first glance, but made of solid stuff in a crisis.

"Dr. Weir?" She became aware of the medic talking to her, and realized that her mind had drifted. "I need you to answer some questions for me. Dr. Weir?"

She answered a few simple questions of the "what is your name, what day is it" variety, alarmed that the answers were sometimes difficult to find. It became even harder when they ventured into "where does it hurt" territory. It definitely did hurt somewhere, but Elizabeth couldn't figure out exactly where. Things seemed to grind together inside when she moved, so she had stopped moving and wasn't eager to begin again. There was a wet feeling in her chest when she inhaled. She couldn't really feel her legs at all, and this was the first time she'd noticed, which also alarmed her. She asked the medic if it was true that the worst wounds hurt the least.

"It depends on where and how you're hurt," Cora Ludwick said, unhelpfully. Like most of the military medical personnel that Elizabeth had dealt with, she had a brisk, no-nonsense manner that seemed to imply a person's medical problems were their own fault. Her fingers on Elizabeth's arm were not at all gentle, not like Keisha's.

Somewhere above Elizabeth, there was a grinding, shifting noise. Cora's firm grip withdrew from her wrist. Dust sifted down onto her face, and Elizabeth closed her eyes and struggled to control her breathing. They were digging her out as fast as they could safely do so, and beyond that, she simply had to trust in Caldwell and his crew -- that they wouldn't crush her, that they would rescue her before she suffocated or died of internal injuries.

You couldn't do everything yourself. She'd long known this. Sometimes you had to let go and allow other people to do their job.

"You idiots, what are you trying to do, crush her like a pancake?"

... and then there was Rodney, the ultimate control freak. Elizabeth couldn't help smiling at the sound of his voice. Caldwell had told her that one of her people had been killed -- Dr. Estvaag, and she'd been, in part, passing the time by mentally composing her letter to Estvaag's family. But the rest were ... well, Caldwell hadn't actually said all right, but ... not dead. And that had been good to know.

Hearing Rodney's voice, though, sounding just like it did when he was berating somebody back in his labs on Atlantis, eased something inside her chest that had nothing to do with whatever was broken down there.

"Dr. McKay, everything is under control here." She recognized the weary-sounding voice of Caldwell's second-in-command, Perry.

"Excuse me, I don't think so! She's under that, isn't she? Elizabeth's under that! And your fumble-fingered morons are throwing chunks of metal around like frisbees without a single regard for the physical stresses that the overall --"

"Dr. McKay," Perry cut in smoothly, and Elizabeth's grin grew a little wider, imagining the look on Rodney's face as he sputtered to a stop. "You're not in charge here. Please stop criticizing my staff's performance or I will have you escorted from the bridge."

Rodney made a faint choking noise and then, "Excuse me?!"

Elizabeth decided that, as entertaining as this was, she'd better intercede before Rodney burst a blood vessel or Perry shot him. "Rodney," she said as loudly as she could, which wasn't very loud.

From the response, though, she may as well have shouted. Elizabeth listened nervously to the rapid flurry of scrambling and sliding, hoping that he didn't accidentally bring the pile down on top of her with his eagerness to get around it. There was a grunt and an annoyed exclamation as someone was obviously shoved out of the way, and then a hand touched hers. Large, warm, moist and awkward, it could only belong to one Rodney McKay, and she knew it even before he said her name softly: "Elizabeth?"

"Rodney, please stop bothering Caldwell's crew. They're trying to dig me out." She curled her fingers up around his. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, actually. For a wonder." He tried to make it sound light, but his voice broke in the middle.

"Caldwell told me ... about Dr. Estvaag. Greta. I'm sorry, Rodney." She knew how seriously he took his responsibility to his scientists. He yelled at them, belittled them, ignored them and occasionally left the more sensitive ones in tears -- but when one of them didn't make it home at the end of the day, no one felt it more deeply than Rodney.

"Yeah. Me too." His fingers returned her pressure, a little less tentative, a little more confident.

"How are the rest of them?"

"Scared. Shaken up. Useless. About like you'd expect." His hand twitched as he talked -- clearly he was gesturing with the other hand, while the one holding hers was moving instinctively. Elizabeth felt herself smiling again, but it dropped away as his voice faltered and his words came slower. "There are ... injuries. Dr. Pierce has a twisted ankle. Miko got burned and cut up her arm pretty bad on shrapnel. Zelenka ... he's ... pretty bad, Elizabeth."

"How bad?" she asked quietly. It was a little harder to talk now, and there was a coppery taste on the back of her tongue.

"Bad." His restless fingers stilled, and gripped hers tighter, as if holding onto a lifeline.

She wanted to ask, wanted to know more ... but told herself it didn't matter, that it wasn't as if she could help Zelenka or comfort him, wasn't as if knowing the extent of his injuries would do any good for either of them. And she could feel Rodney's fingers trembling slightly in her own. So she held his hand, and he held hers, and she felt herself slip away as if she'd come untethered from the world, to the sound of groaning metal above her and Rodney speaking her name.


Impact plus 2 hours 5 minutes

They'd sent a MALP through the gate, and found it to be a spacegate, orbiting a world that showed no sign of current inhabitants, only faint traces of overgrown roads and long-ruined cities. At any other time, Atlantis's scientists would have been drooling over the possibilities of the millennia-old ruins, but right now the idea of exploring a strange planet was the last thing on everyone's mind. The ruins would wait. Their friends and colleagues might not.

The Daedalus's emergency beacon came from a different planet in the system, much farther from the sun. Repeated attempts to raise the ship had not received any response. The beacon continued to transmit, although the Wraith distress call had shut off. That could be good or bad, Sheppard thought.

"We've been able to use the two beacons to get an estimate on the Daedalus's position." A short, energetic Polish scientist, whose name Sheppard remembered as something like Wladyslav, demonstrated on the display screen at the head of the conference table. "Unfortunately it's a long flight by puddlejumper from the gate to the planet where we believe the Daedalus has crashed ... which also seems to be the planet where we were getting the Wraith signal from."

"How long is long?"

Wladyslav frowned. "Twenty hours, give or take. Which means it'll be nearly a two-day round trip. We can't assume that the planet has a breathable atmosphere, so we'd better be prepared for the possibility that we won't be able to replenish anything on the other end."

"Can the life support on the puddlejumpers handle that kind of trip?" Sheppard asked.

There was a brief pause. The foremost expert on the jumpers was Zelenka, who, obviously, wasn't there. After a moment Simpson spoke. "I don't see why not. It would limit how many people you could carry in the jumper, though."

"How limited?"

"I'll need to run some numbers," she admitted.

"Do it," Sheppard said. "We're going to need enough jumpers to carry everyone on the Daedalus in one trip, if that's possible. It might not be comfortable, but I want to know if we can do it."

There was a short pause and then Lorne spoke. "Sir, can I point something out?"

"Go ahead, Major."

Lorne cleared his throat. "I'll be blunt here. There may be Wraith in that system, sir."

"It's possible," Sheppard said.

The major hesitated again. "Sir, I'm not sure it's advisable to send most or all of our jumpers on a two-day trip when we have no ready means of escape and don't know what's out there. I know it's not something we want to contemplate, but if the Wraith turn up, it's a real possibility that we may lose at least some of them on this trip. We still don't know what took down the Daedalus."

"We can't leave our people there, Lorne."

"I'm not saying we should, sir. But I don't know how wise it is to risk our entire puddlejumper fleet on a rescue when we don't ... I'm sorry, sir, when we don't know if there is anyone to rescue."

There was an awkward silence. Sheppard had to look away from Beckett and Teyla's sympathetic eyes. Elizabeth should be here. She should be making this decision. At this moment, she would be counseling the course of prudence -- he could almost hear her -- and he'd be pressing to take out all the jumpers in a rescue effort. They would go back and forth, and somewhere in the middle they'd find the compromise that would work and bring everyone safely home.

It was impossibly hard, arguing both sides to himself. He knew that Lorne was right. They had no idea if anyone was alive on the Daedalus, no idea if the Wraith beacon had already brought a Wraith fleet down upon it. It would be foolhardy and stupid to risk all the puddlejumpers on a rescue, maybe leaving Atlantis wide open to future Wraith attacks and lacking a tremendous strategic advantage if they couldn't send jumpers through the gate.

At the same time, there were people out there, maybe hurt, maybe dying. People he cared about. Rodney. Elizabeth. What if they got there with one or two jumpers and found everyone on the Daedalus critically injured? What if he had to choose between people he cared for, more than he'd ever cared for human beings before -- this one stays and dies, this one goes and lives?

How could you make a decision like that? How did Elizabeth do it?

Sheppard took a deep breath and clenched his hands into fists. "We'll take some of the jumpers," he said. "Half of them, maybe. Simpson, I'm still going to need those calculations. I need to know how many people I can carry in each jumper. And I'm going to need pilots."

"You can count on me for that, sir," Lorne said without hesitation, and then, after the briefest pause, "I don't know if I should have --"

"You should have, Major. I'm glad you did." Sheppard's eyes swung around to Beckett. "I'm going to need medical staff --"

"Ready to go in fifteen minutes," Beckett said. "And I am going, Colonel; you can't keep me here. Just don't make me fly one of the bloody things."

Despite the urgency of their situation, Sheppard felt a slight grin twitch at his mouth. "Wouldn't dream of it, Doc."

"Colonel." Teyla's voice was soft, but tense. "Ronon and I would like to come."

No, Sheppard's brain screamed at him. It was bad enough that two of the most important people in his life were in danger, maybe injured or dead. Putting the rest of them into danger too -- he didn't think he could handle that. Still, he swallowed back emotion and tried to make the most sensible decision, tried to convince himself that he was making his choices for the good of Atlantis and not because it was what he wanted. "Teyla, I'm sorry. I need you to stay here. With the entire command staff gone, I'm going to leave Atlantis in your hands. I don't have a choice. I know how much you want to go, but I need you more here."

He could see the bitter disappointment in her eyes, but also acceptance.

"You're welcome to try to make me stay, Sheppard," Ronon rumbled.

"Wasn't planning on it, big guy. You and Beckett are my team this time. Lorne, I want -- let's see, how about five jumpers for the first wave? If it goes smoothly, we can send more. I'll take one, Lorne, and you've got another. I need you to put together three more crews, in addition to your own. One pilot, one additional Marine plus a medic on each team. Beckett chooses the medics, you choose the rest. Oh, Simpson ... I want one scientist, too, in my jumper. Just in case. Somebody with an engineering specialty. And I want volunteers only, you got it? They need to know it could be dangerous. We rendezvous in the jumper bay in half an hour."

They all nodded, and the meeting broke up. Sheppard was the last to leave the room, and outside he found Teyla waiting for him, looking expectant. "We'll have to talk and walk," he told her.

"I know." She strode swiftly, keeping up with him. "I wanted to tell you that I believe you are doing an excellent job, especially considering ... circumstances. I think you are a good leader, John."

For some reason he couldn't name, that meant more to him than he would have guessed. Maybe his emotions were just on edge right now, because it took him a moment to be able to answer. "Thanks, Teyla. Really. Thanks." After a pause he said, "I'm sorry about asking you to stay behind. I know how much you want to come. Believe me, I know. But I need you here." And this was true in more ways than one -- he just couldn't lie to himself. Knowing that at least one member of his small Atlantis family would remain safe helped him hold it together for the rest of them.

She smiled at him. "I know, and I understand. It is the right decision, however difficult it is for me to accept." Taking hold of his arm, she halted him, and gripped his shoulders to do that Athosian head-bob-thing with him. It was all Sheppard could do not to fidget in his impatience, but he made himself stand still, for Teyla's sake. When she drew her head back, he was startled to see tears standing in her deep brown eyes. She smiled at him, a bit shakily, and the tears came free to leave shining trails down her cheeks.

"Bring them back safely, John," she said in a voice so soft it could barely be heard. "Please bring them home safe."


Impact plus 2 hours 20 minutes

As frustrating as Rodney found the snail's pace of Elizabeth's rescue, he had to admit that they couldn't exactly do it faster. It was like the old game of pickup-sticks that he and his sister used to play when they were very young -- throw down a handful of sticks and try to remove each one without causing any of the other sticks to move. In this game, the cost of a wrong move would not be a lost turn, but the loss of Elizabeth's life.

He could feel the cold creeping into the ship. For the moment, it was just a chilly sensation around the edges -- he couldn't see his breath, could still feel his hands and feet. He found his brain automatically calculating square meters and thermal transfer, trying to figure out how long it would be before the inside of the ship was as icy and still as the world outside.

There were more than enough hands to move pieces of fractured plastic and twisted steel; he only felt in the way here. No one noticed as he left in uncharacteristic silence and wandered down to the cargo bay.

It was a very strange position in which to find himself. If this had been Atlantis, he would have been right in the thick of things, assessing and repairing damage. But right now, Hermiod wouldn't let him, or any of the rest of the crew, anywhere near the ship's systems -- not even Novak. Rodney suspected that the Asgard didn't really trust any of the humans at the moment. He, Novak and Caldwell were the only people who had been let in on the sabotage secret at all ... well, the three of them plus anyone else they'd told, such as Zelenka and, Rodney was pretty sure, Caldwell's second-in-command. And while Hermiod obviously trusted him that far, he still wasn't allowed near the engines.

So here he was, sharpest brain in the Pegasus Galaxy, fetching and carrying for people with IQs half as high as his own. And he couldn't even get one of the so-called medics to give him a Tylenol. He tried again in the cargo bay, accosting Radek's little doctor friend, Ling, as she hurried past. "Excuse me, I'm in a lot of pain here and if you could just tell me --"

"Where are you hurt?" she demanded, all but tapping her foot impatiently. Her sleeves and hands were stained with something dark that Rodney really, really hoped was engine oil. He tried not to touch her, instead pointing at the approximate location of the bruises on his arms and legs.

"Well, here, here, also here ... and I think I may have strained my back --"

She gave him a glare of vicious dislike. "You're as healthy as I am, and there are people with actual injuries who need my attention, so kindly get out of my way."

"Look, just tell me where it is and I'll get it mys-- Hey!" She'd dumped a couple of plastic cases into his arms. "What's this?"

"Medical equipment. If you're healthy enough to complain, you can help me carry it." She was giving him that look again -- like he was something that had crawled out from under a rock. "Have you been checking on your friend, like I told you to?"

"Excuse me, I'm not following your orders -- I volunteered if you'll recall -- get back here!" She was in motion again, and he had to hasten after her, threading between pallets and cots on the side of the cargo bay that had been turned into a makeshift infirmary.

"In other words, you haven't checked on him."

"I -- I was busy! Helping dig out people! Or -- watching -- supervising -- they'll get it wrong if I don't -- Listen, dammit, all I wanted was a Tylenol, okay? I'm in pain!" And writhing, inwardly, at the thought that he'd gotten too caught up in Elizabeth's peril to even think about Radek's. But the idea of having to see Zelenka again, pale and trapped and covered in his own blood -- he didn't know if he could take that again.

Ling spun around and Rodney recoiled guiltily, as if she could read his thoughts. Though much shorter than he was, she glared up at him with a force of anger that could rival Ronon on his worst days. "You know what? In the entire time you've been on this ship, the only thing I've ever heard you do is complain. You're one of the lucky ones who made it through the crash with a handful of bruises, while others are badly injured -- including someone who claims you're his friend. And you want painkillers." Her dark eyes raked over him. "I see you've got a coat too, when we only have a few. What makes you so important, Dr. McKay?"

Anger -- his standard defense against guilt. "Important? Excuse me? I'm only the person who's saved Atlantis from the Wraith -- how many times now? Do you have any idea who you're talking to? Do you know how many degrees I have?"

"I don't care how many degrees you have -- all I've seen you do since we crashed is stand around and try to tell everyone else what to do, in between whining about your bruises." She snatched back the plastic cases from him. "Thank you very much for the help. Now kindly stay out of my way. I'll find your Tylenol when I can spare the time." Turning her back on him, she knelt down beside a semiconscious man with his leg twisted at an odd angle, and laid her hand gently on the heaving chest, ignoring Rodney.

He wanted to yell at her. He wanted to find the anger again. But instead, it was draining away, leaving him feeling small and cowardly and pathetic.

"So, I'm just gonna go -- check on Radek," he said to her back, and fled.

Outside, twilight was deepening around the bulk of the ship. Rodney gathered the coat around him -- damn the woman, now he even felt guilty for that. He slid and floundered in the loose snow around the ship's hull.

"Dr. McKay!"

The voice came from behind him. Rodney looked around, confused and annoyed, until he caught sight of a tall figure in a parka slogging up the hill towards him. The hood was down and short pale hair whipped in the wind. It was the blond engineer -- what had his name been?

"Armstrong?" Rodney guessed, and then he noticed that the man was carrying a gun. He tried to recoil, but Armstrong closed the distance between them and grabbed him by the arm, tugging him around. What the hell was this -- an abduction? Wraith saboteur! his subconscious shrieked at him. Oh God, they were kidnapping him for his brain -- Rodney yanked his arm free with a panicked shout of "Hey!"

"Huh? Oh, sorry, Doc." Armstrong saw the way Rodney was staring at the gun and holstered it, but kept his hand near it. "Just trying to get you inside. It's not safe out here. I've been taking a look around, and the ship appears to be attracting predators."

He couldn't believe it -- the situation had actually managed to get worse. "Like ... what? Wolves?"

"Wolves that are about twelve feet long," Armstrong said grimly. "Which way are you headed?"

"Engine room. Er, have you actually seen these, uh, mega-wolves?"

"I saw their tracks. Seems to be a whole pack of them around." As he spoke, Armstrong shepherded Rodney towards the ventilation shaft leading into the engine room. His hand never left the butt of his pistol. "I caught a glimpse of one -- huge ugly sucker, kind of like a cross between a wolf and a reptile. Spikes on its neck, claws the size of a bear's --"


The sudden, shrill screech nearly made Rodney jump out of his skin. He spun around, searching for the source of the sound. A loose piece of metal on the ship somewhere?

"... and they shriek too," Armstrong said, giving him a light shove towards the shaft.

"You've been out here with those things?" Rodney yelled as he scrambled wildly inside. "Are you crazy?"

"That wasn't very close. The sound carries a long distance." Armstrong climbed in behind him. "I think they're afraid to approach the ship. I don't know how long that'll be the case, though. Luckily we have guns. I suggest you start carrying one too, Doc."

"Gladly," Rodney muttered. With saboteurs running around, and now giant shrieking wolves, he'd been deeply regretting having to give up his Atlantis-issue sidearm while on the Daedalus. Next time he saw Caldwell, he was definitely getting a gun. A big gun. Maybe a P90. Maybe two of them.

Rodney dropped out on the slanting floor. After the bitter chill outside, it actually felt warm in here. But, then, the engine room had had a lot more heat to lose in the first place. The room was nearly deserted: basically Hermiod's fault, the Asgard having kicked out all the engineers. (And Rodney still maintained that this was a stupid idea; they couldn't all be saboteurs.) Glancing around, he spotted Hermiod half-visible behind an open panel in the wall, while Novak, her arm splinted, guarded him or handed him tools or something. Teacher's pet, Rodney thought resentfully.

Sgt. Packee, the wounded engineer, was invisible behind a sheet the medics had hung across the room for privacy. Light behind the sheet cast wavering shadows across it as people moved around and did ... things Rodney probably didn't want to know about. Instead he crossed the sloping floor to Zelenka, huddled in a nest of blankets. Okay. Check to see that he wasn't freezing. Sounded easier said than done. One of Zelenka's feet was sticking out from under the blankets; Rodney poked at it with a cautious finger.

The foot twitched and Radek grumbled sleepily, "Rodney, I am not casserole. Stop checking to see if I am done."

Rodney jerked his hand back guiltily. "Look, don't blame me. I'm just trying to keep Terrible Tessa the sickbay harridan from ripping my head off if you freeze your limbs on my watch."

Zelenka squinted at him, looking bleary. "Are you talking about Carol? What did you do to annoy her, Rodney?"

"Hey! What makes you think it was me?"

Zelenka just snorted and closed his eyes.

"Oh, that's a stupid way to win an argument, Radek. As if I'm letting you get away with that. You know you can't out-argue me and this is a pathetically transparent attempt to avoid a debate you're well aware you can't help but lose because you haven't got the brains for it. Er ... Radek?" Getting no response, Rodney began tentatively patting at his face until Zelenka opened his eyes and glowered at him.

"Rodney, you are worse than my grandmother's cat. What are you doing?"

"You're cold," Rodney said, too worried to even be annoyed.

"It is cold in here."

"No ... no it's not, Radek. It's actually kind of warm, and you're wrapped in enough blankets to insulate Frosty the Snowman in July, which means you're probably in shock, which means ... oh, God."

"If you hyperventilate, Rodney, I do not think the Daedalus stocks paper bags, which means I will have to call one of the very large soldiers to throw you into a snowbank to calm you down." Studying Rodney from slightly glazed blue eyes, he asked, "How are you doing, anyway?"

That was a great question, coming from someone with a piece of metal sticking out of his chest. "Oh, I'm fine, Radek. No one will give me any Tylenol and I just found out there are apocalyptically huge, shrieking wolves outside."

"Shrieking wolves?"

"Yeah, it's a treat." Rodney settled down against the wall next to the other scientist. "Some of Caldwell's people have been scouting around outside, it seems ... antagonizing the local wildlife. By the way, Lt. Armstrong is my current suspect for saboteur."

"You mean Dennis? Why?"

Rodney shot him a disbelieving look. "Are you on a first-name basis with every person on this ship?"

"Unlike you, I actually take the time to get to know my co-workers as individuals rather than as potentially useful brains with a body wrapped around them." Radek shifted a little against the wall, apparently trying to find a more comfortable position; he winced and relaxed back into his original slumped pose. "And you did not answer my question. Why do you think Dennis is the saboteur?"

"Because he's friendly," Rodney said promptly. "Too friendly. People who act friendly for no reason are evil. Just look at the Genii."

"Kolya did not seem particularly friendly."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Well, obviously they're evil if they act evil from the beginning, Radek; use your head."

"So, let me see if this is straight. If they're friendly, they're up to no good, and if they aren't friendly, they're also up to no good."

"Exactly," Rodney said, satisfied that Zelenka seemed to be following his reasoning.

"I can see why you did not become homicide detective, Rodney."

"Oh, for crying out -- Look, Radek, people don't act friendly just because they're, well ..."


"Exactly! There is no such thing as a truly nice person. Everyone wants something. If they act nice when they first meet you, that just means that they're willing to lie to get what they want. Which means they're clearly up to something." Rodney sat back and folded his arms, pleased with himself.

Radek just stared at him. "The inside of your head must be a dark and scary place, Rodney," he said, and closed his eyes again.

"Hey!" Rodney leaned forward. "Wake up! I don't think you should be sleeping."

Without opening his eyes, Zelenka retorted, "That is for concussion, Rodney, not for spike through chest. I would honestly rather sleep through this, thanks very much."

"I know that, but --" Rodney floundered to a halt; he didn't have a good reason except that Elizabeth wasn't much of a conversationalist at the moment and he felt terribly, horribly alone. "We were talking about sabotage theories," he said lamely.

"And if you come up with one that makes sense, be sure and let me know," Radek mumbled, and then added something in Czech, switching on the fly in a way that made Rodney suspect he didn't know he'd switched languages.

"Yeah, well ... don't die or anything." Rodney patted him awkwardly on the ankle, reminded yet again that as far as comforting bedside manner, the illustrious Dr. McKay ranked somewhere between Josef Mengele and Attila the Hun.

There was a small flurry of snowflakes at the far end of the room and he saw Armstrong giving a helping hand to someone coming through the ventilation shaft. It was the young blond medic -- Cora Whatsername. She'd just been outside, wearing nothing but a jacket with a Daedalus patch, and he could see her shivering from here. Snow crusted her pants and lightly dusted her hair ... short, blond, Sam Carter hair.

Rodney closed his eyes for an instant, then got up. "Hey, you, ah -- Cora?"

She looked up at him with the same tired, hostile look that he'd been getting from all the medical staff -- the word about him appeared to have spread. Rodney gritted his teeth and hoped that he would get some major karma points for this, as he shrugged out of the parka and realized that it was, indeed, chillier in the engine room than he'd realized. He thrust it at her as if it contained live coals. "Here. Take this. I'm really too hot, I'm naturally very warm-blooded so I don't need this, and you keep going outside and -- fixing people, and stuff. Also, you gave Radek drugs, although not very good drugs. Speaking of drugs, do you have any Tylenol?"

She blinked at him, trying to parse this, and took the coat without losing the puzzled line between her eyebrows. "Er ... thanks. Dr. McKay, was it?"

"Rodney." He smiled hopefully.

"Dr. McKay, yes ..." She dug in her pockets, while he drooped a little, only to perk up when she came up with several plastic packets and held them out. "Here, take two of these every four hours."

"I could kiss you," Rodney told her, and at her horrified look, added hastily, "But of course I won't. Unless you want me to. Which clearly you don't. Er, thanks."

"You're welcome. Thank you for the coat." She gave him a final puzzled look, and disappeared behind the curtain, while Rodney mentally kicked himself a few hundred times. Well, hopefully she would remember that he'd given her the coat, not that he was an idiot with a terminal case of foot-in-mouth disease. And she had given him Tylenol, which meant that she couldn't hate him too much.

On the other hand, she'd given him Tylenol ... which meant that according to the Nice Guy theory of villain detection, she was in the running for the Saboteur-of-the-Year award.

The whole thing made his head hurt, even more than it already hurt. Wasn't being trapped on an ice planet bad enough, without having to look over his shoulder constantly for a traitor? Why couldn't any sort of life-threatening situation ever be simple?

If hallucinations of Sam Carter showed up this time, he was throwing himself to the wolves.


Impact plus 2 hours 45 minutes

It had been more than fifteen minutes, but still, Sheppard was impressed by how quickly they'd managed to pull together five rescue teams and equipment on such short notice.

"There are over two hundred people on the Daedalus, counting the scientists," Simpson said as she slid into the seat next to Ronon on Jumper One. Since Sheppard had requested a scientist on the search-and-rescue, she'd insisted on being the one -- and since she was currently the ranking scientist on Atlantis, there wasn't anybody around to overrule her. Sheppard could have -- and he actually thought about it; he hated the idea of Atlantis's entire contingent of senior scientists being stranded in a potentially Wraith-infested solar system -- but in the end decided that it was her choice to make. Besides, she was second only to Zelenka at understanding the jumpers' systems, which would be good if they had to make changes on the fly.

"Two hundred people..." Sheppard prompted her when she trailed off and lost herself in the calculations she was scribbling quickly on a pad of paper on her knee. The Colonel was helping Beckett run down a checklist of medical equipment in the back of the jumper.

"What? Oh ... yes. I'm thinking we can carry anywhere from twelve to fifteen people in the jumper for a trip of that duration. Maybe fewer, if some of them are badly wounded and have to lie flat with room for medical personnel to work on them. It's not going to be comfortable, but we can make it work."

"Twelve to fifteen?" Sheppard repeated, swinging into the pilot's seat while Beckett, very reluctantly, took the copilot position. "That's it? A Black Hawk can take twenty passengers in an emergency, if not more, and the engines on this thing are much more powerful--"

"Yes, but a helicopter doesn't have life support." Simpson shook a piece of paper at him. "The last thing we want is to overwhelm the scrubbers and choke on CO2 ten hours from the gate."

"Point taken." Sheppard shook his head, running his fingers quickly over the controls as he went through his mental preflight checklist. "That means we can only evacuate, best-case scenario, about a third of the Daedalus's crew on the first trip. Let's hope they're in a position where the rest of them can hold out for the next wave of jumpers."

He'd instructed Teyla to prepare another batch of rescue jumpers and wait for his signal. If they made it to the planet without encountering Wraith, she was to send them through, so that the remaining Daedalus crew members wouldn't have to wait through a full round trip for the next wave of evacuations.

This was assuming there was anyone to be evacuated. And he wouldn't allow himself to believe differently. He tapped his radio. "Colonel Sheppard here. Are we a go?" Four voices came back with affirmation, and he cast a glance at his current team -- Beckett looking nervous, Simpson distracted, Ronon ready as always.

"Teyla, we're good. Dial the gate."

After a pause, her clear voice spoke through the radio. "We are ready, Colonel."

Sheppard started the launch sequence, and the jumper rose into the air. "Remember, Teyla, dial in and check with us every two hours."

"We will do so."

The jumper bay door irised open and, as the automatic launch protocols lowered them in front of the shimmering blue surface of the gate, Sheppard looked up at the balcony where Teyla stood, her hands locked on the railing. She looked small and alone. One of her hands unclenched and raised in a small wave. He waved back, though he wasn't sure if she could see him.

"May the Ancestors go with you, Colonel."

At any other time, Sheppard might have smiled at the quaint Athosian farewell. Now, he only pressed his lips together grimly and stared ahead as the jumper nosed through the gate. If only the Ancients were actually willing to help, rather than sitting on their Ascended asses and watching the mortals of the universe live out their short and frantic lives. No miracles, no salvation, at least not in this life -- the only thing they could rely on was their own wits, and each other.

The gate spit them out into a starfield, and he felt the controls come alive under his hands as the launch protocols released them. Bringing the jumper around in a circle, he watched the rest of his squad assemble in front of the gate, which disengaged with a burst of light and left them alone in orbit around a strange world. He took a minute to pinpoint the position of the MALP, tumbling slowly through space. They'd need to retrieve it at some point -- MALPs didn't grow on trees, unfortunately -- but not today.

"It doesn't look like there are any energy readings whatsoever from the planet, Colonel," Simpson reported. "Looks like the MALP data was right -- this solar system's dead. On the bright side, there's no sign of Wraith at this point, either."

Dead. Not a good choice of words. "Lorne? Everyone ready to roll?"

"Ready down here, sir."

"Moving out then. Follow me, and stay in touch."

He came around again, laying in the heading that Simpson had given him. Twenty hours waited in front of them, twenty long and tense hours, unless they could reach the Daedalus at some point during the flight. Boosting his radio with the jumper's communication system, he gave it a try. "Daedalus, this is Colonel Sheppard. Do you read me?"

He repeated the call several times, on several channels. There was no response. "Okay, Daedalus, I'm assuming your communications are down, but just in case, here's the situation. This is Sheppard and I'm inbound towards your position with a rescue party." Remembering just in time that it was theoretically possible for Wraith or other hostiles to listen in on their radio communication, he stopped before giving specifics on the number of rescuers or their ETA. Instead, he said, "So, help's on the way, and you need to sit tight, make sure you have enough food and whatnot, and wait for us. We're coming, and we'll be listening for you to call, so give us a yell if you have any intact technology capable of doing it. If not, we'll see you when we get there. Sheppard out."

Letting out a long sigh, he rested his hands lightly on the controls and looked at the others. "Well, I hope you folks brought cards, because the dull part begins now, and I'm afraid I forgot the inflight movie."

This got a faint, worried-looking smile from Beckett, an emotionless stare from Ronon, and no reaction at all from Simpson, who was completely focused on her scanners and didn't even appear to have heard him.

God, he didn't want to admit it ... but he really missed Rodney at times like this. Staring out at the stars and the sliver of planet wheeling away below them, he gave himself over for just a moment to fear and doubt. There were so many possibilities, most of them bad. They'd cheated death too many times -- you could play the odds for only so long before they caught up with you.

Every combat pilot knew that at some point you zigged when you should have zagged. If they kept flying, everybody had a last flight eventually.

With that lovely, comforting thought, he set the heading for an unknown world on the far side of the sun, rested his hands on the controls, and hoped.


Impact plus 4 hours 50 minutes

It was starting to get cold inside the ship. Working to free Elizabeth on the bridge, Rodney could see his breath, and he'd borrowed a pair of gloves from one of the soldiers because his fingers were getting numb.

The military personnel had finally relented enough to allow Rodney a certain amount of latitude in orchestrating Elizabeth's rescue. All he'd had to do was walk up behind the two engineers who were trying to design a pulley system to lift the beams off of her and pointed out six different errors in their calculations that most likely would have resulted in the unstable ceiling collapsing on all of them. Shortly after that, he was pushing them around as if they were his own people. He'd even brought up a couple of "his" scientists from the cargo bay to help calculate brace points for the pulleys.

Elizabeth wavered in and out of consciousness. One of the medics had started her on an IV to keep her hydrated, so now her rescuers had to work around medical equipment as well. Rodney paused, when he could, to hold her hand for a few minutes and talk to her. He should have begrudged the time, time that he could have more logically spent trying to save her life -- but, strangely, he found that he didn't, any more than he'd resented the many hours that he'd spent in the infirmary with Teyla and Ronon while waiting for Sheppard to recover from the retrovirus or the late nights talking with Beckett over a bottle of Athosian wine after the fiasco on Hoff.

He had spent his life considering other people a waste of time, a mere distraction from the thrill of discovery. Science was far more fulfilling than human relationships could ever be. And he'd had to come to another galaxy to learn otherwise ... had to leave Earth in order to meet people who filled an empty place inside him that science had never managed to touch. He had never noticed this hole in his life, and now it was like the elephant in the room, a yawning blackness that threatened to swallow him whole if even one of his handful of truly important people vanished from his life.

It was a kind of vulnerability that he'd never known before. Sometimes he both feared and resented it; sometimes he wanted to hand in his resignation and flee back to a nice safe lab on Earth, where no one tried to be his friend, no one came to drag him away from his computer for a late-night poker game or went looking for him on Atlantis's balconies when he was lonely and introspective. And he also knew that he'd never leave voluntarily. They'd have to hook cables to him with a puddlejumper in order to drag him away from that beautiful city and her wonderful, seductive technology -- her wonderful, irritating, brave, stubborn people who made him feel accepted in a way he'd never known before.

Now one of them was slowly dying under a pile of rubble, while another was pinned to the wall with a bar of steel through his chest. And the others ... Rodney checked his watch as he sat on the edge of a defunct console for a quick snack break, and was amazed to find that nearly five hours had passed since the crash. Their sudden disappearance must surely have been noticed back on Atlantis. Sheppard must be going out of his mind.

"How's it coming along?"

Rodney looked up, warily, as Caldwell approached him. Contrary to what he'd told Radek, he didn't distrust everyone's motives. Caldwell, however, was one of those people who set off all his hypersensitive alarm bells. Rodney didn't really dislike him, at least not any more so than the average specimen of humanity, but he also didn't trust the man not to completely screw over Atlantis and everyone in it. The worst part was ... if Caldwell ever did something like that, he'd do it for all the right reasons. Caldwell was the sort of man who'd blow up a planet and kill billions of people -- no matter how much it hurt him personally, no matter how many of his friends and family were on that planet -- in order to save the galaxy. Sheppard, and most of the other people that Rodney had allowed himself to become close to, were the sort who'd save one person's life even if it cost the galaxy.

Two sets of principles ... two ways to be a hero. There had been a time when Rodney had fallen squarely in the Caldwell camp. These days ... he didn't know. He only knew that while he might trust someone like Caldwell to save the world, he'd far rather have someone like Sheppard at his back.

"I'd say that's a question which can be answered perfectly well by observing the evidence at hand," Rodney retorted, gesturing with his half-eaten PowerBar while continuing to make notes on a pad of paper resting against his knee. Bits of gray and red were actually visible now as they uncovered Elizabeth. There was one huge beam still pinning her down; since they didn't have the equipment or manpower to remove it fully, the plan was to lift it a little bit and then slide her out. "Since you're here, Colonel, make yourself useful. I need to talk to, um --" He snapped his fingers and pointed.

"Major Perry," Caldwell supplied dryly. At some point he'd gotten somebody to bandage his forehead, which meant that he was no longer walking around looking like a casualty of war, although there was still a rusty stain of blood down the side of his face.

Rodney rolled his eyes impatiently. "Yes, him."

Looking slightly amused despite the obvious strain he was under, Caldwell crooked a finger at his second-in-command, who came loping over. Perry was a skinny guy in his forties, and prior to this whole situation, in all the times he'd been on the Daedalus Rodney had hardly seen him around at all. He got the impression that Perry generally stayed in the background and took care of the daily minutiae so that Caldwell could sit on the bridge and look heroic doing captainly things. Working with Perry over the last couple of hours, though, Rodney had discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that he kinda liked the guy. Perry didn't take any nonsense, from his own people or Rodney or anyone else, but when you made a suggestion he'd listen quietly and attentively, absorbing every word, and he never dismissed an idea out-of-hand without thinking it through. Which probably made him a prime candidate for saboteur, dammit. So far, Rodney had come up with a reason to suspect every single person he'd run into, which was starting to make him think that there was some kind of flaw in his detecting methods.

Rodney gave Perry the latest numbers and angles for connecting grapples to the beam, and watched in satisfaction as the other man nodded, asked a couple of halfway intelligent questions and, after taking a look at Caldwell and getting an affirmative node, hurried off to oversee hooking up the cables. Glancing over at the Colonel, Rodney found that Caldwell was eyeing him with sardonic amusement.

"I certainly hope that you and Weir never get together and decide to take over my ship. You'd have a bloodless coup inside half an hour."

"It's not my fault if your crew has finally acknowledged my obvious genius and leadership skills." Rodney crammed the rest of the PowerBar into his mouth and stood up; he went on talking through the food. "To answer your blatantly obvious question, we're actually almost there. As soon as we clear enough debris from around her legs that the medical staff can get a backboard under her, we'll be ready to tilt the beam and get her out." He paused, frowning. "Er ... Hermiod, the engine repairs ... how is that coming along, anyway?"

Caldwell raised his eyebrows. "The genius Dr. McKay doesn't know the answer already?"

Rodney attempted to fix him with a glare. What was it with the military and making fun of him? It wasn't as if he bothered them! Well, except pointing out their obvious stupidity, but he only did that for their own good. "Hermiod won't tell me anything."

"All he says is that he's working on it. He thinks it'll be another few hours before we have power ... if not longer. Apparently it's pretty badly trashed."

Rodney waited to see if the man would mention the sabotage, but he didn't. Fine, so Rodney wasn't going to be in the loop. He'd just make his own observations, then. After all, he was an outsider and so the logical person to observe the crew members and figure out which one was responsible for the sabotage. Like a detective, a regular Sherlock Holmes. Of course, he wasn't dumb enough to actually try to apprehend the saboteur himself. He'd find the person, tell Caldwell -- assuming it wasn't Caldwell -- and let the Daedalus's security forces take it from there ...

They continued moving debris away from Elizabeth's legs. She seemed to be unconscious again, and didn't respond when Rodney called her name and nudged at her foot.

A firm hand closed over his wrist. "Don't do that," Dr. Ling snapped at him. "Don't touch her, don't move her, understand? We have no idea what the extent of her injuries are."

Rodney yanked his arm free of her grip and stood up, Ling rising with him. "I'm not going to break her by touching her foot! She's not hurt that bad."

Ling took a step closer to him, standing on tiptoe to bring her face up towards his. "Dr. McKay, as miserable a specimen of humanity as you seem to be, I'm willing to acknowledge your expertise in matters of physics. Kindly grant me the same courtesy in medicine. I am the expert here, not you --"

"For whatever that's worth," Rodney sneered back. "There's a reason why they call medicine an art. It's about as much a science as astrology."

Ling drew a deep breath and spoke between clenched teeth. "For some reason, Dr. Weir and Radek both seem to consider you their friend. I'm not entirely sure why. So far, I have seen absolutely nothing to give me the impression that you are anything other than a cowardly, egotistical man who cares nothing for the welfare of anyone but himself. If you are truly interested in seeing your so-called friends get out of this situation alive and intact, then you will do what the medical staff tells you and you will stop jeopardizing their lives through your own laziness and ego."

Rodney floundered around through about fifteen different levels of That's not fair! before he finally managed to say: "You don't know me. You have no right -- no right to say that about me."

"You're right, Dr. McKay," Ling said quietly. "I don't know you. All I know is what I've observed. And nothing that I have seen gives me the impression that you care about anyone or anything other than yourself. If that is how I see you, as a person who doesn't know you very well, then I think I'd be asking yourself how your 'friends' perceive you and how long they'll be willing to put up with you if you continue treating them as you do."

"Don't judge me!" Their argument was starting to attract attention from several people around them, who had stopped moving pieces of rubble in order to watch. Even Caldwell was staring curiously. "Get back to work!" Rodney yelled at the nearest engineer, who hastily scuttled off to continue hooking up cables.

"We're wasting time," Ling told him. "Again. I think your friends' lives are more important winning an argument, don't you?" And with that, she marched off towards the medical staff who were setting up equipment.

He couldn't let her have the last word, not after all of that. "For the record, I don't like you at all!" And she'd just jumped to #1 on his Wraith saboteur list, if for no other reason than because he really hoped it was her so he could have the satisfaction of wiping that self-important look off her face in front of Caldwell.

"Fortunately, my respect for you is so low that I really don't care," she shot back over her shoulder.

"Hag!" It was a low blow, but the woman was, after all, about ten years older than Rodney, and she'd asked for it.

Ling snorted. "Is that the best you can do? Please." She knelt down beside two of the medics and proceeded to completely ignore Rodney as she demonstrated her plan for removing Elizabeth to her assistants with broad hand gestures.

Caldwell looked, in Rodney's opinion, obnoxiously amused by the whole thing. "About that mutiny, Dr. McKay? I take it back. I think you'd be dealing with a counter-mutiny in no time flat, and she can use a gun, which is more than I can say for you."

"What is this, let's all pick on Rodney day?"

"Dr. McKay? Colonel?" One of the engineers approached, very nervously. "We're ready to hoist the beam."

"Oh really? Well, it seems that we're just waiting for the harpy, then."

Ling continued to ignore him as she and the medics knelt on opposite sides of Elizabeth's still body. "On three," Ling murmured. "One, two, three ..." The backboard went in, and Elizabeth did not even twitch. Rodney realized that his hands were clenched so tightly that his stubby fingernails dug painfully into his flesh. Despite the cold, his palms were slippery with sweat.

"She's secured, Doctor."

Ling looked up -- at Caldwell, not Rodney -- and nodded. "Ready."

Perry signaled his people. The beam groaned, shuddered and began to lift, and Ling's team moved with astonishing speed, sliding Elizabeth out and down the canted floor. "She's clear!" Perry yelled and the beam crashed back down, shaking the room and making Rodney jump.

For the first time in five hours, he could see Elizabeth's face -- pale, bruised, covered with dried blood on one side. Her eyes were closed and he could see that her parted lips were cracked and dry-looking. Ling was checking her over with practiced hands, murmuring results that one of the medics scribbled down, while the other one took blood pressure and temperature readings.

"She looks like hell," Rodney said, forgetting himself enough to lean over Ling. He got a dirty look for his troubles.

"People generally tend to be a bit of a mess after being trapped in rubble for hours, Dr. McKay -- I'm sorry she doesn't measure up to your standards." While he tried to think of a way to explain that he hadn't meant it that way, as well as clamp down on the extremely colorful array of insults that were right on the tip of his tongue regarding Ling's medical qualifications and lineage, the doctor straightened up and pointed to him. "Do you want to be useful? Take one end of the stretcher. Since we've got her strapped down anyway, we may as well move her down to the cargo bay. She's stable enough to move and it would be easier to treat her if she's with the others."

"I--You--We -- oh, fine." There was a time to argue and, for a change, a time to do as he was told. Rodney gripped the end of the stretcher at Elizabeth's feet. In a way he was glad that he couldn't see her face anymore. She looked so small and helpless, lying there.

Due to a realistic assessment of his own fighting skills -- not cowardice, dammit -- he still had no intention of confronting the mystery saboteur himself ... however, with this many fighting-type people around him, he was bound to be able to find one who'd be willing to beat the crap out of that mysterious person for doing this to Elizabeth and Radek.

If it turned out to be Ling, then that was just an added bonus.


Impact plus 6 hours 15 minutes

"You should probably sleep, if you can."

Sheppard snorted. "Not exactly in a sleeping mood right now, Doc."

"I know that. But we've got a long flight in front of us, and you may need to be on your toes when we get there."

Sheppard sighed, leaned back in his seat and stretched. They'd been on autopilot for hours; the other three had settled down in the back, where Ronon was entertaining himself by systematically cleaning his knives, while Beckett checked and rechecked the medical equipment, and Simpson ... did whatever bored engineers did.

He could probably leave the controls alone -- there were no obstacles anywhere near them, nothing but the other jumpers flying in formation -- but he didn't like having nobody in the pilot's chair. Especially not with the possible threat of Wraith closing in.

"Care to take the wheel for a while, Carson?"

"I'd frankly rather walk barefoot over hot coals with needles in them. I don't suppose that's an option, is it?" Carson asked hopefully. "Ah, didn't think so." He stepped back so Sheppard could swing himself out of the chair, then lowered himself very nervously. Sheppard gave him a pat on the shoulder and went to join the others in the back.

Simpson looked up at he sat down on the bench next to Ronon. "I've been going over the data on the planet where the Daedalus appears to have gone down. I think I'm getting a better idea of what we'll be looking at when we get there."

"Spill it." Sheppard rummaged in his vest for a PowerBar, or whatever else was available. He wasn't quite ready to face an MRE yet.

"It's a cold world, and a large one -- about half again as big as Earth in radius. Most of the world appears to be too cold to be habitable. There are some open areas of ocean -- probably much more saline than Earth's oceans -- and the rest of the planet is pretty damn cold and frozen. I'm also picking up some spectacular storm systems."

Sheppard peeled a PowerBar as he leaned over her shoulder, trying to glean what he could from the half-comprehensible readouts on her laptop. "Are we talking like ... surface of Neptune cold, or Michigan in winter cold?"

"Depends on where you are. Judging from albedo, there's a sort of a summer zone around the equator and south of it -- actual vegetation, open water, temperatures on the daytime side of the planet in the forties."

"That's still Fahrenheit."

Simpson nodded. "Yep."

"I wouldn't call that much of a summer, Doc."

"Yes, well, the northern hemisphere is in winter -- we're talking about -150 at the pole, getting towards a relatively balmy zero or so as you go towards the equator."

Sheppard whistled. "And I thought Antarctica was cold. Where's the Daedalus in all this? Can you tell?"

Simpson frowned and shook her head. "Still working on that. The atmosphere is scattering the signal and making it extremely difficult to localize until we're closer. It's definitely in the northern hemisphere somewhere, but beyond that, I can't really narrow it down."

"The cold side," Sheppard said softly.

She looked up at him, met his eyes. "Yes, Colonel. The cold side."

Ronon spoke up for the first time, and Sheppard was reminded of the fact that, even though the man dressed and talked like a barbarian, he did in fact come from a technologically advanced world. "Atmosphere? Oxygen?"

"Yes on both. Breathable, I'd say -- maybe a little thin by our standards, about equivalent to a few thousand feet of elevation, but enough that they won't have to worry about air, at least."

Sheppard let out a slow breath. It still wasn't good, but it was looking more hopeful. "Life signs? Energy readings?

Simpson shrugged. "Too far away to tell. We'll have to be a lot closer before I can pick up anything like that."

Well, it was something. Sheppard settled back on the bench and looked towards the cockpit. "How's it going up there, Carson?"

"Just fine, Colonel, just fine." From the sound of his voice, the man was totally rigid.

"Relax a little bit, Carson. It's on autopilot, and there's nothing out here to run into even if you tried."

There was a strained snort of a laugh. "Colonel, believe me, I can probably find something to run into even if we're in empty vacuum."

"Well, we are in empty vacuum, so let me know how that goes, Doc." But Sheppard was well aware that Carson's tension wasn't just because he didn't like to fly. They were all going to be very much on edge until they got to that world and found the Daedalus. Leaning his head back against the wall, Sheppard hunted around in his vest pockets. It had to be here somewhere ... aha. He pulled out a deck of playing cards, utterly tasteless ones with naked women on them. Elizabeth would probably have had a fit if she'd seen them. Sheppard loved them. Rodney'd picked them up for him on Earth somewhere, and had slid them across a lab table to him late one night, after making Sheppard swear that he would never, ever make Rodney try to play card games with him.

Rodney. Damn. How in the hell had an abrasive, arrogant scientist managed to get so tangled up in his world that he couldn't imagine life without him? If the Daedalus hadn't survived the impact, if Elizabeth and Rodney were dead ... where did he go from there?

Sheppard shuffled the cards with a quick snap of his wrist and held out the deck to Ronon. "Hey, big guy, you ever play Go Fish?"

Ronon looked back at him with his "Earth people are crazy, and I hope it's not contagious" expression. "I have ... fished," he said. "I take it you mean an Earth game, like that 'poker' you taught us."

"Poker. Heh. Poker is for wimps." Sheppard did a fast side-shuffle on the cards and set the deck between them. "Fish, now ... that's a man's game. Cut 'em."


Impact plus 7 hours 0 minutes

The slender gray fingers were trembling. Novak wasn't sure when she first noticed that. Her own hands were shaking too, from a combination of cold, pain and weariness, causing the beam of her flashlight to jitter as she tried to hold it steady for Hermiod. She thought at first that it was a trick of the light, but as she handed the Asgard engineer, her fingers accidentally brushed his -- no, its, she reminded herself; the Asgard were genderless -- and she felt the tremor in him.

"How are you doing, anyway?"

At first Novak thought that Hermiod hadn't heard the question, or was deliberately ignoring it. The Asgard's rapport with the humans around him was tenuous at the best of times, and over the last few hours his only communication with her had been an occasional order to pass him a tool or to move the flashlight. So, when he didn't respond, she repeated herself: "How are you? Are you all right?"

After a moment, though, the bald gray head swiveled towards her. "I do not have time for human pleasantries at the moment, Dr. Novak."

"No, I'm serious. I hadn't really thought to ask you, I guess -- after the crash, if you were hurt, and I also thought, since you don't wear clothes, that the cold might be ..." Under that penetrating dark stare, she trailed off into silence, and looked away. "Sorry. I guess you would have said something."

After a moment, Hermiod said in an almost curious tone, "You are the first human who has asked me."

Novak darted a glance back at him. "Asked you?"

"If I am ... all right. Even your doctor did not."

"She was probably busy with injured people, and you don't look like you're hurt." Encouraged by the somewhat-positive response, and feeling a little braver, Novak asked, "And, are you? Hurt, that is."

"Not in any serious way," the Asgard assured her. "I have a few bruises, but am not severely injured, not even as much so as you." The bald head dipped to indicate her cast. "The cold, however, is ... difficult. Not as much so as it is for your people, but it is still something that I am not accustomed to."

"I could find a coat for you, if you'd like."

There was the briefest hesitation before Hermiod inclined his head. "That would be most helpful."

As she climbed awkwardly up into the ventilation shaft, Lindsey was kicking herself for not having thought to even ask him. Come on, Novak, she berated herself. The guy's fixing the ship to save all of your butts, and nobody even asks him if he got hurt in the crash? Nobody offers him a coat? That's just crazy.

It was almost completely dark outside, with just a few streaks of light in the sky over the mountains. Lindsey clutched her jacket about herself as she hurried to the cargo bay and climbed up inside -- to find herself facing a rifle. She let out a small EEP! and went into a fit of hiccups. Crap ... always the worst possible time ...

"Oh, it's Dr. Novak," said one of the other guards, and the soldier lowered his rifle and reached a hand down to help her up.

"Don't you know you aren't supposed to be out without an escort?" he demanded as she got her feet under her.

"What? Why?"

"There's wolves out there," said the other guard, a young woman.

"Giant wolves."

"Giant screaming wolves."

They looked at each other, and nodded.

"Okay," Lindsey said politely, and hurried over to the nearest stack of crates. It was the work of a few minutes to find someone who could point her in Perry's direction, but once she explained the situation, he was more than happy to help her locate a coat for Hermiod.

"Think it'll fit him?" Perry asked dubiously, holding up the military parka. It looked as if it would envelop Hermiod like a very large, puffy sack.

"It's better than being naked," she pointed out. "Um, while I'm at it, he hasn't specifically asked for food and I have no idea how often Asgard need to eat, but --"

"Second row, third crate from bottom."

"Thanks." Asgard did not eat human food; Hermiod had his own supply. Lindsey pocketed some of it and hurried back over to the opening in the side of the cargo bay. As she started to climb out, one of the guards stopped her with his hand on her arm.

"Oh ... you're actually serious? Armed escorts?"

"Dead serious, ma'am. Caldwell's orders."

Lindsey sighed, and consented to be escorted. Her guard dropped her off at the engine room, and she took the parka to Hermiod. "Um, and I brought food for you, too."

This got a long, thoughtful look from the Asgard. Finally he took it, along with the parka, which he then stared at for a moment. Lindsey stared at him, until she figured out the problem. He was trying to puzzle out how to put it on. For a being who clearly gloried in being several orders of magnitude smarter than everyone around him, not being able to understand a very simple piece of Earth technology had to be galling to him.

"Oh, you ... you put your arms in the sleeves, and fasten it around you -- see?" She demonstrated with pantomime, and was happy to see that he got it on the first try. Hermiod was smart, scary smart, and a quick study. He had to be, to successfully live on a ship populated by alien life forms.

She'd never really thought much about what life must be like for Hermiod. She tried to imagine living on a ship with a bunch of Asgard, and found that she couldn't quite imagine how strange it would be. The difficult part wouldn't be so much working with aliens -- Lindsey had always handled that just fine -- as being an alien, an outsider. The realization that no one had even thought to ask Hermiod if he was okay struck her as symptomatic of how much of an outsider he really was among the crew. There was clearly no love lost on Hermiod's end of the arrangement, either ... but, still, it must be a lonely life he led. Lindsey wondered if anyone ever talked to him other than to ask for something.

"Light," Hermiod ordered peremptorily.

Of course, it would be easier to talk to him if he wasn't such a little ... well, jerk most of the time. She had initially assumed that it was simply his alienness that made him seem that way, until General O'Neill had told her that Hermiod was, in fact, kind of an asshole, even for an Asgard. "Smart asshole, though ..." he'd added thoughtfully.

Hermiod started to resume his repairs, then paused. "And when did you last consume food, Dr. Novak?" he demanded of her.

Jeez, had she even eaten since the crash? Everything had been so busy, first with the fire and then with the desperate urgency of repairing the engines before they all froze to death, that she hadn't even thought about it. "Uh ... I don't know?"

Hermiod nodded towards one of the consoles. "I have seen Major Dewey store food supplies under there -- PowerBars, other light consumables for snacking. Sometimes there is even ..." The eyes narrowed a tad in what might be amusement. "... chocolate."

Lindsey studied him. "You watch us a lot, don't you?"

"Only when I am very, very bored." He turned back to his work. "I suggest that you feed yourself before continuing to assist me. I understand humans are prone to making mistakes when they have not fed."

"Um ... okay." As she crossed to the console he'd indicated, Lindsey asked over her shoulder, "Does the parka help? Are you warmer?"

"Much." And though Asgard emotions were difficult to read, she thought she heard genuine relief in that statement. After a moment, with his back to her, he said, "Thank you."

"You're welcome."


Impact plus 7 hours 58 minutes

A pitch-black night had fallen, and as the last vestiges of light vanished from the sky, the temperature continued to plummet ... dropping from "freaking cold" to "really, really freaking cold". Being surrounded by scientists, Rodney kept getting updates on the temperature whether he wanted them or not -- right now, according to Dr. Westlake, it was -30C and still falling. Rodney still begrudged the moment of weakness that had made him give away his coat, and it hadn't even won him a single kudo from either Cora the cold-hearted little medic or her harridan of a boss. The medical staff continued to give him dirty looks and treat him like something found on the bottom of their collective shoe.

Rodney wondered how long the night lasted here. It could be a month for all they knew.

The castaways, at Caldwell's direction, had piled crates to block off one end of the cargo bay to try to contain some amount of heat. Personally, Rodney thought it made more sense to retreat to private rooms that were more enclosed, but people wanted to stay together, and the cargo bay was the only area on the ship where nearly 200 people could assemble in one place.

They weren't building fires yet, in the hope that Hermiod would get the power systems back online -- but Rodney noticed that Caldwell had been having burnable items (books, crates, food wrappers) stacked together in a corner of the cargo bay. In the meantime, sleeping bags and blankets had been laid out on the floor, and people huddled in small groups. Some played cards, others talked or slept.

Rodney spent a little time sitting with Elizabeth, but she was still unconscious. All the wounded had now been moved down to the cargo bay, except for Zelenka and Sgt. Packee in the engine room. Medical staff appeared and disappeared, periodically going to check on them. Rodney had learned that Packee and one of the other severely wounded were being hand-ventilated with Ambu-bag ventilators, meant only for short transport of critically ill patients. The Daedalus did not carry any battery-operated ventilators. Rodney watched as the medical staff, already stretched to their limits, trade shifts on the exhausting task.

He really should go check on Radek. Not that he wanted to go out there. But if it was this cold in here, it was probably freezing in the engine room, and ... conscience was a bitch.

Rodney wrapped a blanket around himself, cursing himself once again for giving away his coat, and approached the hole in the side of the ship. Several airmen -- in parkas, of course -- were hanging around the opening with P90s, and two of them jumped up to join him as he peered out into the pit of darkness outside. Ever since Armstrong's alarming news about giant wolves, no one left the ship without an armed escort ... which Rodney was more than happy to accept.

His escort introduced themselves as Airman Seavey and Airman Stark. Rodney recognized Seavey -- she'd spent hours holding Elizabeth's hand on the bridge, and had occasionally come to check on her down here, too. The other one, Stark, was a big guy with red hair and freckles. He barely looked old enough to vote, let alone risk his life in a crash landing on an ice world.

He sounded young, too, his voice high-pitched for such a big guy. "This is really something, isn't it?" he asked, as they crunched through the snow while the two airmen played their flashlights around on the snow, and Rodney tried to stay between them.

"What's something?" Rodney demanded tetchily.

"This. This place. It's ..." The soldier's voice dropped to a reverent whisper. "It's another planet. A true, alien world."

"Obviously this is your first tour on the Daedalus," Rodney commented, drawing the blanket more tightly about his shoulders and trying not to shiver. The wind went straight through blanket, jacket and tac vest, to raise gooseflesh on the skin underneath.

"Yeah, how could you tell?"

He wondered if it was worth dignifying that with a response, decided not to. Besides, Airman Stark was still rambling on.

"And Atlantis -- wow! That place ... I wished we'd been able to spend more than a few days there--"

"Well, considering that it really doesn't look like the Daedalus will be flying anytime soon, you just may get your wish."

Stark blinked, and then continued in the same tone of rapt wonder, while Seavey tried to hide a smile. "It's gorgeous, sir -- you're so lucky to live there! All those windows, that light -- and fascinating people everywhere."

"Even the cultists?" Seavey asked him in a light, teasing tone.

Rodney's head snapped around so fast he almost gave himself whiplash. "What cultists?"

The two young soldiers looked at each other with the guilty expressions of kids who've said too much in the presence of their elders. "Er, I didn't mean anything by it," Seavey explained quickly. "I've had the SGC sensitivity training on different religious practices and I understand that things are done differently out here --"

"We're just not used to it," Stark continued for her.

"Not used to what?"

Stark now looked very, very embarrassed, so Seavey spoke for him. "It was Jimmy here, not me, sir. I didn't actually talk to them. They just, you know, kinda-- proselytized to him a little bit?"

"They weren't too pushy about it, sir," Stark put in. "I guess they'd just heard through word-of-mouth that I'm interested in that sort of thing, and it's true that I am, but mostly because everything is new and different to me here. I wasn't interested in their religion, and we only talked the one time ..."

"And what religion would that be?" Rodney tried to speak slowly and carefully, as if talking to a child or an idiot. He'd gotten too used to spending his day in the company of people who were smarter-than-average: he'd forgotten how frustrating it was to talk to normal schmoes.

Stark was the one who answered him. "Wraith worshippers, sir."

Rodney stopped dead in his tracks. He stopped feeling the cold. For an instant, all he could hear was a rushing sound in his ears.

"Wraith worshippers on Atlantis?"

Both airmen looked surprised at his shock. "It did seem kinda strange to me, sir, but I figured it was just --"

"Names. Names! Who? Who, dammit?" Rodney snapped his fingers rapidly. Good God. Elizabeth was going to have a fit. How compromised had they become?

The two kids -- and they really were just kids, Rodney thought, big kids with guns -- looked frightened and guilty. "I don't know, sir," Seavey said, talking rapidly with fear. "I -- they talked to Jimmy, I didn't know, and I really didn't know it was anything wrong, we've been taught that other cultures are --"

"Names!" Rodney yelled in both their faces.

"Uh ... Dr. Price from botany, she was the one who talked to me," Stark stammered.

Price. Price. Dana Price. She was one of the newer people -- brilliant, but quiet, kind of unfriendly, kept to herself.


"Who else?"

"I -- I don't know, sir, really. Just Dr. Price. Like I said, we had a friendly conversation in the commissary, and she -- she told me not to talk about it to anyone, because Atlantis has a rule that forbids religious proselytizing, but she said she really wasn't doing that, just letting me know about her beliefs because she thought I might be interested, but Weir can be really strict about that stuff and she didn't want to get in trouble --"

Trouble. Oh, she was in trouble, all right ... the little traitor. How? How? Rodney couldn't believe that such a thing had gone on in his department, right under his very nose. He realized that he was shaking, mostly with anger.

Wraith worshippers in Atlantis. And possibly on the Daedalus too.

"And what did she tell you about her beliefs, Jimmy?" Rodney asked in a quiet, deadly voice.

Even though Stark was nearly a head taller than the scientist and carrying a machine gun, he took a step backwards. "Uh ... just some stuff, sir ... she told me that it was us humans who were the ones who started the war, and the Wraith are actually more advanced beings who were going to come and show us how to live because the end times are coming, but now they're having to fight us, and if we can learn to live in peace then they--"

Rodney just stared. How could anyone -- "And you bought that bullshit?"

"Well, not -- not really, sir, but I could tell she really believed in it, and it really didn't sound any weirder than some of the stuff they talk about at my great-aunt's church, the end times and all ... it seemed harmless enough."

"Harmless? The Wraith are life-sucking monsters! We're at war with them!"

Stark stared at his feet and then at Seavey, but she didn't seem willing to give him any help. "Well, sir, I just thought -- I've heard that, yeah, but I've never actually seen a Wraith, and they used to say that sort of thing about the Germans during World War II also, sir. I just thought maybe nobody ever tried to understand it from their point of view."

"Their point of view is that we're food, Airman!"

"I've heard people say that, sir," the Airman repeated stubbornly. "I've heard people say things about Iraqis and communists too, sir. It doesn't make it true."

At any other time, Rodney might have admired the kid's dogged determination to keep an open mind. This, however ... this was cultural relativism taken to absurd levels. He took deep breaths, forcing himself calm, reminding himself that neither of these kids knew about the Wraith technology that had sabotaged the Daedalus. If the sabotage wasn't related to the Wraith worshippers who'd talked to Stark, then he'd eat his own shoe.

Dr. Price. And she'd seemed so smart, too. Damn. Damn. Damn.

"Let me tell you something about Wraith worshippers, soldier," Rodney said softly, taking another step forward and seeing both of them retreat. "We've met them out here in the Pegasus Galaxy -- well, Colonel Sheppard has. They serve the Wraith like ... like lapdogs or something. They help them cull worlds. They trick and trap people, and act as spies to lead other human beings to their death -- Sheppard's seen it. I don't know if Dana Price really believes this line of crap about the end times or if she's just scared that she's going to die in the war and wants to be on the winning side -- and there is no winning side, because we've also seen what the Wraith do to their allies when they no longer need them -- but either way, she may have passed along information to the Wraith that will help them kill us. She's a traitor, and I'm not talking out of some kind of misplaced patriotism here. Believe me, I'm not a flag-waving kind of guy, but I want to live, and people like Price are willing to trample everyone around them in order to survive themselves. Even if she doesn't know that's what she's doing. Do you understand?"

Stark still looked rebellious and resentful. Seavey said, almost tearfully, "I never realized there was anything wrong with it, sir. I would have said something if I had known."

"Well, you should have." But done was done. "Listen, I'm freezing my ass off out here, and I want to get inside. Once we're inside, both of you should go straight to Caldwell and tell him what you told me. Nobody else. Just Caldwell." Regardless of how he felt about the man personally, he thought that Caldwell was about the last person on the Daedalus to have been sucked -- so to speak -- into Wraith worship. It should be safe. "And don't talk to anyone else about this, you got it?"

They shared a look. "Well, a few of the others know, too," Seavey said. "Jimmy's the only one that I know the cultists actually spoke to, but you know -- people talk, late at night. There isn't much else to talk about, on a ship like this one."

"Okay, okay, I don't care, just ... be careful, okay? These people are dangerous, I'm not kidding about that. And they might not like the fact that you've been telling people about this."

Seavey, her eyes wide, looked earnest and worried. Stark, though ... Rodney didn't like the look on his face. It was bitter, stubborn. Petulant. Rodney realized suddenly that he didn't want to turn his back on him, not out here in the snow.

But Stark started walking first, forging ahead, and Rodney and Seavey came after. The young woman kept trying to talk to her friend. "Jimmy -- Jimmy, you didn't do anything wrong, you're not in trouble. You didn't know."

Stark stopped at the base of the ship under the ventilation shaft to look back at them. "I think you people take a very black-and-white view of life," he said coldly.

"You know, if after all this is over, you want to get together over beers and complain about the American military presence in pretty much every country on Earth, I'll be your man," Rodney informed him as he clambered awkwardly up into the ventilation shaft. "I'm Canadian, you know -- griping about American cultural imperialism is a national pastime. But out here? The same rules don't apply. Wraith aren't human. You can't expect them to be. Try to treat them like humans and you'll get the life sucked out of you."

With that, he hoisted himself into the shaft and slid down. He didn't want to think about it anymore -- about the times he'd actually seen the life sucked out of people. People he liked.

These kids from Earth, they didn't know. No wonder Wraith worship, or some bastardized derivative, was spreading around Atlantis. They hadn't been through the siege, they hadn't seen firsthand the horror of a hiveship, they hadn't witnessed friends and co-workers killed in front of their eyes. They heard the stories, and they thought it was exaggeration -- the same kind of stereotyping of the enemy that was so common on Earth. Natural human tendency, it was. But in this case, it was true, and their failure to understand that simple fact might just get them killed ... and everyone else on Atlantis along with them.

When they got back, he intended to have a long talk with Elizabeth and Sheppard about having some kind of orientation for new people. Take them to the world where Brendan and Abrams had died, maybe, and show them all those desiccated mummies in cocoons. Let them step through a Stargate and see a freshly culled world, with bloated corpses of infants and sick people lying in the street where they had died after everyone who could have taken care of them had been carried away by Wraith. Show them the little shrine in Teyla's quarters where she wrote down every single name of people she had known who had been taken by the Wraith -- there was a lot of handwriting on that wall, and it was very tiny handwriting.

Seavey slid out of the ventilation shaft behind him. Stark didn't. "I'm sorry about ... everything," she said. "Really, really sorry."

Rodney's first inclination was to berate her for her stupidity. But she just looked so woebegone ... and she had held Elizabeth's hand for hours. Ignorance wasn't a fatal flaw; it could be corrected. "You didn't know," he said shortly.

"I think Jimmy went back. He's ... kind of upset."

"He might get himself killed," Rodney said. "I'm not kidding about that, Seavey. Wraith worshippers are genuinely dangerous. And we're awfully isolated, with no sign of help on the way."

Seavey just nodded. "I'll be careful, and go straight to Caldwell -- when we get back. In the meantime, I'll wait here until you're ready to leave, to escort you back." She sat down at the base of the ventilation shaft with her P90 over her knees.

Rodney wished that she'd just go now, but on the other hand, it was nice to have the additional protection from wolves and whatnot. He looked around the room, taking in the changes since the last time he'd been here. Sgt. Packee's secluded corner had sprouted more equipment -- a portable defibrillator and a bristling nest of IVs, among other things. In the middle of it all, Cora, the blond medic who was still wearing his coat, knelt with an Ambu-bag, squeezing and releasing as she counted softly. An armed guard stood next to her; there was another over by Hermiod.

Rodney did a double-take when he saw the Asgard. Hermiod was wearing a parka. It took all his limited self-control not to burst out laughing. The hem swept the floor like a very clumsy dancer's skirt whenever the slender alien moved, and long gray fingers poked out of the sleeves, dancing lightly across equipment. Oh, if only he had a camera.

Novak hovered at Hermiod's shoulder like a shadow ... an exhausted-looking shadow with one wrist in a cast, holding a flashlight. She was gnawing on what looked like a Snickers bar. The engineers were hoarding chocolate? And they hadn't shared it with him? Selfish bastards...

Rodney considered going to Hermiod with his new information, but decided against it. He really hadn't learned anything solid. There were Wraith worshippers on Atlantis, and it stood to reason that they were behind the sabotage, but this didn't tell them anything new. They still couldn't trust anyone on the Daedalus unless proven otherwise. And the Asgard had his hands full, trying to fix the ship.

He headed in Radek's direction instead. The Czech scientist had acquired another IV in the other arm, and a couple other bits of random apparatus as well. He appeared to be asleep, but raised his head when Rodney sat down next to him.

"Having a nice chess game somewhere, Rodney? Maybe you stopped to redesign the Daedalus's plumbing?"

"I've been helping dig Elizabeth out of a pile of rubble, Radek."

Zelenka's face changed instantly, from teasing mock-annoyance to concern. "Dr. Weir? How is she?"

"She's ... stable." Then again, so was Zelenka, and Rodney hardly considered him a poster child for good health at the moment. "We're all gathered in the cargo bay now. It's very cozy. I expect someone's going to start a game of charades at any moment, at which point I will be forced to overcome my natural aversion to violence and shoot them. Also, there are Wraith worshippers on Atlantis, just so you know."

Radek's sleepy blue eyes blinked slowly as he processed this. "I think you'd better back up a bit, Rodney."

So Rodney gave him the whole story of Stark's revelations outside. Radek listened quietly, and at the end he said, "Dana Price. I don't know her that well."

"I don't think anybody does. Admittedly, I'm not the sort of boss who holds ice cream socials and knitting bees, but I really don't think she goes out of her way to make friends. She practically lives in the botany lab. Dr. Brown would probably know her a little better ..." He'd spent the last six months studiously avoiding Katie Brown, and did not intend this to change anytime in the near future.

"Well, at least we have a motive now."

Rodney snorted. "To the extent that Wraith worshippers have motives. 'What's my motivation? Oh wait, I'm crazy.'"

"But we have a better idea of why someone might have sabotaged the Daedalus," Radek said patiently. "If you'll recall, we established earlier that the idea was to stop the ship without doing any damage -- it was just the saboteur's, and our, rough luck that it dropped out of hyperspace right in front of a planet. If it's Wraith worshippers, then that does make sense ... they want to hand over Asgard hyperspace technology to the Wraith."

"Rodney." Radek's forehead furrowed in a concerned frown. "Doesn't that mean there would be Wraith on the way here?"

They looked at each other. Radek cursed softly in Czech.

"My sentiments exactly." Rodney swept a glance around the quiet, nearly-dark room. "You know, it's been eight hours since we crashed, give or take a little. I'm starting to think ..."

He trailed off into silence, but Radek nodded. "...Help is not coming. And I begin to think you are right."

"I mean, the odds are, if you'll pardon the pun, astronomical." Rodney waved his hand in the air, punctuating his words. "Do you know how many systems in this galaxy there must be without Stargates? And even if there is a gate in this system, they'd have to find us in order to use it ... and the amount of territory they'd have to cover in order to do that is, well, astronomical again. And we haven't heard a thing from Atlantis in eight hours. I'm not hopeful, Radek."

Zelenka's voice was very quiet. "It will be difficult for you, if they do not come."

Rodney frowned at his wording. "For us, Radek ... for us."

Zelenka shook his head, with a small smile. He gestured at his shoulder with the hand that could still move. "Rodney, I am a realist. They have no tool that can cut this out of me, not without electricity. What should they do, use a hacksaw? I do not think I will survive having it pulled out of me by brute force, and as I sit here, I can feel myself growing weaker. Carol has mentioned the possibility of blood clots as well. I cannot last here forever."

"You don't have to." Zelenka's fatalism left Rodney feeling weak and scared. "Just until Hermiod gets the power back online. And that'll be soon."

"It has been eight hours, Rodney. I do not think it will be soon enough."

"Look, shut up and get some sleep." His voice sounded rough to his own ears -- the hoarseness of swallowing back tears that he refused to shed. "If you're that weak, then why are you wasting energy talking to me? Oh ... and I need to make sure your feet aren't frozen, because otherwise Ling will stick needles in me. The woman hates me, Radek."

Zelenka smiled weakly. "And I am sure you're an innocent victim, having given her no cause at all to hate you." He moved each of his feet individually. At some point, someone had tucked a blanket around them, so the only result was a twitch beneath the fabric. "See? Warm and mobile. I can even move my toes."

"Good. That's good. Now go to sleep."

"Hmph. You are a poor nurse, Rodney." Zelenka's head lolled back against the wall. It had obviously been taking him some effort to participate in the conversation.

"Luckily it's not my life's work, then, isn't it?"

Zelenka's lips twitched, then became serious. He spoke without opening his eyes. "Rodney, you told me once that you have a sister. I have a sister, too, and two brothers as well."

"Oh, no way, Radek --"

"I would appreciate if you could tell them ..." The smile was back, softening his face. "Tell them I died saving children, would you?"

"Radek, you hate children."

"So do you." There was no venom in the tone; it was more affectionate than anything else.

"I think you should shut up now, Radek, before you make even more of a fool of yourself."

"Hmmm." A soft sound, as he drifted towards sleep.

Rodney leaned back against the wall and drew his knees up against his chest, presenting a small huddled ball against the cold. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Radek sleeping -- see his friend's chest rising and falling.

Damn it. Elizabeth ... and Radek ... and he was so tired of this, so utterly tired of this absurd situation. It was like something out of a Reader's Digest article -- Drama in Real Life: Struggle for Survival on Glacier -- and at the end, everyone would be recovering from their frostbite in the hospital and the ordeal would be over. The book would be closed, and all the participants would presumably get on with their lives -- weary, damaged mentally and physically, but they never talked about that in the survival stories, did they?

Rodney let his face sink down onto his knees. He was exhausted and hungry, and Seavey was waiting for him; he needed to go back and talk to Caldwell, get something to eat, maybe get some sleep. And watch his back for Wraith worshippers, and watch Radek die by inches and ... God, he was so damn tired.

From across the room, Airman Keisha Seavey watched quietly as Rodney's body slowly relaxed and his head slid sideways, coming to rest eventually on Zelenka's uninjured shoulder. She smiled a little, and resettled her P90 across her knees. She didn't know much about this new galaxy in which she now found herself, and she couldn't do much to help, but she could stand guard over these civilians who had turned out to be so fascinating and likable. And that, she would do, as long as she was able.


Impact plus 12 hours 30 minutes

"Is it small?"


"Is it ... blue?"

"Er. Kind of. Some of it."

"Is it a city?"

Sheppard, lying on his back in a sleeping bag with his hands folded on his chest, tilted his head so that he could look sideways at Simpson, who was also lying down but equally awake. "You're cheating somehow."

"You're just incredibly transparent," she retorted. "It's Atlantis."

"Yes, dammit. Okay, it's your turn. No, wait, it's Carson's turn."

The doctor sighed and swiveled the pilot's chair so that he could see them. He and Sheppard had already traded off the piloting duties, and then traded back again as it became obvious that none of them were capable of sleeping at the moment. Well ... none with the sole exception of Ronon, who could fall asleep instantly anytime and anywhere, and was presently sitting up snoring against the wall.

"I don't particularly find this game entertaining, Colonel."

"Neither do I, but I'm bored. Your turn, Carson."

Beckett sighed and rolled his eyes. "Fine. I bloody well have something."

"Wraith," Sheppard and Simpson chorused.

The doctor threw his hands up in the air. "All right, someone else's turn now."

"Simpson ...?"

"Just a minute, I'm thinking." After a minute she said, "Okay, you'll never get this one."

At that point, Teyla's voice broke in. "Colonel, this is Atlantis. Do you copy?"

Sheppard waved his hand in the air. "Well, answer her, Doc."

Beckett shot him a glare and fumbled for the right switch on the jumper's console. "Teyla love, this is Beckett."

"Hello, Dr. Beckett." Her voice was warm. "Do you have anything to report?"

"Not a thing, dear. It's still as the tomb here." Carson winced. "I mean, it's bloody dead -- I mean --"

"... you have seen no Wraith and have nothing to report," Teyla filled in.

"Yes, that's what I meant."

"We're doing fine, Teyla," Sheppard called from the back, not raising his head. "Next check-in four hours from now?"

"Certainly. Atlantis out."

After Teyla's voice faded from the speakers, there was a moment of silence in the jumper. Then Simpson said, "We're, what, halfway now?"

"Just about." Sheppard checked his watch. "It's been ... about twelve hours since we lost contact with them. Twelve and a half."

"That's a long time on an ice planet," Simpson said softly.

"Let me know when you know more about the Daedalus's precise location on that planet, Doctor."

He heard the soft rustle of her blond hair against her sleeping bag as she nodded her head. "You'll be the first to know, Colonel."


Impact plus 13 hours 35 minutes

There was frost creeping across the walls of the cargo bay. Caldwell had been noting its progress with a certain morbid fascination. When he scraped his fingernail across it, the fragile curls of ice melted on his fingertip. Such a strange thing, so easily destroyed in small quantities, yet so very capable of killing them.

He turned back as Perry joined them, nodding to his CO and the other officers present -- Dr. Ling and Chief Engineer Brian Dewey. "Sorry I'm late, sir -- I've been overseeing supply inventories."

"We may as well begin there, Major. How do the ship's stores look?"

They were holding their staff meeting in a quiet corner of the cargo bay, arranged around a softly hissing Coleman lantern. Perry's face, framed by stark shadows, looked even thinner than usual. "Whether or not the news is good or bad ... depends on how long we're here, sir. Food won't be a problem for a while. Between MREs and stock for the mess, we always carry enough food to feed the crew for about a month -- our Milky-Way-to-Pegasus trip plus a safety margin. We've already resupplied for the trip to Earth, so we can eat comfortably for a month, or somewhat less comfortably for two or three. The cold actually works in our favor, since we don't have to worry about perishable foods going bad. Some things may be damaged by freezing, but most food is still edible when frozen and thawed, especially if there's no choice --" Seeing the impatient look on Caldwell's face, he broke off and cleared his throat. "Anyway, the upshot is that we have ample time to investigate this planet's possible food sources. There appear to be large predators, so it stands to reason there would be large herbivores as well, and we can probably find something we can eat. We've got at least a few people with advanced wilderness survival skills -- Armstrong's the best of those. I suggest that when it gets light, we start sending out scouting parties."

"Any chance we can use the F302s?"

Perry shook his head. "Not anytime soon, sir. The hangar bay is completely inaccessible -- it's totally sealed off. We can try to blow the doors."

"Have Cadman take a look at it. We could really use those ships, Perry." Understatement of the year. At this point, any little advantage could be the difference between life and death, and a hangar full of intact ships was more than just a little advantage.

"Yes, sir. In addition to the food, most of our supplies of all types survived the crash intact. Some parts of the ship are a mess -- apparently the sickbay in particularly; Carol can tell you more about that." He met Ling's eyes briefly. "But overall, we're good for a month, at least, on everything from toilet paper to toothpaste. Okay, now the bad news."

"Let's hear it."

"Heat," Perry said simply. "As you've no doubt noticed, this planet is cold. And we have no idea how cold it can get, or for how long. We're not prepared for it. We have some cold-weather gear -- parkas, boots and the like -- and we also have some spacesuits, designed for EVAs, that will function the same. We can make do, at least in the short term, by bundling up in layers; everyone's got several changes of clothes, and there are plenty of spare blankets. But there are a number of problems with that." He began ticking off on his fingers. "In this extreme cold, I wouldn't send anybody outside for more than a few minutes if they aren't properly dressed. This means that we're very limited on the number of people we can send out for scouting and hunting, and there's no way that we can move everyone -- we're going to have to stay with the ship."

Another finger tick. "Problem number two -- keeping the inside of the ship warm. It'll probably take a couple of days to lose all the heat inside, but eventually it's going to be well below zero in here. A sufficiently bundled human being can handle the cold just fine, but there are a lot of things we need to do that we're going to need a warm environment for. Such as surgery, preparing meals, fixing the ship -- pretty much anything that involves manual dexterity." Finger tick. "And then there are the wounded. I think I'm going to let Carol take over here."

Ling nodded to him. "The Major is right -- I can't tend injured people when it's fifty below indoors. It's already getting colder than I'd like. Frostbite is going to be a constant danger for everyone, but especially for those who are immobile, or less mobile than usual because of their injuries. Liquids will freeze. We're already using hot packs and simple body heat to keep the IV fluids warm enough not to send our patients into shock, but we can't keep that up forever. Put simply, Colonel, we have a lot of injured people and without heat and electricity, we're going to start losing them soon."

"Which would be Dewey's area," Caldwell prompted.

The engineer sighed. "Sir, I wish the news was better. The more time Hermiod spends with the engines, the more he revises his estimate upward of how long it'll take to fix them."

"We don't need a fully operational hyperdrive -- all we need is power!" Caldwell snapped.

"Hermiod understands that, sir. He's just as likely to die in this situation as we are, and he knows it. He reports that the damage is much worse than he'd initially thought."

Sabotage. Caldwell drew a deep breath and let it out. After Novak had informed him of the Wraith transmitter, he'd ordered her to secrecy, sharing the information only with Perry. And then Seavey had shown up with a story of Wraith worshippers on Atlantis. This just kept getting better. His initial hypothesis had been that they were dealing with Goa'uld again, but it was starting to look as if this was a homegrown Pegasus Galaxy threat.

He wondered how much Dewey knew. The man wasn't an idiot and had to have some idea of why his engines had stopped working. At some point he would probably take Dewey into his confidence, but since he couldn't absolutely rule out Goa'uld involvement, he also couldn't rule out the possibility than anyone he trusted could be one of the enemy. "Just keep me posted, Major," he said.

"Yes, sir. Believe me, you'll be the first to know."

The meeting broke up. Caldwell walked Ling back to the end of the cargo bay that they'd designated the sickbay area -- sheets had been hung to give the patients some privacy. "How are they doing?" he asked her quietly.

"We haven't lost any more," she replied in an equally soft tone. The total dead had been seven, including one who'd died during surgery, and that was seven too many. "But there are some critical cases. We're having to hand-ventilate two people, and there are several others who really need surgery -- but I don't want to do it without power unless there's just no option."

"Is Weir awake yet?"

Ling shook her head. "Would you like to be informed when she wakes up, sir?"

"Yes, if you would, Doctor." He wanted, very badly, to talk to Weir about Seavey's revelation about Wraith worshippers. Somehow he seriously doubted that she knew of it -- the woman ran a very loose ship, but surely she couldn't be that tolerant. However, he wanted her feedback, her opinion.

He wanted to know what she knew about the Atlantean scientists in their midst.

Their mystery saboteur had a lot to answer for. Seven dead, numerous injured -- his head reminded him of that every time he made a sudden move -- and several who might be dead before morning. And that reminded him of Seavey, and the fact that he hadn't yet talked to Seavey's friend, Airman Stark, the one who'd had the actual encounter with the Wraith worshippers. Where was Stark? After nodding farewell to Ling, Caldwell tapped his radio. "Airman Stark, this is Caldwell. Report, please."

There was no answer, and Caldwell frowned. "Airman Stark. Report."

Still no answer.

This wasn't good.


Impact plus 14 hours 55 minutes

The scientists had been put under arrest.

No one called it that. But the change had begun after Rodney came back from the engine room with Seavey -- after Seavey had had a chance to talk to Caldwell. That was when Rodney had begun noticing an armed escort hovering conspicuously in the scientists' vicinity. Miko told him tearfully that she'd tried to leave the group to get some bottled water for them, and one of the soldiers had blocked her with his gun and told her that she couldn't do that -- told her she had to stay where she was. Of course they claimed this was because it was too dangerous and everything was all for their own good. Rodney was still allowed to come and go as he pleased, but he noticed a couple of the soldiers giving him suspicious sideward glances, as if wondering why the rest of the civilians were under loose house arrest while Rodney could go free.

When he found Caldwell -- who was proving elusive -- Rodney intended to subject him to a rant that would strip the paint from the metal walls. He'd trusted that ass, he'd told Seavey to go to him, and this was how Caldwell reacted ... by blaming the scientists! Oh sure, Dana Price the Wraith worshipper was a scientist. So Caldwell the wannabe detective had obviously leaped to the conclusion that they were all guilty by association. Meanwhile he was allowing the real saboteur free run of the ship.

Rodney was going to kill him.

In the meantime, he paced. By this point he'd learned the entire cargo bay by heart. He would have paced the entire Daedalus if he dared, but roaming those dark halls, with possible Wraith worshippers and saboteurs running around, seemed like an unnecessary risk to him. Radek slept, as did Elizabeth. Rodney had drowsed for a couple of hours beside Zelenka, until the cold drove him awake, and now he walked not only because he was thoroughly pissed at Caldwell, but also because he was afraid to sleep for fear of freezing to death. He felt jittery and tense, as if from too much caffeine, though he hadn't had any.

He looked for Seavey to find out what the hell she'd told Caldwell, but she was sleeping -- wrapped in a blanket, looking young and vulnerable. He had no idea where Stark had gotten off to. He had not seen the young man since they'd separated outside the engine room. And he didn't like that at all, remembering the look in the Airman's eyes when he'd last seen him.

He paused at the rip in the hull to stare out into the blackness. The wind had picked up a lot, and moaned around the ship's bulk. Flurries of snow went skating past the opening in the light of the guards' flashlights.

"Gonna be a blizzard," said a soft voice by his shoulder.

Rodney looked around. Armstrong. "What are you, Daniel Boone?"

The lieutenant just grinned. "Spent a lot of time in the woods when I was a kid. You can see how the wind's rising out there."

"As far as I'm concerned, anyone who wants to be outdoors is crazy."

Armstrong's grin widened, as he held out an MRE and a bottle of water. "Well, dinner's on the crazy man tonight, if you haven't eaten yet." At Rodney's suspicious look, he laughed and said, "I'm the designated meal delivery boy at the moment. For right now, we're not strictly rationing food. We'll probably have to soon enough, but in this cold, Major Perry says we need all the calories we can get to stay alert."

Rodney had been running on PowerBars and adrenaline for ... how long had it been? Twelve hours? Fifteen? Good God. Food sounded very nice indeed. He took it with a mumbled thanks, and went off to the sickbay corner to check on Elizabeth while he ate.

It seemed slightly warmer behind the sheets providing a semblance of privacy to Ling's patients. Most of them were sleeping, probably under the influence of sedation and painkillers. Rodney did a quick check for the Sickbay Harpy, as he'd mentally termed her, but the coast was clear -- the only medical staff he saw were Cora and a young male corpsman, checking IVs and noting patients' vital signs.

Elizabeth's bruised face was still and pale, as it had been ever since they had pulled her from the rubble. Rodney sat down next to her and stretched out his legs with a sigh. He set the MRE to one side to heat, and when he turned back to Weir, he saw that her eyes were open and looking at him.

"Elizabeth!" He bent over her, aware that his relief and delight probably showed in his face, but too happy to care. "Can you hear me?"

She smiled a little. "I can hear you fine, Rodney." Her voice was soft and slightly hoarse, but her words were clear.

"How do you feel? Okay, stupid question, shut up McKay. Uh, do you hurt anywhere? Do you want anything? Should I call the doctor or something?"

One of her hands twitched and moved, half-covering his. "Rodney, I'm all right, I think. I'm not really feeling much. I'm thirsty ... that's about the only thing ..."

Rodney looked around for a medic, but Cora looked busy and besides, he had water right here. Feeling nervous and somewhat shy, he cupped his hand under Elizabeth's head and helped her take a few small sips. "I probably shouldn't give you any more than that. I don't know if you're supposed to have it. Does that help at all?"

"It's much better, Rodney; thank you." Her voice did sound a bit stronger.

"I, um --" There was so much he wanted to talk to her about, but he hated to dump all the Wraith-worshipper stuff onto her when she'd just regained consciousness. Still, he really didn't want to be one of those annoying people in a murder mystery who collected all the clues, unraveled the murderer's identity and then got killed before they could freaking tell anybody. Not Rodney McKay. "Um, do you mind if I eat while we talk? Because I'm really hungry and I can feel my blood sugar dropping while we speak. Are you hungry? I can have one of the nurses --"

Her hand tightened briefly on his before letting go. "I'm fine, Rodney. I don't mind if you eat, and I'm not hungry."

You really should be, he wanted to say, because it had been hours and hours since any of them had eaten a decent meal -- but maybe it was the painkillers taking her appetite away. He hoped. Digging into his MRE, he said through a mouthful, "Elizabeth, I'm really sorry to drop this on you right away, but it's important. There's something you should know ..."

And he told her about the signs of Wraith sabotage in the Daedalus's engines, and then, everything that Seavey and Stark had told him about Stark's encounter with Wraith worshippers ... and Caldwell's overreaction. As he spoke, Elizabeth's eyes widened, and then grew dark and narrow.

"Wraith followers on Atlantis," she whispered when he'd finished. "I can't believe it."

"Believe me, it's not just you." He set the MRE to one side, and ran a hand over his face, suddenly feeling the exhaustion and terror of the last fifteen hours closing in on him. Noticing the medic, Cora, tending to a patient not too far away, he dropped his voice. "Elizabeth, what if ... God, what if Caldwell's actually right? If the person who did this -- what if it's one of our people, one of the scientists?"

Her hand closed over his, gripped it tightly. "Don't think that, Rodney. You know them. You trust them."

"Yeah, but I thought I knew Dana Price, too!" And he didn't have to tell Elizabeth that he wasn't the best judge of character, never had been.

She gripped his hand even more firmly, and looked into his eyes. "Rodney, you have to take care of our people. I can't do it; you have to, you can. Radek and Miko and Robert and Nikolai and all the others here -- if this gets out, they're going to be scapegoats for a lot of very angry people. I'm not saying that Caldwell or his officers would deliberately instigate violence against them -- but, Rodney, I've seen the mob mentality at work, and the Daedalus's crew are very much on edge. They have lost some of their friends, their comrades-in-arms. They're stranded on a strange world. They will be looking for someone to blame."

Rodney found himself shivering, only partly because of the cold. "Seavey doesn't seem to blame us, and she knows the whole Price story."

"Keisha Seavey is a genuinely nice person, for one thing. And it may be that it simply hasn't occurred to her, as it obviously has to Colonel Caldwell, that Dana Price's colleagues are the most likely people to have picked up her ideas. Rodney --" She squeezed his hand, hard, as his mouth opened for a heated response. "You and I both know that the scientists on this ship did not do this. But to an outsider, it looks bad. You must protect them."

Rodney closed his eyes in despair. "I should never have told Caldwell anything, should I? Elizabeth, I didn't even think. I just thought he ought to know."

The pressure of her cool fingers grounded him, brought him back, as her soft voice said, "Rodney, it's not your fault. And while I hate to find myself in the odd position of defending Steven Caldwell --" Her lips quirked in brief amusement. "... I can see why he's reacted the way he has. I disagree, strongly, and I intend to tell him so at the earliest opportunity. But I can't say I wouldn't have done the same in your position."

"Dr. Weir! I'm glad to see you've decided to join us." It was Ling's voice, and Rodney jumped, because he hadn't heard her come up behind him. The woman moved as softly as a cat. How much had she heard?

Elizabeth gave Rodney's fingers a final squeeze before releasing his hand. "We'll talk later," she promised him. "Remember what I said. Take care of them, Rodney."

Rodney just nodded and moved back, reluctantly, as Ling moved in to take up the position he'd vacated. From the look she gave him, her opinion of him had not improved, and he couldn't help hovering anxiously as she took Elizabeth's vitals, asked her some questions and -- most alarmingly, to Rodney, injected something into her IV port. At that point he couldn't contain himself anymore.

"Hey, what did you just give her?"

"It's to make her more comfortable," Ling informed him icily. "Unless you would rather see her in pain?"

"Well, no, of course not, but ..." Rodney quit trying to make sense and just glared instead. If she was even thinking about hurting Elizabeth, she'd answer to him.

Ling sighed, rolled her eyes and ignored him. "Dr. Weir, Colonel Caldwell wanted to see you when you woke up. Do you feel up to having another visitor?"

Rodney could see the wry twist of Elizabeth's lips. "Why, I'd love to see him," she said, and he had to restrain a grin himself. The next best thing to knocking Caldwell down a peg or two for his treatment of the scientists was knowing that Elizabeth would do it, and probably do it very thoroughly.

Ling nodded. "I'll inform him you're awake, then." And she turned on Rodney. "As for you, I think you'd better leave and let Elizabeth get some rest."

"What? She's been resting! For hours! And I thought you just bitched me out for not spending time with sick people. Make up your damn mind!"

"She's injured, Dr. McKay, and sitting quietly with her is one thing, but getting her worked up isn't good for her health. Why don't you go check on your other friend now."

Rodney threw his hands up in the air. "Fine! I'll just run around in a subzero blizzard because you told me to! And fight off the wolves bare-handed while I'm at it! Maybe if I get my leg ripped off you'll give me some damn Tylenol!"

"And now you're waking up my other patients. I want you out of here in five minutes, Dr. McKay, or I'll have you escorted out."

"Harpy!" Rodney shot at her back as she walked away.

Elizabeth sighed. "Rodney, whatever did you do to antagonize that woman?"

"Who? Ling?" He couldn't believe it. "Why does everyone think it's my fault? She's got it in for me, Elizabeth! She's hated me from the beginning for absolutely no reason. Elizabeth, if she's the saboteur, I can't leave you here -- you'll be at her mercy."

Elizabeth's head moved against the pillow, shaking in amused negation. "Rodney, Carol Ling is a dedicated physician and would never harm a patient. I'll be perfectly safe here. She's right -- you should go check on Radek."

"But ..."

"Remember what I said, Rodney. I'm in here; you're out there. Keep them safe for me."


Impact plus 15 hours 20 minutes

After Rodney was gone and Ling had left again, presumably to find Caldwell, Elizabeth allowed herself to drift. Drowsy, with eyes half-closed, she watched the young blond medic, Cora, check on two of her other patients before coming over to kneel down by Elizabeth. Cora looked at the level of fluid in Elizabeth's IV, studied her chart for a moment and then began drawing an injection from the small medical case in her lap.

"I didn't think I was ready for another pain shot yet," Elizabeth said softly.

Cora jumped and almost fumbled the syringe. "I thought you were asleep! You gave me quite a shock." She finished measuring out the drug and injected it into the IV port. "It's easy to lose track of time when you're injured, Dr. Weir."

"I know, but ..." Elizabeth turned her head, trying to get a better look at Cora. The young medic's face was in shadow; Elizabeth could not see her expression. She didn't want to tell the girl how to do her job, but it was very busy with so many patients to care for, and something could easily fall through the cracks. "Dr. Ling just gave me a painkiller when I woke up ... I don't think it's been even half an hour."

Now she could feel the drug taking effect, warm lassitude spreading through her limbs. She might have blanked out for an instant, because Cora was now bending over her. "I know," the young woman said quietly. "She must have measured out too great a dose. Carol is a good doctor, but she's under so much stress and has so many patients to care for. She takes it very personally when she loses a patient. I'll have to remind her that it's not her fault; everyone makes mistakes."

Now that Cora was leaning forward, her face was no longer in shadow, and her eyes were fixed on Elizabeth with bright, bitter hatred.

Elizabeth struggled to open her mouth, to speak, to call out. But she couldn't move. She felt as if she were drowning in warm syrup.

"Who else knows?" Cora whispered, and the hate in her eyes pierced Elizabeth to her core. "You, and Dr. McKay -- I'll have to kill him too, of course. Who else, Dr. Weir?"

Elizabeth's mouth opened and closed. She couldn't seem to gather her thoughts, couldn't form words. "No," she managed to whisper.

Cora's hand touched Elizabeth's forehead with a mockery of gentleness -- just a caregiver lending comfort to her patient. Rodney! Elizabeth wanted to scream ... but no words would come. She couldn't breathe. A roaring sound in her ears blotted out all ambient noise in the room, and then darkness took her vision and swept her away.


Impact plus 15 hours 22 minutes

Caldwell had been standing at the doors to the F302 bay with Perry and Cadman when Ling contacted him about Elizabeth . At least, he'd been as close to the hangar bay as he could get. There were several layers of barricades between himself and the ships they so desperately needed.

"It doesn't look good, sir," Cadman admitted, running her hand down unyielding metal. "The shielding in this part of the ship is a lot sturdier than the rest -- most of the other doors I blasted through were just designed to prevent decompression, but these are actually meant to stop explosions. The amount of force it would take to blow through these doors, especially from this side, might actually destroy the 302s themselves ... or bring down some of the corridors in this area, blockading it even further. And there's also the danger of starting an avalanche on the mountain with the vibrations."

"We've got a bay full of 302s, Lieutenant, each one with its own self-contained power supply and heat. We need those ships to save lives. Between you and Dewey, see what you can come up with."

"Yes, sir," Cadman said uncertainly.

"Ling just let me know that Dr. Weir's awake." He saw Cadman's head come up at this news, her eyes shining in the flashlight's reflected glow. The loyalty that these people had for their leader was truly impressive. "I'm heading back there now. Keep working on this."

"Yes sir."

He arrived at the sickbay area a few minutes later, with Perry behind him, and pulled back the curtain from the corner where he remembered that Weir had been taken. Approaching her, he saw that she was lying still with her face turned away into shadow. Apparently she had fallen asleep again; he sighed, disappointed. Sleep would probably be the best thing for her, though.

Caldwell knelt next to her. She was so very still -- too still, he thought. Something was wrong. And, laying a hand on her chest, he knew what it was.

"Damn," he whispered, rolling her head towards him. He placed the back of his hand against her lips, feeling no breath. "Damn it, Weir!" Pressing his fingers against her neck, he could just feel a pulse -- a very slow, irregular heartbeat.

"Hey!" he called over his shoulder at the two corpsmen in sight -- Cora Ludwick and Eric Stepovich. "Medical emergency! I need help over here! Perry, call Dr. Ling, now!" Not waiting for an answer, he tilted back Elizabeth's head and began rescue breathing.

Then Ling was there, pulling him out of the way and shouting instructions at the corpsmen. Caldwell stepped back, catching a glimpse of the expression on Cora Ludwick's face -- sheer terror, quickly concealed. The strain of their situation was probably starting to get to the poor kid. In Elizabeth's death, Cora might well see her own if they didn't get out of here.

"Adrenaline," Ling snapped, holding out her hand to Ludwick as the other corpsman, Stepovich, settled an Ambu-bag over Elizabeth's face.

The girl drew off a syringe and handed it back. As Ling moved to inject it, Stepovich, looking at the open case of medications in Ludwick's lap, gave a sudden yell of shock. "Jesus Christ, Cora! That's morphine!"

Ling spun on her assistant. Cora, white-faced, looked as if she was about to cry. "I-- I'm sorry, they're right next to each other, oh God I'm so sorry, I could have killed her --"

"You're exhausted. Go lie down, Airman Ludwick -- now! That's an order. Colonel, please see that she does." Ling's hands moved with almost preternatural speed as she spoke, sorting through vials and getting what she needed.

Caldwell took Ludwick by the upper arm and led her away. She was trembling like a leaf in the wind, and he mentally kicked himself for not paying closer attention to the toll that the strain of their situation must be taking on the younger, less experienced crew members.

"Am I in trouble, sir?" Ludwick stammered, shivering.

"No. You're tired; you made a mistake. Lie down." He helped her settle down, got her out of her coat and wrapped up in blankets. She was a mess, pale and shivering. After combat, he'd seen young men and women in a similar condition after they'd just had to kill another human being for the first time. It was one thing to think about the possibility, another thing entirely to experience the reality -- and he thought that prescribing the wrong medication and accidentally killing a patient might well be a medic's worst nightmare. "You were tired," he repeated. "You made a mistake."

The look she gave him, before rolling over and wrapping the blanket around her, was almost venomously resentful -- and that, too, he'd seen from other young soldiers, fear turning to anger under battlefield conditions. "Thank you, sir," she muttered with her back to him. "I -- I think I'll feel better after I sleep a little."

"I'm sure you will, Airman."

He returned to find that things had gotten quiet. Stepovich was rhythmically squeezing the hand ventilator, while Ling clipped a battery-operated oxygen monitor to Elizabeth's finger. Even Perry had been pressed into service, collecting scattered vials of medicine from Cora's case and packing them away.

"How is she?"

"Alive." Ling nodded to Stepovich, who continued to squeeze the ventilator as she stepped away with Caldwell, Perry following them quietly at a discrete distance. "For now. It was very close. If you hadn't arrived when you did ..." She shook her head

"What happened?"

"I only wish I knew. She was doing much better, much stronger." Ling wiped her hair away from her face with one hand. She'd been going nonstop since the accident, too. She looked exhausted. "I wish I had the facilities to get a toxicology report on her, Colonel. It is possible for patients to simply crash. It's possible that she has an internal bleeder, for example, or that she tried to move too much and went into shock. But what I'm seeing is not consistent with that. She acts as if her body functions have been depressed, as by a narcotic or similar drug."

Caldwell stared at her. "Are you saying she was poisoned?"

"Not necessarily on purpose, sir. In a situation like this, it's entirely possible for a patient to receive too much pain medication or sedative for their condition. You saw what happened just now with Cora. My corpsmen are good people, but most of them are young and tired and under a lot of stress." Ling looked away from him, staring off into the shadows. "To the best of my knowledge, the last person to give her anything was me -- a dose of morphine. But it still should have been well within the levels that she could handle. It is possible that I miscalculated --"

"Don't blame yourself." Empty words, he knew. He'd always resented hearing those words from his own commanding officers when people under his command died.

But an ugly suspicion had appeared in the back of his head, and it was growing. As Ling stared into the shadows with guilt-ridden dark eyes, Caldwell debated whether or not to trust her. This is Carol Ling -- you've known her for fifteen years. She's got a spine of steel and she says exactly what's on her mind; look at how she's been dealing with McKay. If anyone on this ship is unlikely to be a Wraith worshipper, it's her.

And right now she is beating herself up over something that may well be the desperate act of a madman.

"Sit down, Doctor." Caldwell hooked a steadying hand under her elbow and guided her down onto one of the crates. He unhooked his radio and let it dangle; reaching over, he did likewise to hers. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Perry follow suit and then sit down within earshot.

Ling drew her head back with a puzzled frown. The furrow between her brows deepened as Caldwell looked around the room, making sure no one else besides Perry was close enough to hear him. Pitching his voice low, he said, "I believe someone may have tried to kill Dr. Weir."

Speaking quickly and softly, he filled her in on the sabotage and Seavey's story of Wraith worshippers. When he was done, Ling said, "But why Dr. Weir?"

"Isn't it obvious? If this started on Atlantis, then these people have a vested interested in quieting her. Now that she's regained consciousness, she may be able to unmask the culprit." This cemented his suspicion: the saboteur had to be one of the Atlanteans, maybe more than one.

Ling's eyes flew wide, and she raised a hand to her mouth. "Oh, my God. Colonel. I think I might know who it is. There's only one person who's had unsupervised access to Dr. Weir within the last half-hour. If someone poisoned her, it has to be him."

Caldwell raised his eyebrows. It couldn't be this easy. "Who?"

"Dr. Rodney McKay," Ling said.

For a moment, Caldwell just stared at her. His initial reaction was a laughing That's absurd. But then he asked himself why he felt that way. He knew McKay, and while they weren't friends, he didn't believe the scientist was capable of such a thing -- if nothing else, because he'd seen firsthand that McKay and Dr. Weir were close friends. But, how well could you really know another person? How could he say, really say, that McKay's friendship with Elizabeth wasn't a sham to fool observers? The only thing he had to go on was a gut-level feeling that McKay was innocent ... and hunches had never been admissible as evidence in court.

"Tell me what happened."

Ling pressed the back of her hand against her mouth and took it away, as if steadying herself. "He was talking to her when I came in and found her awake. I only heard the end of their conversation -- I believe that Dr. Weir was defending you against some sort of accusation from Dr. McKay. He became very agitated when I asked him to leave, almost violent, and he was particularly interested in what I was injecting into her IV when I gave her morphine. He could easily have seen where I got it ..." Scrubbing her hands through her hair, she made a soft sound of frustration. "And yet still I left her alone with him!"

"Dr. Ling ... calm down." Caldwell reached out and gripped her arm. "The evidence is entirely circumstantial. Don't jump to conclusions. You and Dr. McKay have been at odds since he's been on the ship -- I've seen it. Don't let that color your judgment."

"But that's it exactly -- I've had a bad feeling about him from the beginning," she protested. "All he ever seems to do is stand around complaining when others are working. I've hardly seen him show any concern over people he claims are his friends. The man has no compassion ... no soul. If anyone on this ship is a Wraith worshipper, Colonel, it's him."

Perry spoke up. "He worked hard on the bridge to help rescue Dr. Weir, Colonel." He frowned, thinking. "It's possible -- assuming we accept him as a suspect -- that he was only acting from self-interest, however. If Dr. Weir could truly finger him as the saboteur, he would have had every reason to try to get close enough to keep others from talking to her until he could ..." He hesitated, watching his CO, gauging Caldwell's reaction.

The trouble was, Caldwell didn't know what his reaction actually was. He was surprised to find that he trusted McKay quite deeply. On a personal level, he wasn't very fond of the man -- but then again, who was? McKay's genius for alienating people was almost as well-developed as his genius for ... well, everything else. But you didn't have to like a person to work with them, and he'd been working with McKay, off and on, for a number of months. He'd gotten the impression that the Atlanteans trusted him implicitly, as Caldwell found himself doing on an instinctive level.

On the other hand ... there were the SGC reports on the man. McKay had been shipped off to Siberia in part because he'd been willing to leave a man to die in the gate. More recent reports showed that an alarming number of the scientists under his command had died on missions with him. And while that wasn't unusual in and of itself -- the SG teams lost people too, as did Atlantis's military contingent -- the circumstances were often suspicious. People died around McKay when they were alone with him. Including James Griffin, a good man who had supposedly sacrificed his life to save McKay's when they were trapped under thousands of feet of ocean water. Caldwell could believe that Griffin would have done such a thing; he'd been that kind of person. On the other hand, his body had never been found to confirm or deny McKay's story.

People around Rodney McKay tended to die, and die suspiciously. It was a fact. And here was another one for the list -- Dr. Elizabeth Weir, last seen in McKay's company, and now fighting for her life.

No matter what his gut said about McKay, he couldn't afford to ignore the evidence. Two hundred lives, military and civilian, depended on him to make the right decision.

Caldwell rubbed his eyes wearily. "I don't want him arrested. Not right now. For one thing, we have no evidence against him, and assuming we get off this rock -- an assumption I am currently holding -- this will need to be able to stick in court. If we have the slightest hope of seeing justice done, regardless of whether it's McKay or someone else who eventually turns out to be behind this, then we have to proceed as cautiously as possible."

"Sir, you can't intend to simply leave him to his own devices when there's a very real possibility that he may be a killer," Perry said in disbelief.

"No, of course not. I want him watched ... but discretely. Very discretely. Perry, I want a guard on him -- but even the guards don't need to know the real reason why they're watching him. I don't want word of this to spread. Ling, I'd like a guard on the sickbay stores."

"We do guard them, sir."

"I know. Guard them better. Under no circumstances is Dr. McKay allowed anywhere near weapons, the sickbay or the engines. As much as possible, I want him allowed to go about his normal activities without realizing that he's being monitored, but if there's any chance that he may cause harm to anyone, he's to be neutralized. Without hurting him, if possible."

Perry frowned. "Keeping him in the dark isn't going to be at all easy, sir. He's a smart man."

"Do your best, Major." And Caldwell hoped to God he wasn't making a terrible mistake.


Impact plus 17 hours 10 minutes

Radek was still sleeping. Or unconscious. Or something. Unresponsive, anyway. Trying to be a good little physician's assistant, Rodney prodded at the other scientist's hands and feet. They were cool, but not cold. He squeezed one limp hand and held it for a moment before tucking it back inside the blanket. Hey, Radek was asleep; he'd never know.

He sat next to Radek for a while, not really sure why, just watching the quiet activity in the engineering room. His eyes burned from lack of sleep, but he was far too wired to actually drop off. Novak, he noticed, was curled up in a blanket against the wall, with her good hand tucked under her head while the broken one lay against her chest. Hermiod, still bundled in his absurd-looking parka, was working alone, with a single soldier standing near him with a rifle, apparently guarding him from wolves or saboteurs or ... whatever.

Rodney got up and approached. Immediately the soldier lowered the gun and pointed it at Rodney's chest. "Hey!" He raised his hands in the air, startled and indignant.

"I'm sorry, sir. No one is allowed over here."

"Is that Caldwell's command or His Royal Grey Highness there?" Rodney pointed to Hermiod, who gave him a narrow-eyed glance. "Look, there's a lot of work to do and it's absolutely ridiculous to try to do it all on your own, Hermiod."

"I am doing perfectly fine, Dr. McKay, and I do not believe you would be much help at this."

"Oh, really? Your naked little grey ass is on the line as much as ours, you know. I'm not sure how well Asgard deal with cold, but I can't imagine freezing would be too comfortable for you. You know you need my help; you're just too damn stubborn to admit it."

The Asgard tilted his head to one side and regarded McKay with his usual hard-to-read expression. Rodney could actually see Hermiod's breath -- little wisps of steam in the cold. "Perhaps you might assist by holding a light for me."

"It's a start," Rodney muttered, and took a step forward, only to be brought up short when the soldier blocked his path with the rifle.

"I'm sorry. You can't be here, Doctor. This is a secure area."

Hermiod directed his liquid, dark gaze at the young man. "I require his presence for the moment."

The soldier stood firm. "I'm sorry ... er ... sir. I can't do that. I have my orders."

Rodney threw his hands up in the air. "Oh, that's just great! Would you rather freeze to death, Private?"

"Airman, sir."

"What? Oh, who cares? Look, I'm sure when they gave you your orders they didn't mean me. Just give Caldwell a ring and let's get this straightened out. What's your name? I want to know your name, Airman."

The rifle remained threatening, not quite pointed at him but capable of swinging that way at a moment's notice. "It's Airman Bradley, sir. And actually, you were specifically mentioned, sir. None of the scientists are allowed in this area."

Rodney's jaw dropped. "Caldwell, you paranoid son of a bitch ..."

A sudden flurry of activity from across the room interrupted him. There were rapid voices and the high-pitched whine of a portable defibrillator. Rodney spun around, his anger momentarily forgotten as his chest turned to ice. Radek ... But the commotion came from behind the curtain where Sgt. Packee rested.

Radek was awake, his head turning in that direction. "This isn't over," Rodney hissed at Bradley, and crossed the room quickly to sit down beside Zelenka. He wasn't sure why he'd done that, until he saw the fear in the scientist's glazed eyes.

"That'll be me next," Radek whispered hoarsely.

"No it won't. Shut up."

They sat in paralyzed silence, listening to raised voices calling out numbers, instructions, names of various drugs -- the actual words they were using rolled off Rodney in a fog; all that he really understood was the sense of urgency. Carol Ling appeared suddenly from the bottom of the ventilation shaft, sliding out and dropping to the floor with a heavy case of equipment in each hand. Her armed escort scrambled out after her, two soldiers with rifles who were obviously having trouble keeping up with the small but fast-moving woman. Ling didn't bother going around the privacy curtain, just whipped it back. Packee's still body was revealed in a pool of lantern light, with two frightened-looking medics working over her. There was blood on the sheet covering her abdomen. Rodney looked away, meeting Radek's eyes instead.

"Do you know, they think we did it?" Radek asked Rodney, softly.

Elizabeth's words came back to him. Take care of them, Rodney. "So I've heard," he said, just as quietly.

"Is it possible that one of the scientists --"

"No," Rodney snapped.

"Dr. Price --"

"I said no, Radek."

Across the room, the flurry of activity around Sgt. Packee had ceased. The whine of the defibrillator stopped. Ling sat back on her heels, her whole body exuding weariness. "I'm calling it," Rodney heard her say softly. "11:25, Atlantis time." As the medic beside her made a note, she laughed softly; there was a brittle edge to it. "It's almost afternoon on Atlantis. I hadn't even noticed. And, you know, it's starting to get light out there."

"How many is that, Doctor?" the medic asked quietly, looking at Packee's body as Ling dragged a sheet across the dead engineer's face.

"Eight." As she said it, she looked over at Rodney -- and the expression on her face chilled him. He knew that the doctor wasn't particularly fond of him, and didn't much care, but he wondered what he'd done to earn the look of pure hatred on her face.

Shooting a sideways glance at Radek, he saw that his friend had also noticed. "Rodney, what did you--?"

"Why does everyone always assume that it's me?" The argument was familiar, comforting -- far better than dwelling on the sheet-draped corpse that was even now being gathered up by silent, subdued medics, on the possibility that one of his people was responsible for it. "You know, there are unpleasant individuals out there who may dislike me for reasons having nothing to do with my --"

"Arrogance and lack of interpersonal skills?"

"Yes, Radek, because you're a poster child for --" Rodney broke off as Zelenka began to cough, a dry hacking sound. It didn't stop; he tried to double over and turned chalk-white as the movement twisted his injured shoulder and put pressure on the embedded steel. The coughing turned into a choking wheeze as he struggled for air. Rodney, terrified, tried to support him without hurting him; as Zelenka sagged into him, gasping for air against his chest, he yelled over his shoulder, "Hey! Ling! Anybody! Some help here!"

There were quick footsteps on the slanting floor, and then firm hands were taking Radek from him, shoving Rodney back. He fell against the wall, and just sat there, hands clenched in his lap, watching as Ling settled Radek firmly but gently back into place, touching his face, his chest. "Radek? Can you hear me? Can you give me a nod?" She tucked her fingers against his neck, glancing at her watch as she counted off heartbeats. Radek's head lolled against her hand.

"Is he going to be--" Rodney began, but Ling stilled him with a look that promised violent death if he didn't shut up.

"What did you do to him?" Ling demanded.

For an instant he was speechless. "Me? What?"

Ling drew a deep breath and seemed to get control of herself. Radek's breathing was smoothing out, and he stirred a little. The two medics had put down Packee's body and hovered nervously, waiting for orders. "Anderson, go outside and get some clean snow -- hard icy snow if you can find it," she told one of them, and then turned back to Radek.

Rodney wasn't finished. "What are you accusing me of? What do you think I did to him? We were just talking and all of a sudden he started coughing and couldn't breathe. Are you out of your mind?"

Ling ignored him completely. Zelenka's eyelids fluttered, and the doctor put her hand against his face. "Radek, can you hear me? Take slow breaths."

Zelenka murmured something in Czech, coughed softly. Then he asked in English, "Am I dying?"

"No," Ling said firmly. "You're simply a bit dehydrated. You haven't had anything to eat or drink by mouth in a number of hours, and your throat's dry and irritated. I'm having one of my people bring in some snow -- ah, thank you, Anderson." The medic handed her a clean cup filled with snow; she offered some of it to Radek. "This should help with that, but be careful -- you don't want to bring your body temperature down too much."

"There is a bottle of water ... somewhere ... Rodney brought me ..." Zelenka tried to work a hand free from the blankets.

Ling put a hand over his, stopping him, and hunted around at the base of the wall. "I found it. I can give you a little of it, Radek, but not much, because I think we are going to have to operate soon." Her lips were a thin line, her face strained. "I'll be honest with you -- the longer you're here, the weaker you get and the more difficult the surgery will be. And I'm getting worried about the circulation in that arm."

"You said earlier that you didn't want to move him, that it would be too dangerous. Do you actually know what you're doing or are you making it up as you go along?" Rodney demanded. The more worried he got, the more obnoxious he got -- he was well aware of this tendency in himself, especially when talking to someone he didn't like much anyway.

"Rodney." Radek's soft voice cut through his anger. "She is only trying to help."

"Ultimately, the decision will be up to you," Ling told Radek. "I don't want to wait too long, though. It's been nearly eighteen hours since the crash, and we're having to face the probability that help is not coming -- at least not anytime soon. No one on Atlantis has any idea where we are. And it's starting to look like the power won't be up soon, either. Radek, if we operate under the current conditions, you may lose your arm or worse. If we wait, your body will continue to get weaker and the surgery will be even more difficult for you."

His head rested back against the wall. "I trust you, Carol. I will do what you think is best."

Ling nodded slowly, a shadow in her eyes. "Then I would like to wait a little longer. Give Hermiod more time to get the power back up, so that we don't have to operate under such primitive conditions. But there will come a time when we can't wait any longer, and it may be the point when you've had as much as you can take and need us to help you. Don't try to push yourself too far, Radek, because you will need to save some of your strength for surgery. Tell us if you need this to be done."

"I will," he whispered.

"I'm going to give you a little more pain medication. I want you to move a little while I do that, flex your legs, that sort of thing."

"Hurts to move."

"I know. But you've been sitting still for a long time. It's getting colder in here, and you need to keep the blood circulating."

She injected his IV port with something -- Rodney wished, for once, that he knew a little more about the pseudoscience of medicine, if only so that he could tell if everything was on the up-and-up -- and then chafed his hand gently until his head settled back against the wall and he fell asleep. Watching this, Rodney felt a strange pang of envy. This was what he couldn't do, what he'd never been able to do -- comfort people. Dr. Ling had the same knack for sick people that Rodney had for machines. As hard and abrasive as the woman could be, she could also soothe pain and fear with a touch or a word. While he'd never want to trade his scientific abilities for anything, especially not for a talent that would bring him into contact with a lot of sick people, Rodney felt acutely aware of his inadequacy at human interaction. He didn't like being bad at anything. He particularly didn't like it when he had to watch a friend suffer because he couldn't do a damn thing, even act sympathetic. It just wasn't in him.

Ling stood up, looked down at Zelenka's sleeping form for a moment, then turned away. Her eyes settled on Rodney, and for a moment she looked as if she was going to say something, but she turned her back and started to walk away.

"Hey!" He scrambled to his feet, pursuing her. "I'm sick of this, you know! I can deal just fine with you not liking me, Doctor -- believe me, it's mutual. But what did you mean, what did I do to him? What kind of person do you think I am?"

Ling stopped and rubbed her hand over her face. When she took it away, she no longer looked angry, but he saw no sympathy anywhere -- her features were like stone. "Dr. McKay, I misspoke. I'm very tired, I just lost a patient, and I was afraid I might be losing another one. I'm still afraid I might lose him."

"You looked like you thought I'd killed him." Rodney tried to laugh, caught between sarcasm and genuine anger. "I'm used to people disliking me, but they don't generally think I'm capable of murder!"

"I misspoke," she repeated. "If you'll excuse me, I have other patients I need to see."

That got his attention. "Elizabeth -- how is she doing? Is she okay?" Caldwell better not have caused her to have a stroke or something.

Ling went completely still for a moment. He saw a strange flash of emotions on her face -- for an instant there was a nearly-homicidal rage in her eyes, but it faded and she just studied him, with a kind of detached, clinical curiosity. "She is in a coma, and probably dying."

"What?" was all he could manage to say. He couldn't have heard right. Elizabeth had been okay. She'd been awake, and talking. He'd left her, and then ...

It was just too much, on top of Radek, on top of everything. The world wavered around him, and the deck suddenly seemed much more steeply tilted than it had been a moment ago. He staggered, and strong hands caught him, eased him down to the floor. Firm pressure on the back of his neck forced his head down between his knees. "Slow breaths," Ling told him.

Rodney realized that he was shaking, trembling so violently that his teeth snapped together. He couldn't understand the sudden, powerful reaction. It was as if everything from the last eighteen hours had caught up to him all at once. Elizabeth was dying, Radek was dying, he was the only person on the ship who could protect a half-dozen scientists from the wrath of vengeance-bent soldiers, and on top of everything, Sheppard wasn't around to save the day. There was only Rodney.

It wasn't as if the weight of the world had never come down on his shoulders before. How many times had he been forced to fix something broken, with only his brains and his nimble fingers standing between a city full of people and certain doom? But he'd never been so out of his element before. Give him a piece of Ancient technology to fix, and he'd be able to do it, even with Wraith breathing down his neck. But ... but this ... "I can't do this."

He didn't realize he'd spoken out loud until Ling's voice said, "Do what?" He could still feel the pressure of her hand on the back of his neck.

"This. Any of this. All of this." Shrugging off her hand, he raised his head, knowing that he must look like hell if half of what he was feeling showed through on his face. "They're dying, Ling. Elizabeth and Radek. I -- I'm watching them slip away by inches, and I can't ... I'd ..."

His hands curled and uncurled on his knees in agitation. He didn't know why he was telling Ling this, of all people. The woman hated his guts. And, well, maybe that was exactly why, because she wouldn't be one iota sympathetic, and right now he just needed to spill out everything that was inside him, all the pain and terror, before it made him sick. The last thing he wanted was to see pity looking back at him; he could deal much better with Ling's stone-cold eyes.

But as usual when he strayed outside logic and rationality into the mushier area of human emotions, he couldn't find the words to say what he needed to express. Everything jumbled up inside him like a log-jam of thoughts and feelings that wouldn't dislodge. "It's my fault," he said, staring at her and feeling like a trapped animal. "Coming out here, it was my idea, you know that? I had this idea ... I thought we could track Wraith in hyperspace, but I needed data ... and I went to Caldwell and talked to him about using the Daedalus for that, and now we're here, and Elizabeth's dying and Radek's dying ... and I can't ..." How did you explain this? "I can't fucking help them," he said, looking away from her and staring at the wall. His trembling was starting to ease, though he still felt ill. "I'm the person who fixes things. That's what I do. And I can't fix this. I caused it and can't fix it. I can't even get near the engines, nobody's allowed back there, and ... they're going to die and I can't do anything to help them."

He combed his hands through his short hair, trying to calm himself down. As his panic attack started to ease, embarrassment began creeping into its place. The only saving grace of the whole breakdown was that Ling hated him enough, for whatever reason, that she'd probably forget most of what he'd said. He hoped. Stealing a peek at her, he saw that she was watching him with eyes that were completely unreadable, but very intense. He tried to grin. "Uh, my blood sugar does weird things when I'm stressed. I babble. Don't pay too much attention to me." He licked his lips and looked up at her. "Do you think -- uh, can I see Elizabeth? So she knows I'm there. I don't know if it would help, but I'd like her to know I'm there."

Ling frowned at him. He still couldn't tell what she was thinking. "I don't think you'd be allowed in," she said. "We're maintaining fairly tight security over the sickbay."

"Since when?" he demanded.

"Since ..." She hesitated, and he got the impression that she was on the verge of saying something but decided not to. "It's hard enough to maintain privacy for our patients without people coming and going. Not to mention the matter of safety. But ... I'll see what I can do."

As she turned to leave, he reached out, grabbing at her leg. "Hey," he said, and she looked back down at him. He felt like a total pathetic fool for asking this, especially since his voice wasn't especially steady right now -- all that smoke earlier, must have been -- and he just knew it was going to break when he spoke ... and sure enough, it did. Stupid betraying voice. "Is she really dying?"

Ling stood looking down at him. Rodney had no idea what he must look like, sitting there on the floor, or what was displayed on his face -- but she had the strangest expression on her face, as if she was seeing him for the first time. "I'm not sure," she said. "Her vital signs are very, very weak. But she seems to be stable at the moment. Of course, she seemed stable before. I'll see if you might be able to sit with her for a little while."

Rodney realized that he was still hanging onto her pants leg, and let go. "Yeah," he said, because he sure as hell wasn't going to say Thanks.


Impact plus 17 hours 30 minutes

Airman Cora Ludwick lay curled on her side, wrapped in a scratchy military-issue blanket. She could feel the cold on her face, on her feet, and tried to curl more tightly into herself, conserving body heat. She was exhausted and wanted desperately to sleep, but didn't dare.

How had it all gone so wrong? It should have been so simple, so easy. One hand reached towards the radio that she still wore, touched it, but then she took her hand away. She wouldn't make the call, wouldn't ask for help. She would do this on her own, fix her own mistakes, prove that she could be trusted.

The sound of voices made her roll over, shivering as the blanket slipped down from her shoulders. Shadowy figures moved outside the privacy curtains surrounding the sickbay area; a slim hand drew back the curtain to admit Ling, a couple of guards and Dr. McKay. They went to Elizabeth's bed and knelt down beside her.

Cora pushed the blanket aside and rose to her knees. As quietly as possible, she slid her arms into the sleeves of her coat -- the one Dr. McKay had given her. A deeper shudder ran through her.

She had never been so terrified in her life -- terrified of discovery, of failure, of having to go through with the murders she knew she would have to commit to cover up her handiwork. She hated Dr. Weir, the woman who was trying to commit genocide against an entire race of alien beings who had only come to enlighten them all. Dr. Weir deserved to die, and so did Dr. McKay, who had been instrumental in implementing Weir's vile plans. But ... it was one thing to hate someone and believe that they deserved to die. It was another thing entirely to be the hand who carried out that death sentence.

Shoving her ice-cold hands deep into the pockets of her coat, Cora crept closer, watching as McKay knelt down beside Weir's still body. Her chest rose and fell rhythmically as one of the medics, Stepovich, forced air into the woman's still lungs.

"Stepovich, take a break," Ling told the young man, and her hand slid smoothly over his, taking over squeezing the ventilator.

"That seems so primitive. It ...really works?" McKay asked in a low voice. Cora crept a little closer, letting the shadows blur her outlines. She wasn't hidden; they could have looked up and seen her. But, then, it was the infirmary and she had every right to be there.

Ling's back was to Cora, but she could see McKay's face clearly. In the harsh light of the lanterns he looked a dozen years older than when she'd first encountered him in the engine room.

"It's all we have," Ling said simply. "She's not the only one we're keeping alive this way. It's tiring, though -- straining my staff even more than they already are."

McKay looked down at Elizabeth's unmoving form, then up at Ling with shadowed eyes. "Could I take a turn?"

Ling's hand did not pause on the ventilator, but Cora saw her shoulders tense slightly, then relax. "It's very tiring, and once you start, you can't stop, not without finding someone to take over for you. Not to stretch your arms, not to scratch your nose, not for anything. You understand that?"

"I understand," he said quietly.

Ling hesitated, then reached out with her free hand and gripped one of his hands, guided it to the rubber ball at the top of the mask. "It's easiest to pace it to your own breaths," she said. "And don't try to talk once you start. I know I'm talking, but I'm also counting in the back of my head. And I've been doing this for a while. Not only Dr. Weir's life, but also her brain, are at stake here if you don't keep her blood chemistry stable."

She slid his hand forward, and then, in a quick motion, slipped hers out from under it. There was the briefest pause as McKay's brain seemed to catch up with what was happening, and then he squeezed the bulb a bit convulsively, stopped, squeezed again.

"Slower. Easy. Time it to your breaths, and take slow breaths. Hyperventilating her is almost as bad as not giving her enough oxygen." Her hand settled over his, guided him through a few slow even squeezes, then let go. She nodded, and said, "Good. Keep it up," and stood up.

"Hey! Wait!" Panic overtook McKay's face, but except for the briefest hesitation, he didn't stop squeezing. "You can't leave me here! I'm not -- This is --"

"You're doing fine. I'm going to check on some of my other patients. I'll be within earshot at all times." She was standing with her head turned, and Cora could see her in profile -- could see the way that she was challenging Dr. McKay with her gaze. Cora had no idea what was going on between them, but she thought this seemed like a test of some kind. To what purpose, she could not imagine.

McKay looked down at Elizabeth again, and at his own hand steadily squeezing the mask, forcing vital oxygen into her lungs. He just nodded. Ling nodded too, and stepped away.

She didn't look in Cora's direction, and Cora just leaned on a crate, half-hidden, until Ling was busy checking the vitals of one of the other patients. Then she stole quietly towards McKay and Weir.

There they were -- the two people who could unmask her, the two people she had to kill. And Weir's life hung by such a fragile thread; it would be easy. McKay might be harder. But ... her frustration deepened as she realized that they were not isolated enough. There were too many witnesses around, no way to cover up her own tracks. There were a number of ways that she could kill Elizabeth while the woman's health was so fragile, but she'd have to get McKay alone somewhere.

Cora Ludwick had wanted to be a nurse all her life. It wasn't until becoming an Air Force medic and having actual experience in the field that she'd come to realize an unpleasant truth: she didn't like sick people. She didn't feel sympathy for them, but instead, a kind of horrified, pitying disgust. Seeing other people screaming in pain, vomiting, clutching at their own spilling intestines made her too dreadfully aware of her own fragility. And she could not help judging them, and finding them wanting -- she couldn't helping thinking that strong people, admirable people, would not scream and whimper and cry, wouldn't clutch their loved ones' bodies while breaking down in tears. Cora admired strength, scorned weakness ... and all she saw around her, every day, was weakness.

Being a perfectionist, she had continued to carry out her duties to the best of her ability, even though she did not want to soothe her patients' pain so much as she wanted to hit them and tell them to stop whining. She carried her true feelings inside her, a hidden, shameful secret ... until coming to Atlantis, and meeting Dr. Price. Until the late-night conversations in the Atlantis commissary when she had realized that there was a reason why she felt this way. She had come to perceive human beings as weak and flawed and ugly because they were. The Wraith were glory and strength, and she could overcome her feelings of inadequacy by working to stop the human persecution of the beautiful Wraith.

Now two humans stood in her way.

She would not allow them to stand between her and the Heaven on Earth she had been promised.

"Dr. McKay?" She pitched her voice low and soothing, but still he jumped. Cora put a sympathetic smile on her face. "You look tired. I can take over for you, for a little while, if you'd like to get some rest." At the moment, killing Elizabeth would be as easy as not squeezing a little rubber bulb for a few minutes. If she was very careful, she might even be able to gauge it so that she induced severe brain damage without actually, physically killing Elizabeth. And that would be perfect -- not just because it would make her handiwork completely undetectable, but also because the idea made her feel a little better about herself, a little less like some kind of killer nurse murdering patients. It wouldn't be murder if she didn't really kill Elizabeth, would it?

But Rodney just shook his head. "No. I've just started. I want to do this." He spoke in short sentences, pacing it so that he didn't lose track of squeezing the bulb. He really was serious about this.

And Cora hated him for it. "All right," she said, still using the skills of a lifetime to keep that sympathetic smile pasted on her face.

She moved away quickly before Dr. Ling could notice that she was up and about. She was still kicking herself for her mistake with the morphine. She had tried to calculate her overdose so that it would look like an accidental mistake, which meant that she couldn't give Elizabeth too much -- but apparently she hadn't given her enough. And then, worst of all, Dr. Ling had noticed when she'd tried to give her more. She still squirmed inside when she thought of it. Not only would they be watching her now, but ... she had to admit it to herself ... she really liked and respected Carol Ling, and didn't like the idea that the woman probably thought of her as incompetent now. Better incompetent than a killer, but still ... despite her dislike of her job, Cora had always tried to do it well, and she hated that she'd been brought down to the level of failure -- even in the name of a greater cause.

But there was no time for that. As far as anyone else was concerned, she was safely asleep in the sickbay. And when Dr. McKay got tired of playing nursemaid to a comatose Elizabeth, Cora would be ready for him.


Impact plus 18 hours 5 minutes

They'd pushed the jumpers to the utmost, and shaved precious minutes from Simpson's ballpark estimates. The twenty hours had been cut down to something more like eighteen. But this still meant they were about three hours away from the planet.

They'd all given up on trying to sleep, even Ronon. Sheppard was back in the pilot's seat, with Simpson in the copilot position, trying to narrow down the location of the Daedalus on the ice world.

"These storms are wreaking havoc with the instruments," she complained. "It's making it very difficult to get a tight position lock on the Daedalus. Let alone making it impossible to reach them by radio."

"You think that's why we can't get through?" Sheppard asked. "Interference from the storm?"

She shook her head. "We're still much too far out. Assuming that they don't have power to boost their communications, they won't be able to read us until we're nearly in orbit. But from what I'm seeing, if they're under one of these storms then communications on the planet's surface are going to be a wreck. There's quite a lot of electrical activity ... we probably won't be able to contact Atlantis once we go down into the atmosphere."

"How big a storm are we talking here, Doc? Can we land in it?"

"Well, obviously we can," she said impatiently. "Whether or not it's a good idea ... that's a different story."

"Let's hope they're not under one of those storms, then."

"Yeah," she said, not sounding very hopeful. "Let's hope."


Impact plus 19 hours 0 minutes

Daylight had broken outside the Daedalus, but it was a wan gray daylight, with flurries of small, icy snowflakes swirling down. The wind rose and fell; sometimes a powerful gust would hit the three people outside the ship, making them stagger.

"Lt. Armstrong thinks there's a bad storm coming," Perry said, leaning for a moment against the hull of the Daedalus to rest. Wading through the snow was exhausting, especially since they were all running on fumes anyway.

"There's a pretty bad storm here," Caldwell retorted.

The third member of their group, Laura Cadman, looked up at the curving side of the ship and said nothing. She was undoubtedly calculating hull thickness and charge strength in her head.

Caldwell stopped walking. "Well, this is it -- the F302 bay should be right behind this wall."

"And of course it would be an intact wall," Cadman remarked. She put her hands on parka-clad hips and leaned back, looking up.

"What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking it might be easiest to go in through the top. The hangar bay doors are going to be incredibly difficult to blow up, or open. The wall ... forget about it. And I think we've already ruled out going in through the corridors inside -- there are just too many sealed doors and too much chance of destabilizing the whole area if we have to blow up all of them. But above ... I'm going to need to look at the ship's schematics, if we have anything on hard copy -- can't exactly access the computers at the moment."

"Talk to Dewey, in Engineering. I'm sure he's got something."

"I'll also need climbing gear."

Caldwell nodded. "We can probably find that for you, too. Perry?" He looked around for his XO. The wind was starting to kick up the snow; it was difficult to see. "Major Perry, report."

"Over here, sir," came a call from a little farther along the Daedalus's hull. "Could you come over here, Colonel? There's something you need to see."

Caldwell slogged through the snow, with Cadman trailing after. Perry was bent over at the waist and using his gloved hands to scoop snow away from something buried.

A severed human arm.

Cadman jumped back, one hand covering her mouth. "Oh God."

Caldwell frowned, looking closer. He could see bloodstains in the snow, now that he knew what he was looking at; they were difficult to see as they'd been largely covered up by the wind-driven snow.

"Looks like it's been ... chewed on, sir." Perry brushed away the snow and added, "Here's more of the body."

Cadman swallowed, but gamely bent over to take a closer look. "Do you think those wolf things did this?" The stories of shrieking wolves had been making the rounds of the Daedalus survivors. A couple people had actually seen them -- huge white creatures, slinking around the hills.

"It would pretty much have to have been," Caldwell said grimly. "Which means they've gotten much bolder, because they wouldn't approach the ship at first. The question is ... who is this? I thought everyone was accounted for." But the thought of a certain missing Airman crossed his mind. Damn.

"Everyone was accounted for after the crash, sir," Cadman said. "Since then, though, there hasn't been any particular effort to keep track of people. It's been such chaos."

"Um, sir." There was a strange, harsh note in Perry's voice. "I've found the ... head, sir. It's Airman James Stark."


"Oh, that's not good," Cadman said, leaning over Perry's shoulder.

Caldwell saw immediately what she was talking about. The body had obviously been gnawed on and scavenged, but most of the head was still intact -- and there was a bullet hole in Stark's forehead.

For a long moment, no one moved or spoke. Then Perry said, quietly, "Obviously the killer hoped the wolves would eat the body and hide the evidence."

"They may not like the way we taste." Caldwell frowned down at Stark's grisly remains. "We're from an entirely different planet, after all ... maybe something in our body chemistry is unpalatable to them."

"Sir!" Cadman's voice rose in a nearly hysterical squeak. "I think there's something a little more urgent here than whether or not we're tasty to alien wolves. Someone killed this man!"

"I know that, Lieutenant." And, unfortunately, this was all the more damning to McKay, since the scientist had been the last person to see Stark alive. He wished Cadman had not been here to see this, but since she had, there was no choice but to swear her to secrecy and tell her about the sabotage they'd found.

To her credit, she listened quietly while he talked, asking no questions, absorbing everything. Perry covered up the body with snow again, and they went back inside for a body bag.

"So you think someone on the ship is a Wraith sympathizer, sir?" Cadman said quietly, shaking snow off her jacket just inside the cargo bay.

"I think there's really no question at this point, Lieutenant." He didn't mention that the Atlanteans were his prime suspects. However, the discovery of Stark's body had shaken that theory a little. True, the circumstantial evidence now pointed even more directly at McKay ... but the sight of that neat little bullet hole in Stark's forehead made him wonder. He doubted if any of the scientists were capable of that. It had the mark of a military-style execution to him.

"Perry, we'll need a body bag. I'm going to inform Ling she'll be doing an autopsy at her earliest convenience."

"What do you want me to do, sir?" Cadman asked, as Perry hurried off.

"For now? You'll go back to your duties -- namely finding a way to get to those F302s."

"If you need someone to help you investigate --"

"No, Lieutenant. Not at this point. And I don't need to tell you to be discrete." God, he hoped she would be. The circle of people who knew about the sabotage was expanding steadily. The more people who knew, the more who were in danger, and the more likely that key details would start getting back to the saboteur, whoever he or she was. "You'll need the ship's schematics -- go find Dewey and have him dig them up for you. Getting those 302s -- that's your priority right now."

"Yes sir." With a salute, she vanished.

If she was the saboteur, he and Perry were both exceedingly screwed. He really didn't think so ... any more than he thought it was McKay, no matter which way the evidence pointed. But he couldn't afford to think that way. He had to treat every person on the ship as a possible suspect, especially the Atlanteans and most especially McKay, until they had someone in custody.

He stepped around the privacy curtain into the sickbay area and looked around for Ling. The first thing he saw was prime suspect Rodney McKay, kneeling over Elizabeth Weir.

Damn it! Hadn't he said that McKay wasn't supposed to have access to either the sickbay or the engines? There was Ling -- Caldwell crossed the room to her in a few long strides. "Doctor," he said in a low, ominous voice. "What's he doing in here?"

"He wanted to help," Ling said firmly.

"And you let him?"

"Colonel, I --" She looked away, refusing to meet his eyes. "I believe I may have made statements earlier, regarding Dr. McKay, which were based on insufficient evidence. I think that you should disregard my recommendation."

"Damn it, Ling, you can't simply accuse a person of murder and then take it back! The evidence does point to him. Actually, more than you know."

Her head snapped back, sharp eyes going to his face. "Sir?"

"We found a body in the snow. It's Airman James Stark. He was murdered."

Ling drew a deep breath, clutched her hands around her arms. "How?" she asked quietly.

"Appears to have been shot in the head. I'm going to need an autopsy, obviously. The body isn't pretty ... it's been savaged by wild animals."

Ling's hands rubbed against her arms as if to warm them. "You said 'we' found the body. How many people know about this, sir?"

"Perry was with me, along with Lieutenant Cadman ... one of the Atlanteans. And now you. That's all, at this point, and I'd like to keep it that way for now."

"You said that you thought the evidence pointed to McKay ... for the murder?"

Caldwell glanced over at the exhausted-looking scientist, who appeared completely oblivious to them -- his whole self consumed in keeping Elizabeth alive. "The last person to talk to Stark, as far as anyone knows, is McKay. Airman Seavey related to me a conversation in which Stark and McKay argued, and Stark passed along information to McKay that might easily have made him a target if the saboteur knew about it."

"What do you want me to do, sir?"

"Well, for one thing, I want McKay out of the sickbay. Like the other scientists, I need him restricted to certain areas of the ship. And this time, Doctor, I want your cooperation."

He couldn't shake the feeling that he was condemning an innocent man, and, in the process, making an enemy out of Rodney McKay. But, damn it, he couldn't afford to take the chance. He had nearly 200 lives in his hands; he couldn't allow himself to risk them based on a hunch. And Ling, no matter the cause of her change of heart, would simply have to learn to see it that way.


Impact plus 19 hours 20 minutes

Ever since the Daedalus crashed, stories had begun to circulate among its frightened and, increasingly, bored crew. Someone had said they'd seen a piece of Wraith technology in the engine room, and that Hermiod wasn't letting anyone near the engines. Someone else had said that Caldwell himself suspected the scientists, and once the orders came down to keep the scientists under guard, it may as well have been announced over the intercom. And then, two of the medical staff had overheard a very public argument between Ling and McKay in the engine room, in which she'd basically accused him of trying to kill someone. Carol Ling was highly respected, not just in the sickbay but among the crew in general, particularly for being a clear thinker who refused to be swayed by popular opinion. If Carol had really said something like that, then she must have a good reason.

No matter how hard Caldwell might be trying for secrecy, the Daedalus crew were a tightly knit bunch -- a more orderly and disciplined group than the sprawling, bickering staff of Atlantis Base, but still bonded to each other in the way of military people serving a common cause in a far-off land. The Atlanteans were outsiders ... civilians. There had been mutual respect, but not a whole lot of love lost. Now respect had begun to fade into bitter suspicion.

When Perry and Cadman came in carrying a body bag between them, no matter how hard they might try to keep the body's identity a secret, everyone know who was missing. It wasn't long before the whole ship knew that Jimmy Stark had been found outside in the snow. And since Stark had been perfectly healthy a few hours ago, this only left one possibility.

There was, indeed, a traitor among them.

Keisha Seavey leaned against the wall, listening to the ugly tone that had begun to grow in the gossip around her, and feeling uncomfortable. She didn't know what to believe; she trusted her crewmates and couldn't believe any of them were capable of deliberately damaging the ship, but on the other hand, she remembered the naked vulnerability in Dr. McKay's eyes when he'd been holding Elizabeth's hand on the bridge ... his quick, hot anger at the idea of Wraith worshippers on Atlantis. She didn't think it was the civilians either.

And Jimmy Stark was dead. They had not put him with the other victims of the crash, in an impromptu morgue that had been created in one of the other sections of the ship. They had taken him to Dr. Ling. This meant there would be an autopsy. And this meant that maybe the rumors he'd been murdered were true.

Jimmy. She couldn't believe it.

Next to her, several of the enlisted men were playing cards on an overturned crate, illuminated by a lantern sitting on the edge of it. "Heard he was shot," one of them was saying.

"I guess he was arguing with Dr. McKay outside the engine room. Several people heard 'em from inside. Hey, Seavey was there. Seavey, you think McKay had anything to do with what happened to Stark?"

Expectant faces turned up to her. Keisha shivered, hugged her arms around herself. She liked Dr. McKay; she couldn't believe he was capable of ... that. But the alternative was to believe that one of her teammates was a killer, and that was even worse.

"I don't know," she said.


Impact plus 19 hours 35 minutes

There was a certain zen to pain. Rodney had never noticed it before. He'd always done everything in his power to avoid pain, going to absurd lengths if necessary. But now he found that a steady, low level of pain could act like a drug, dislodging you from your body and leaving you adrift. Maybe this was why people like Ronon and Sheppard jogged, for that detached feeling.

The pain, in this case, was the aching of muscles forced to perform long beyond exhaustion. His hand, arm, shoulder burned with a steady fire from the repetition of forcing air into Elizabeth's lungs. He knew that he should call Ling or someone else to relieve him before his hand totally went numb, but he didn't want to. He was so sick of being useless, of watching friends dying around him while he couldn't do anything to help. This, at least, he could do ... and so he drifted into a quiet place where nothing existed, nothing mattered, but the pain of his burning muscles and the feeling of the rubber mask under his cramping fingers.

An unexpectedly gentle hand settled on his shoulder. Rodney looked up as Ling slid her hand down his arm to take over on the ventilator. She used her free hand to pull his fingers away.

"No, I can go on --"

"You've been doing it for two hours," she said, and the tone of command in her voice did not quite cover up something underneath, something softer. "Believe me, I know how exhausting it is. I'll have someone take over here; you go get something to eat."

As he started to get up, his legs almost buckled; he hadn't realized how long he'd been sitting in one place. And something else had occurred to him, too. "Hey, you don't hate me anymore."

A slight smile touched her tired face. "It becomes increasingly difficult to hate you on long-term exposure, Dr. McKay."

"Rodney," he said pointedly.

She nodded, and the smile became a bit wider. "Carol."

Rodney immediately went into flustered mode, as he generally did on the somewhat-rare occasions when women were nice to him. "So, well, I'll just ... yeah." He turned away and nearly bumped into a soldier. He tried to go around, only to have his way blocked.

"Excuse me, you're in my space."

The soldier had a face like stone. "I'm your escort, sir."

"I don't want or need an escort, unless she's blond with legs up to here."

The stone face didn't crack a smile. "Colonel's orders, sir."

"Oh, is that right?"

"It's for your own protection."

Rodney sneered. He'd heard that one before. "How very considerate of Caldwell. I'll be sure and thank him the next time I see him. Fine, 'escort' me all you like. I'm going to get something to eat, so you're welcome to 'escort' me to that, too."

He pulled back the curtain to the main part of the cargo bay. It was colder out there than in the sickbay area; Rodney could see his breath, and he hunched his shoulders and withdrew his hands into the sleeves of his jacket. He had to pause while he tried to figure out which way he wanted to go. Engine room ... Radek. Or check up on the scientists. Or find food. Maybe sleep. He felt so strange and purposeless. Protecting people was Sheppard's thing. Fixing them was Beckett's. He wasn't suited for this; he had a function, and he was damn good at it, but they wouldn't let him do it, so he was stuck playing somebody else's role. And he was pretty much positive by now that, as he'd told Radek earlier, help wasn't coming. At the very least, it wasn't coming in time to do them much good. In a month, maybe, or a year, Atlantis would find them. They'd probably all be wolf food by then.

Walking in a haze, he was most of the way across the cargo bay before he noticed that he was heading in the direction of the scientists. Well, all right. He hadn't checked on them in a while. And maybe one of them had come up with a useful idea for contacting Atlantis. It could happen. Not very likely, but it could.

He slowed, though, as he began to notice how the groups of soldiers -- lying on bedrolls or sitting on crates -- fell silent in their conversation as he passed by. And people kept looking at him. Suspicious faces, with ugliness in them.

His skin crawled. He told himself that it was his imagination, that he'd been awake for too long and his native paranoia was getting the better of him. The thing Elizabeth had feared, the scapegoating of the scientists ... it couldn't possibly have spread to the general Daedalus crew so quickly, could it?

The scientists had made themselves a little nest among the crates and laid down sleeping bags. An airman guarded them -- and, this time, Rodney noticed that the young man was looking not at the scientists, but out towards the room. He really was guarding them. He nodded to Rodney's own guard as the two came closer.

Rodney's bad feeling got worse. He could feel eyes on his back. He didn't like this at all.

The scientists responded to his presence with half-hearted acknowledgment. Miko sat up quickly and tried to look attentive; some of the others made attempts to look as if they weren't simply killing time with hand-held video games and other distractions. Most of them were simply too stressed and dispirited to even try to look alert. Some of them were asleep; Rodney envied them. He sat down on a crate.

"Is there any news?" Miko asked shyly. "Do they have the engines fixed yet?"

Rodney waved a hand around them, at the cold, dark cargo bay. "I'll forgive the obvious stupidity of that question because it's been a hell of a day," he said shortly.

One of the engineers, Dr. Sebok, spoke up from his position on the floor. A quiet man with a light Hungarian accent, he reminded Rodney briefly, stingingly, of Radek. "We have offered to help them, but they are having none of it."

"They don't trust us," Miko said quietly.

You don't know the half of it, Rodney thought, and then looked over his shoulder in surprise as an argument broke out elsewhere in the cargo bay. From here, he couldn't tell what was going on -- just that a group of airmen were having some sort of vicious disagreement, with a lot of arm-waving. Rodney recognized one of them as the girl who'd been holding Elizabeth's hand on the bridge ... Seavey, her name was. The rest were unfamiliar to him, but he could tell that there were two factions. It seemed to be Seavey and a couple of other people, versus about a half-dozen belligerent-looking soldiers.

Suddenly several of them turned their backs on the rest and started across the cargo bay -- towards the scientists.

Rodney scrambled to his feet, his mouth going dry. He noticed that the two airmen guarding them had turned towards the commotion as well, looking uncertain. Glancing at the scientists, he saw that only a couple of them appeared to be aware that something bad was happening, and those just looked bewildered.

Damn it, was he the only person around here with a brain?

The two airmen closed ranks to block the others as they approached. Their leader, a big burly guy with sergeant's stripes, said, "Stand aside. That's an order."

Rodney's hand went automatically to his leg, seeking the gun that wasn't there. He realized that he had unconsciously moved to stand between the scientists and the soldiers. Shades of Kolya and the Genii, all over again. But that whole situation would have ended very badly if not for Sheppard and his people ... and Sheppard wasn't here.

The two airmen hadn't budged.

"I said stand aside. That's an order, and I won't give it again." Behind the sergeant, several of the soldiers were fingering their weapons.

"Sergeant, my orders were to stand here and guard these people, and I intend to do that."

Drawn by the commotion, other people had begun to drift in their direction, and a small crowd of fifteen or twenty was forming around them. Rodney saw Cora Ludwick among the onlookers, wetting her lips and staring with an almost eager look. Nobody moved to interfere.

Behind Rodney, he heard little shuffling sounds as the scientists finally became aware of the situation and began moving closer together. One of them asked in a small, scared voice, "Dr. McKay, what --"

"Shh!" Rodney raised a quick hand, silencing her. His eyes remained on the standoff going down in front of them. Oh God, this could get messy. He'd told Elizabeth he'd protect the scientists -- but what in the world could he do against trained soldiers with guns? If the situation actually escalated to violence, it'd be a bloodbath. And he, Dr. Rodney McKay, would be one of the first to fall if he didn't get out of the way. He should get behind something. Hide.

He didn't move. Couldn't move, really -- he was frozen in place.

Seavey, a little out of breath, pushed her way through the crowd and moved to join the two airmen guarding the scientists. Swallowing hard, Rodney took a step up to join them ... terrified, feeling very out of place among all the uniforms and guns. Together, the four of them formed a human wall between the angrily muttering mob and the scientists.

The sergeant's eyes went to Rodney, and narrowed. "You."

"Me?" Rodney tried to snap the word, in an authoritative kind of way. Instead it emerged as a frightened squeak.

"Rumor has it you're a Wraith sympathizer, Doc. That true?"

Several of the scientists surged forward at the accusation, stopping short when a couple of the soldiers confronting them raised their weapons. "That's a total lie!" Miko cried.

Rodney just stared, so astonished he forgot to be terrified, even though the whole situation was starting to have a "spinning out of control" sort of vibe to it. "What? Where do you people come up with these things?"

The sergeant, and ringleader of the mob, moved forward. Instantly Seavey and another of the guards lowered their rifles, blocking his path.

"Airman," the sergeant said in a low, dangerous voice, "stand aside."

"Sergeant, I cannot in good conscience do that, and I do not intend to."

"What in the hell is going on here?"

Caldwell forged through the crowd, with Perry in his wake. There were at least three or four dozen people gathered now, all of them falling aside for the Colonel. He raked a withering glare across the crowd, coming eventually to stop on the three airmen and Rodney. "Who wants to tell me what's happening? Sergeant Wilson? Anyone?"

"These men disobeyed a direct order, sir," the sergeant reported, gesturing at Seavey and the other two.

Seavey started to open her mouth, then shut it. One of the other two said, "Sir, our orders are to protect the scientists. We were given an order in direct violation of our duty. We had no choice but to disobey."

"We simply intended to question a few people --" the sergeant began.

"On whose authority, Sergeant?" Caldwell demanded. "Mine? I don't remember giving any such order."

The sergeant faltered. "Sir, I felt that --"

"I don't care. In case it wasn't already clear, we are in a state of emergency here, people. Our first concern is staying alive. I won't tolerate infighting and no one is to question anyone without a direct order from me. Am I clear?"

Someone asked nervously from within the crowd, "Sir, is it or is it not true that Dr. McKay is a suspect in Airman Stark's murder?"

Rodney whipped around to turn a sharp look on Caldwell. The Colonel didn't meet his eyes, instead glaring out at the crowd. "No one is under suspicion of any damn thing. I don't want to hear you people gossiping about what you think you know, I don't want to see any amateur sleuthing and I sure as hell don't want to see anyone going off half-cocked on the basis of rumors and misinformation. Leave the civilians alone. Do I make myself clear?"

There were a series of murmurs which basically amounted to "Yes, sir."

"Then why are you all still standing here? Don't you have places to be?Dismissed!" Caldwell roared.

As the crowd hastily scattered, Caldwell turned to Perry. Rodney was close enough to hear him say, "Find things for these people to do, Major. I don't really care what. Set them counting supplies, send them out to explore, have them clean up debris on the bridge -- it doesn't matter, just give them something."

"I'm on it, sir."

As Perry left, Caldwell turned to look at the two guards and Seavey, all of whom looked very nervous. "Sir ..." Seavey said. "Are we in trouble?"

"Why? You did your job, Airman. Nice work, all of you."

Seavey looked startled. "Oh. Thank you, sir."

"I trust you don't mind staying here a little while longer, Airman?"

For answer, Seavey smiled, snapped off a salute and assumed a rigid stance at attention. Caldwell returned her salute, turned around and nearly tripped over Rodney. "Dr. McKay."

"Colonel," Rodney returned with what he thought was remarkable self-control, considering the circumstances. "I think there's been--"

Caldwell grabbed Rodney's shoulder by a handful of jacket. "Excellent idea, Doctor -- let's talk."

"That wasn't what I -- ow!"

Caldwell steered him a few yards away, to a relatively secluded spot behind some crates. Rodney wrenched himself free. "What the hell is this 'accused of Airman Stark's murder' thing? He's not even dead!"

"Actually, he is dead."

"Oh. Oh? Okay. Fine. But you know I didn't do it, right? Uh ... Colonel?"

Caldwell heaved a sigh and looked away. "Dr. McKay, I just watched several people I've worked with, people I've trusted, threatening a group of unarmed civilians. Considering the circumstances we're under, I don't know what anyone is capable of."

Rodney discovered that his hands were trembling -- with cold, fear, anger, adrenaline reaction, who the heck knew. He tucked them under his arms. "You cannot honestly believe I killed somebody! Caldwell! You know me!"

The Colonel gave him a long, level stare. "Dr. McKay, I'm not accusing anyone, and you'll notice you aren't under arrest. Everyone -- including you and your scientists -- is being kept away from sensitive areas of the ship. That includes the sickbay and the engine core."

Rodney balled his hands into fists, the nails biting into his palms where he was pretty sure he was developing permanent calluses. "I'm going over to the engine room to check on Zelenka, and I dare you to try to stop me."

The corner of Caldwell's mouth lifted slightly. "I'd never do that, Doctor. You'll have a guard, you understand."

"Fine, whatever." Rodney rolled his eyes, trying for nonchalance when he was shivering with anger. "And find me a medic while you're at it. That doctor of yours, Ling -- she never sends anybody to look in on Zelenka. If I get him back for the science division with one hand, I'm sueing you people."

Now it was obvious that Caldwell was trying to suppress a slight smile. Looking around, his eye lit on the first member of the medical staff who didn't seem to be actively doing anything at the moment, and he beckoned her. "Airman Ludwick, did Ling clear you for duty?"

"Yes, sir," she reported, snapping to attention. Rodney thought of the bright, eager look in her eye when she'd been watching the mob earlier. Not exactly a stable personality, he thought. Then again, he didn't feel terribly stable himself at the moment.

"Airman, please escort Dr. McKay to the engine room and check up on Dr. Zelenka while you're there. McKay is to be given access to all areas of the ship except the engines, the sickbay and bridge. Contact me if any questions arise -- me, and no one else." He turned to give Rodney a look. "Will that do, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney just brushed past him, not dignifying him with a response. Suspected of murder. "Escorted" and babysat around the ship ... banned from working on the engines ... When he got back to Atlantis, he was going to file a grievance a mile long.

Ludwick fell into step silently behind him. He wondered if he could talk her into giving up her coat for a little while.


Impact plus 19 hours 48 minutes

She couldn't believe it was actually going to be this easy.

Cora followed McKay across the cargo bay, her mind awhirl with nervousness. The constant fear of discovery had been bad enough, but this ... this was terrible. Her stomach was tied into a roiling knot of anxiety. Worst of all was the dread that when it actually came time to do the deed, she wouldn't be able to. Though technically combat-trained, she'd never actually killed anyone ... unless you counted poisoning Elizabeth, and that hadn't really worked. She tried to remember how she'd calmed herself before injecting the drug into Elizabeth's IV, concentrating on hatred in order to push herself through the fear.

She nodded to the two airmen guarding the rip in the hull, and they nodded back. It was daylight and she had a gun strapped prominently to her leg; she could obviously take care of herself. She climbed out of the hole, dropped to the snow, and gave McKay a hand down, while looking surreptitiously around to make sure there wasn't anybody else out here.

There was a region downwind of the cargo bay, sheltered from sight by a thick stand of pine trees, which had been designated their temporary latrine area. Cora was startled to discover that the wind was blowing so hard she could barely see the trees through the blowing snow. It was developing into a regular blizzard out here. She could just make out two figures heading back from that direction, resolving themselves into two people she knew, Airman Jones and Airman Davis. In a minute, they'd be back inside, and then she and McKay would be truly alone.

And he would die.

She'd come up with an explanation, a story of some kind. Cora knew that there was one person on the ship who'd give her an alibi ... the one person who understood, who shared her goals. All she had to do was ask.

McKay, his shoulders hunched into his jacket, had started scrambling down the rough path to the engine room. Cora followed him quickly. Her hand slipped beneath her jacket and loosened the gun in its holster. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw dimly, through the swirling snow, that the figures of Jones and Davis had vanished -- back into the cargo bay, she assumed.

They were alone in the snow.

Cora went quickly, half-running, coming up behind McKay before she could lose her nerve. "Dr. McKay," she said quietly, although with the wind sweeping down from the mountain and blowing away from the ship, she could probably have shouted.

"Yeah, what?" he demanded irritably, half-turning around -- and then went stock-still as his widening eyes traveled from her face to the muzzle of the 9mm pointed at him.

"Don't speak," Cora ordered, her heart hammering so wildly that she felt sure he must be able to hear it even over the wind roaring overhead. This was the moment where everything could go wrong. If he screamed ... if he was armed ... if someone else chose this moment to give in to the urgency of his or her bladder ...

But no one came, and McKay didn't even move, just kept staring at the gun in her hand. "I gave you my coat," he said finally, in a tone of disbelief and hurt.

"I know. Thank you." Cora jerked the gun at him, gesturing away from the ship. "This way."

Slowly, haltingly, he came, one step at a time. His gloveless hands were tucked under his arms as protection from the cold and snow. He wasn't even wearing a hat. She might not even have to shoot him -- the cold would do her work for her. But first she had to get him away from the ship, where no one could hear the gunshot, where the wolves would come quickly to dispose of the evidence.

"You know, kidnapping me is a very bad idea," he said, dragging his feet in the snow. "I talk a lot when I'm scared, for one thing, and I have it on good authority that it's very annoying. Just ask any of the people who have kidnapped me. Kolya. Ford. Those convicts on Ole --"

"I said shut up." She jammed the gun into his ribs to punctuate her words.

"Ow! I already have enough bruises, thanks! As far as the shutting up, I can try, but I don't shut up very well." He sounded a little bit high -- adrenaline, Cora thought, and possibly lack of sleep.

"Then I'll shoot you."

"Shutting up," he said in a small voice.

"And move it." At this rate, someone was going to show up before they could get out of sight in the blizzard. They had to move faster. She used the muzzle of the gun to shove at him, urging him to a stumbling trot, away from the ship and down the side of the hill. He slipped and stumbled; she caught hold of his arm and propelled him forward, with the gun tucked against his back. Tearing off her radio, she dropped it in the snow and then ripped his from his head and did the same with it.


Cora froze at the yell from behind them, involuntarily dragging McKay to a stop. Looking back, she saw someone through the wind-blown snow, standing at the base of the ship's great curving bulk. Squinting, she recognized Airman Jones, and her heart sank straight to her boots. He hadn't gone inside -- he must have gone back to the latrine, or maybe he'd come back out for some reason.

"Hey! You two! The ship's this way!"

And he actually thought he was helping -- thought the two of them had become lost in the storm. Next to her, she could feel McKay's body tensing. He was going to do something: scream, try to run, it didn't matter because this was all falling apart. I could shoot Jones too ... The thought came with surprising ease, along with a sick twist in her stomach. But, this close to the ship, a gunshot would bring others running; that was why she needed to get McKay away.

A sudden, inspired idea occurred to her.

"Help!" she screamed. "He's kidnapping me!"

Jones stopped in his tracks. From the corner of her eye, Cora saw McKay's head whip around in shock.

"Help!" she screamed, and, thrusting the gun more deeply into Rodney's side, she hissed, "I'd like to get out of here without killing him -- or you." Yet, she added inwardly ... but she'd already figured out that a hostage was a lot more likely to cooperate if they believed that good behavior might enable them to survive. It was best if McKay didn't know she was going to kill him anyway. "You shout something about go away or you'll kill me -- and do it now, or I'll shoot you."

Rodney just stared at her. "Now!" she whispered viciously, seeing Jones start to move, and her finger tightened on the trigger.

"Stop!" Rodney's voice was a high-pitched shriek of terror. Cora wasn't sure if he was talking to her or to Jones, and suspected he might not know either. She ground the muzzle of the gun into his ribs and bore down hard on his arm with her other hand, backing away step by step. Between the wind-driven snow and the way their bodies were so close together, she didn't think Jones would be able to see that she was the one with the gun, not Rodney.

"Stop! I, uh, I have a hostage! Stop or she'll shoot me! I mean, I'll shoot her!"

Cora groaned. Rodney was the least convincing liar she'd ever met, and now, on top of everything, he was mouthing with exaggerated motions: Help! She's kidnapping me!

Jones, however, seemed to completely miss the subtext; he just stood there with his gun wavering back and forth. In the blowing snow and wind, armed only with a pistol, he was obviously unwilling to try a shot, since the odds of his hitting Cora were probably better than hitting McKay.

"Help!" Cora wailed, shoving Rodney along. He seemed to be trying to put up passive resistance, setting his feet and making himself difficult to move, but as they were going downhill, gravity was on her side and he kept having to move or fall. By now they were far enough away that she could only see a dim outline of Airman Jones through the blinding snow and wind.

Another minute, and they could no longer see Jones at all -- which meant he couldn't see them either. Turning, Cora propelled Rodney forward with a hard thrust. "Okay, now move it!"

"I really hate you," he muttered, slipping and sliding in the snow. His fingers and ears were already bright red from the cold. "By the way, I definitely want my coat back."


Impact plus 20 hours 0 minutes

"He did WHAT?"

"Kidnapped Airman Ludwick and took off into the storm, sir." Jones repeated the words, standing at attention with his hands locked behind his back. "I take full responsibility, sir. I saw them come out, I just didn't realize --"

"At ease, Airman," Caldwell said wearily, turning away. "It wasn't your fault." I was the one who told her to take him outside.

He raised his eyes to meet the dual, horrified stares of Perry and Ling. "I suppose that settles the case about McKay," Perry said.

"I don't think so," Ling replied. "There's something else going on here. Has to be."

One of these days, Caldwell was going to have to get a full, detailed report from Ling. He wanted to know just what, exactly, had happened between her and McKay to change her mind so thoroughly. But in the meantime, he agreed with her. Rodney McKay might be capable of doing some very underhanded things. He could definitely see Rodney as an evil genius sitting in a lab somewhere churning out death rays and weather control machines. But holding a gun to a young woman's head -- which Jones swore up and down he'd seen, despite the fact that in the falling snow he could hardly have seen anything -- and dragging her off into a blizzard? It just wasn't ... McKay.

Still, that was the situation he had to deal with. Right now the evidence pointed overwhelmingly to McKay, and he couldn't ignore that.

"Perry, I need someone who can follow tracks -- Armstrong's a good choice -- and a couple of reliable soldiers. We have to go now, before the blizzard wipes out any chance of being able to follow them. You'll be in charge back here."

He could see shocked realization dawn on the other man's face. "You're going out there, sir?"

"Yes, Major."

He could see Perry struggling with himself, swallowing back objections. Ling had no such compunctions.

"Sir, that's insane. It's far too dangerous out there. You're needed here."

Caldwell snorted. "I'm not sending men into a situation that I won't go into myself, Doctor." As she dropped her eyes, he added, "Besides, I have a responsibility to every man and woman on this ship -- and I obviously haven't done my job at keeping them safe. I need to be out there, Doctor. I intend to be in charge of this rescue mission." Although he had no idea, at this point, who exactly was going to be rescued.

"I suggest you take Lt. Cadman with you, sir," Perry said quietly.

"Cadman? Explain, Major."

"She's Atlantean, sir." Perry wet his lips. "I hate to say it, but however this works out, when it comes down to the legal process it might be a good idea to make sure that we have one Atlantean in the rescue party. And Cadman's a good choice -- I've seen her record, and she's very competent in the field."

She also knew McKay in a way that few other people did. Caldwell had read her file, too. And Perry was right about the political angle, dammit, especially after that meltdown in the cargo bay. The last thing they wanted was to have the international backers of the Atlantis expedition trump up charges that McKay had been framed. "I think you're right, Major. Get Cadman down here, and find me a tracker and some backup. Everyone in Arctic gear and well armed. Rendezvous in front of the ship in ten minutes."

"Yes, sir."

Ling was watching him. She spoke softly, her voice pitched for his ears only. "Don't do anything rash, sir."

"You've changed your tune about McKay, Doctor."

"Yes, sir."

"You understand that if McKay isn't the saboteur, that leaves only one possibility."

Ling nodded, and swallowed. "If it is Cora, then I've made ... some grave mistakes, sir. I understand that and I will have to live with it. And Cora has always been a very competent medic; I would never have believed her capable of something like this. But sir ... just keep an open mind. Ask questions first, and then shoot."

"Sometimes that's not possible, Doctor."

"I know, sir. I'm only asking you to keep an open mind. By the way, speaking of which ..." A faint smile creased her tired face. "How's your head?"

"Hard as ever," Caldwell said softly, smiling at her as he touched the bandage.

"Good." She saluted. "Be careful out there. We'll be waiting to hear from you."


Impact plus 20 hours 8 minutes

Cora was terrified.

At every moment, she expected to feel a bullet slam into her back, to hear the rising howl of the giant wolves the enlisted crew members had been talking about nonstop. Several of the airmen had seen them, creeping around on the hills, huge and white with burning gold eyes. And Stark ...

But she did not want to think about Stark. He'd had to die for the cause -- he knew too much, he talked too much -- and she was blameless in his death. She hadn't pulled the trigger. It wasn't her fault.

She kept telling herself that.

Luckily Rodney McKay's unceasing chatter helped keep her mind off her own problems -- and made it far more tempting to just shoot him and have done with it.

"... cold as all hell, you know that? Not the least reason being -- because you're wearing my coat. My coat. I gave it to you out of the goodness of my heart, you know that? I could have kept it. And now you're using it to kidnap me. Is that gratitude? I don't think so --"

She should just shoot him. It would almost be a relief. And yet ... she couldn't. Couldn't do it, couldn't pull the trigger.

How could it be so hard? She was military! She'd trained to kill people! But she had never been in combat. The idea of squeezing the trigger and watching another person's life dissolve in a spray of blood made her hand shake so hard that she had to steady it with the other one.

It was one thing if someone was trying to kill you. But to fire a gun on an unarmed person ... something in her balked at that.

A sudden wailing sound rose from the woods, somewhere off to their left. It shrilled above the roaring of the wind and trailed away in a series of barks.

Rodney stopped in his tracks.

"Keep moving," Cora told him, shoving at him roughtly. There was her answer -- the wolves. She'd just take him far enough out in the woods that he couldn't possibly get back, and leave him for the wolves. She didn't have to pull the trigger. Her hands would be clean.

She just wished they would stop shaking so.


Impact plus 20 hours 15 minutes

Cadman waited in the snow outside the Daedalus, her back to the wind and her face burrowed into the hood of her parka.

Two indistinct figures emerged from the blowing snow. She tensed, instinctively bringing up the assault rifle resting in the crook of her arm, then lowered it when she recognized the round face of Airman Keisha Seavey. The shape behind her resolved into Lt. Armstrong's rangy form.

"Visibility's lousy out here," the lieutenant said, squinting against the driving snow. His hood was down, the wind whipping his short blond hair around. Cadman didn't know how he could stand it. All her exposed skin seemed to go numb as soon as the wind hit it. Armstrong, though, seemed to revel in the cold. She recalled talking to him about his boyhood in Minnesota, about winter weekends spent camping in the woods. Right now, she would have given her left arm for a warm couch in front of a roaring fire and a hot cup of cocoa.

"Do you actually think you can track them in this?" she asked.

"If we get moving soon." He stared down the hill. "They'll make deep tracks in this snow. It'll take a while to fill in. But the wind is really blowing -- we need to catch up." Turning to look at her, his eyes found hers, questioning. "So ... you think he did it? McKay?"

"No," Cadman and Seavey chorused, then looked at each other in surprise.

"Thank you, ma'am!" Seavey said, sounding surprised. She had obviously thought hers the minority opinion.

"Well, he didn't," Cadman said defensively. "I know he didn't. Rodney and I have been in --" the same body, she almost finished, until realizing just in time how bizarre that would sound to someone who wasn't used to the daily absurdity of the Pegasus galaxy. "In some tough situations together," she finished, a bit lamely. "It wasn't him."

"Well, I don't know him at all," Seavey said. "But I saw how he was on the bridge, with Dr. Weir when she was trapped, and with his other friend too. He seems like a nice man. He wouldn't do something like this."

Cadman didn't think she'd ever describe Rodney as "nice." But ... sabotaging a ship full of people? Threatening the life of a young woman? Hell, no about summed it up.

Caldwell joined them just then, with another airman in tow -- Cadman recognized him as Mike Warner, another member of the bridge security team. He was a solid, dependable guy and a good choice. Caldwell was generally, in Cadman's experience, a good judge of people.

He couldn't really believe that McKay had done this ... could he? She looked at him, but his eyes were unreadable.

"Visibility's getting worse, sir," Armstrong said. "We need to move out."

"Then let's go, Lieutenant."

They set out down the hill -- Armstrong leading and the rest strung out behind. Cadman took the rear-guard position, scanning the hills ... or what she could see of them. Although it was still technically daylight, the light had gone gray and the whiteout was closing upon them fast.

Even if they found McKay and Ludwick, she wondered if they could ever find their way back to the Daedalus in this mess.


Impact plus 20 hours 28 minutes

"We're beginning our approach to the planet," Sheppard informed his passengers, somewhat unnecessarily, as they were all staring at the HUD as well. "Thank you for flying Puddlejumper Airlines. Please return your seat backs and tray tables to the fully upright position -- What?" he asked Beckett, who was giving him a look somewhere between amusement and annoyance.

"You're not fooling anyone, Colonel. You're worried as hell."

Sheppard snorted. "Thanks for the psychoanalysis, Doc. I knew we should've brought Heightmeyer instead. She's better looking, for one thing."

Beckett gave a small laugh and returned his gaze to a study of his white-knuckled hands, gripped on the sides of his seat. It was entirely obvious that Sheppard wasn't the only one who was worried ... for a variety of reasons.

"I can't give you the exact location of the Daedalus until we're under the clouds," Simpson reported. "There's a gigantic storm down there. It's an absolute mess. I doubt if they can pick up any of our signals."

Nevertheless, Sheppard tried. "Daedalus, this is Atlantis. Daedalus, do you copy?"

Static was his only answer. He drew a deep breath and fixed his hands tightly on the controls. "Simpson, any idea what we're going to encounter down there?"

"It'll be rough, Colonel. Why don't you try taking it down under the edges of the storm and we'll see if we can get a precise location on the Daedalus. You're going to have to be very careful; there's a pretty major mountain range under that storm, from the look of things. You'll have to fly on instruments only, and we already know that the electricity in the storm is messing with our ability to take accurate readings."

"In other words, Doc ... we could smack into a mountain before we even know it's there."

Simpson tried to smile, but there was no humor in it. "That's about what we're looking at, Colonel."

Sheppard reached for his radio. "Lorne? We go in first. You follow only after we've established a safe route for you."

"Sir --"

"No buts, Major. That's an order." Sheppard grinned. "You were the one who pointed out the risks of losing our puddlejumpers. Well, we're only risking one at a time. Wait to hear back from us, Major."

"What if you can't contact us from under the storm, sir?"

Sheppard looked at Simpson. The engineer replied. "I think we'll be able to overcome the interference in the storm by boosting our signal. The fact that the Daedalus doesn't seem capable of contacting us seems to indicate that their power's down."

It could indicate much worse things than that, but Sheppard wasn't considering those possibilities right now. "All right. Wait in orbit to hear back from us, Major. If we disappear for an unreasonable length of time -- say, more than an hour -- you can send a jumper down to search. But only one at a time."

After a pause came the Major's reluctant reply. "Yes, sir."

"Sheppard out." The Colonel's voice became quiet. "Going down, lady and gentlemen," he murmured, and took the puddlejumper down into the roiling white clouds below.


Impact plus 20 hours 32 minutes

"They came this way, and recently, but the wind's erasing their tracks quickly."

Lt. Armstrong straightened up from studying the marks in the snow. "That's not all, either," he said, turning back to the others with a grim look on his face. "There are wolf tracks overlapping theirs."

As if to punctuate his words, a high shivering cry rose above the wind before trailing off into a series of hyena-like yelps. There was a brief moment's silence after this.

"Then let's find them and get the hell out of here," Caldwell said shortly, urging them onward.

"Rules for engagement, sir?" Cadman asked.

"Use lethal force only in defense of your own life or the hostage's. I don't want this turning into a bloodbath, and I'd like to go back to the Daedalus with two live people to question." Although the longer they were out here, though, the less likely he thought that was going to be.

Caldwell tapped his radio. "Perry? You read this?" Seeing Cadman and Armstrong looking at him, he shook his head. "Storm's playing havoc with the radios."

Which meant they were entirely on their own. If they got into trouble out here, help wouldn't be coming. He'd instructed Perry to pick up Cadman's work of trying to get into the F302 bay, but they were still a long way from success.

A sharp crack from somewhere in front of them made Seavey jump and Cadman look forward intently, squinting against the driving snow.

"That was a gunshot," Armstrong said. "And close."

They broke into a jog, sliding through the snow. Somewhere nearby, another unearthly shriek rose through the screaming of the wind.


Rodney was pretty sure he was freezing to death.

He couldn't ever remember being this cold. His ears hurt, his hands hurt, his nose hurt ... even his hair felt cold, if that was possible.

"Are you planning to shoot me or just kill me slowly with frostbite?" he demanded. They were currently floundering through the softer snow under a stand of pine trees, sinking up to their knees. It was exhausting and he was pretty sure that his feet were frozen. Out on the exposed ridges, much of the snow had been blown away and what was left was packed down hard ... but there, the wind cut straight through his inadequate clothing and left him feeling like a popsicle. Six of one, half a dozen of the other ...

"See, the reason why I'm asking is because we've been out here for quite a while, and you have a coat -- which, by the way, I gave you, which I'm becoming more and more convinced is on the top-ten list of stupidest things I've ever done in my life -- but as for me, I'm freezing my butt off, and I kind of need all ten fingers in order to, oh, save our lives on a regular basis, as I do. And I'm thinking that if you really wanted to kill me, we wouldn't have to go nearly this far -- and, while I greatly appreciate the extra minutes of extremely uncomfortable life, I'm starting to wonder --"

"Will you shut up?" The gun shifted and dug into his already bruised ribs.

"So what's the PLAN here, Snidely Whiplash? Because frankly, I'm not really sure where we are -- although I swear I've seen that tree before -- and I don't think you have the foggiest clue either. And while wandering in circles until we both freeze to death or get eaten by gigantic wolves might make sense in psycho-land, back here on Planet Sanity I'm thinking that it doesn't--"

"Be quiet! For God's sake, aren't you capable of shutting up for even five minutes?" Cora gave him a hard push away from her. Rodney stumbled and slid into a pine tree, and turned back to face her, seeing the gun pointed at him.

"So, is this where it happens? This is where you shoot me and leave me for the wolves?" He knew he should probably be terrified, but frankly, after that one moment of weak-kneed fear when she'd first aimed a gun in his direction, he'd been too miserable from cold and exhaustion to even think much about anything else.

"Yes," Cora said, holding the gun in both hands.

"Oh." It emerged as a small sound, nearly lost in the wind. "Um, you know, I wasn't exactly ... urging you to do it, and I think I can deal with the cold for a little bit longer -- My God, what the hell was that?"

The high-pitched scream rose above the sound of the wind. And it was close -- too close. For an instant Rodney thought that it might be someone in trouble; it sounded a little like a woman's scream, but it was too high and went on too long. And then he remembered the wolves.

Looking desperately to Cora, he hoped that the sound had knocked a little sense into her brain -- but the expression on her face quickly got rid of that romantic notion. She looked ... relieved.

"Finally," she sighed, raising the gun to point at him. "They'll get rid of your body. No one will ever know."

Rodney found himself strangely clear-headed, thinking quite rationally about all his various options for ducking and running and hiding and just standing there and letting her kill him. Which of course meant that he was completely unable to do any of these things, since all the options seemed equally unlikely to result in his survival. A minute later, he realized that she still hadn't shot him yet.

"I just don't know why this is so hard!" Cora burst out. "You're an enemy and it shouldn't be this difficult! All I have to do is pull the trigger and you'll be dead. But I can't!"

Rodney straightened up slowly. "You know, in normal civilian circles, that's considered ... sane."

"Shut UP!" She pulled the trigger, and Rodney flinched violently, positive that he'd just sealed his fate ... but the bullet hit where it had been aimed, raising a small puff of snow from the ground at his feet.

The wolves cried out again, even closer. Rodney lowered his arms, which had flown up instinctively to cover his face -- as if human skin and bone could stop a bullet. His teeth were chattering from the cold, and he was starting to get more than just a little bit angry. It was bad enough to be kidnapped by someone with the stated intention of killing him -- but she could at least be a halfway competent kidnapper. "Are you planning on shooting me or annoying me to death?" he demanded. Oh, good work, Rodney -- upset the person with the gun. Your mouth is really going to kill you one of these days. Like ... today.

And then the miracle occurred.

"Freeze!" a voice shouted from under the trees.


Cadman braced herself against a tree with her assault rifle in hand. She'd never for a moment thought that Rodney was capable of doing the things they said he'd done, and now here was the proof: Rodney, looking cold and lost and scared, with Cora Ludwick, alleged hostage, standing a few feet away holding a gun on him. Unfortunately, Rodney was between Ludwick and the five members of the search party, who were ranged out in a line under the trees. It would be difficult to shoot her without hitting him.

"Freezing, thank you, is exactly what I'm doing here," Rodney said in a voice that somehow managed to combine annoyance with massive relief. "Could you people possibly have been any slower, by the way?"

With his head twisted over his shoulder, he wasn't looking at Cora -- but Cadman saw something terrified and ugly in the young woman's face as her eyes went back and forth between the guns pointed at her. Keeping Rodney's body between herself and the others, Cora lunged forward and pressed her pistol into the back of his neck.

"I said freeze!" Caldwell snapped.

Cora gripped a handful of Rodney's jacket, holding him against her. "Stop! Any of you move, and I shoot him!" Her wild eyes settled on Armstrong, and a tremendous expression of relief washed over her. "Dennis. Oh, thank God. I'm sorry I've messed up so badly. You'll take care of things now, won't you? You'll fix it, won't you? Like with Stark? Please?"

Cadman turned her head to look at Armstrong, to see him staring at Cora with a combination of anger and pity. Cora was babbling, she couldn't have meant -- Cadman's eyes started to slide to Caldwell, just in time to see shock register on the Colonel's face as a gunshot went off with a loud crack.

Cora staggered away from McKay and crumpled into a heap in the snow. Rodney fell to his knees, gasping.

"Yes, I'll fix it," Armstrong said aloud. A small wisp of smoke curled up from the tip of his rifle. "I'm sorry you had to say that, Cora. The rest of them could have lived, otherwise." And he spun, firing as he did so. The next shot took down Airman Warner, a single shot to the chest; he crumpled in the snow with eyes wide open. And now the gun was swiveling towards Cadman -- and she found that her shock was so great that all her training had deserted her, and she couldn't even move. Your own people weren't the enemy. You didn't kill your comrades-in-arms -- she couldn't make herself fire at him even as his rifle pointed at her body --

Something slammed into her from behind, and her knees buckled as a great impact tore through her shoulder. Cadman plowed into the snow, face-first. Airman Seavey had leaped at her, knocking her down. She couldn't move her arm and the rifle fell from her limp fingers. She could feel her own blood soaking into her sleeve, hot and wet.

More gunshots, right over her head. Raising her face from the snow, she saw Caldwell shooting at Armstrong, and Rodney just kneeling in the snow, looking stunned. Since he was unarmed, he'd obviously been left until last.

And that was when the mega-wolves attacked them.

Unlike Earth wolves, they didn't fear humans or guns. They only understood that their territory had been invaded by strange, alien predators. The Daedalus was too large to attack, but finding an isolated group of these small, soft-looking alien creatures, the wolves jumped on their chance to defend their range against the invaders.


Huge white bodies coursed from the trees. Caldwell and Armstrong both reacted on instinct, and rather than shooting at each other, turned to fire on the wolves. The first of them went down in a heap of fur and spraying blood; the others split off to the sides, snarling. One jumped on Warner's corpse. Cadman staggered to her feet with blood running down her arm, staring around her in a daze.

"Get her out of here!" Caldwell shouted at Seavey, pointing to Cadman. Seavey nodded, wrapped her arm around Cadman's shoulders and led her into the trees at a stumbling run. One of the wolves broke off to chase them; Caldwell strafed it with gunfire and it crumpled, cut nearly in half. As he fired, he was running -- towards Cora Ludwick's body. He bent over it and began tearing off her coat.

Rodney snapped out of his paralysis to ask, "What the hell are you doing? My God, you're robbing her corpse!"

"Shut up and put this on!" Caldwell threw the blood-stained coat at him, along with Cora's gloves. He spun around to shoot down another wolf, then added some cover fire at Armstrong, who had gotten a brief respite from attacking the animals and had taken advantage of the opportunity to turn his weapon in their direction again.

"Run!" Caldwell yelled, giving Rodney a hard shove in the back as he struggled to put on the coat.

McKay was making tiny sounds of disgust as he tried to put the coat on without touching the bloodstains. At this, he looked up with huge eyes. "You're not supposed to run from wild animals! It makes them chase you!"

"When they're bigger than fucking Siberian tigers and trying to kill you anyway, McKay, you run!"

The two of them slid over the edge of a low embankment and dropped into the snow on top of a frozen creek. A wolf stuck its head over the top of the bank -- it was the size of a bear's head with serrated ears and baleful yellow eyes. Caldwell snapped off a few single shots; one of the ears vanished in a spray of blood, and the head flinched out of sight with a high-pitched yelp.

Caldwell grabbed McKay by one sleeve -- he was still trying to get the coat on; it was only over one of his arms -- and half-dragged him for a few steps until he got his legs under him and could run.

"I -- what -- we --" McKay looked at Caldwell with wide, stunned blue eyes. His face and hair were splattered with Cora's blood; the front of the coat was sodden with it. "Did Lieutenant Armstrong just try to kill us?"

"Looks that way." Caldwell risked a glance over his shoulder. The snow was falling thickly now and in the near whiteout, he could only see about five yards behind. He could hear the distant sound of snarling and high-pitched howling. If they were lucky, Armstrong had been killed in the attack. But he didn't think they'd be that lucky.

"Er ... thanks, by the way." Rodney's fingers shook as he tried to fasten the coat -- partly from cold, partly from adrenaline and fear, but he kept missing and having to start over. "This is not exactly going down in history as one of the top-ten most successful rescues of all time, but it's the thought that counts."

"Don't thank me 'till we get out of this." They were running, as fast as they could, down the narrow, twisting course of the frozen stream. Caldwell hoped that McKay would have the sense to shut up and run, but heard a sharp intake of breath next to him and braced himself for the tirade to come.

"You thought I sabotaged the Daedalus, you son of a bitch! You thought I killed Stark!" Rodney turned around so that he was stumbling along in a backwards sort of jog, in order to look Caldwell in the eyes.

"Could we not have this conversation now, McKay?"

"Oh no! I think this a perfectly fine time to have this conversation! You owe me one hell of an apology! You're lucky Sheppard's not here--"

At that point Rodney discovered why trying to run backwards wasn't a good idea, because all of a sudden the ground wasn't under his feet anymore. The twisting streambed had turned into a vertical drop-off. Only Caldwell's quick grab for Rodney's coat saved him from going off the edge. The Colonel yanked him back onto more secure footing, steadied him and then let go, leaving him standing and gasping like a beached fish. "Uh ... That ... I ... wuh ..."

"And now I saved your life ... again," Caldwell said with a hint of a grin, and looked over the edge. It was quite pretty, really: a series of frozen waterfalls dropping away into a canyon. At the bottom, the black ribbon of a half-frozen river could be glimpsed between blowing veils of snow.

"Well, there's no going that way," Rodney said in a decisive tone, apparently having recovered his verbal as well as his physical feet. "Now, let's get back to this whole thing where you accuse me of murder and then send me out into a blizzard with the real killer -- eek!"

The squeal at the end was due to Caldwell swinging around and pointing a gun at him -- or rather, at the parka-clad figure which had just popped up over the edge of the streambank behind him, carrying an assault rifle. The rifle swung towards them and Caldwell fired off a short burst. The figure vanished like a knocked-over target in a shooting gallery, but Caldwell didn't think he'd hit him.

"Now what?" Rodney yelled, covering his head with his arms.

"Armstrong. I think." Caldwell grabbed hold of his unwanted companion by the sleeve and tugged him towards the edge.

"Hey! Wait! Where are we going?"

"We are climbing down into the canyon, unless you'd rather go up there with Armstrong and the wolves and lord knows what else."

"I hate you, you know."

"Hate is a strong word, McKay. You go down first; I'll follow you." He offered Rodney a hand, which just got a suspicious stare.

"Why me first? So if I fall, you'll know where not to step?"

Caldwell tried and failed to suppress a sigh of exasperation. That Dr. McKay was brilliant, he had no doubt, and he'd even seen glimpses of the actual human being under all the snarkiness and complaints. But there were still times when he truly wondered how anyone on Atlantis managed to put up with him. "No, so that I can shoot at the guy with the gun who's trying to kill us, without accidentally shooting you."

"Oh." That took the wind out of his sails. Rodney looked over his shoulder, and shuddered. "You know, I'm not good with heights..."

Scanning the tops of the streambanks, which remained Armstrong-free for the moment, Caldwell put all the drill-sergeant bark into his voice that he could muster. "Get moving, McKay!"

"Fine, fine ... no need to shout ..." With a little assistance from Caldwell, Rodney managed to lower himself over the edge. Immediately he lost his footing and slid about ten feet, coming to a stop with his boot wedged against a still cascade of ice. He made a tiny, scared sound.

Armstrong took advantage of Caldwell's distraction to pop up and open fire. With a muttered curse, Caldwell threw himself over the edge as bullets scattered in the snow. He had no chance to even try to get his feet under him and tumbled considerably farther than Rodney before fetching up against a pine tree clinging to the side of the bluff. He wiped the snow out of his eyes with a shaking hand, noticing that he'd somehow retained the presence of mind to hold onto his P90.

"This is a really bad idea!" Rodney's terrified voice filtered down from above. Caldwell looked up to see the scientist splayed out against the snow like a large, ungainly spider. "Have I mentioned this is the worst rescue ever?"

Caldwell looked over his shoulder, at the alarmingly long drop down to the river. Privately, he was inclined to agree on both counts ... but they didn't exactly have any other options open to them at the moment. It was either climb down the cliff or go back up and contend with Armstrong and the wolves.

Armstrong's head appeared over the edge and disappeared immediately when Caldwell fired off a couple of single shots. The recoil from the P90 almost cost him his grip on the pine tree. Scattered chunks of snow, dislodged by the movement, tumbled into the abyss beneath him. Rodney had flattened himself to the snow as if he intended to become part of it.

"We gotta go, McKay! Either climb up or go down, but either way -- move!"

"I really, really hate you." Rodney's boot twitched and began to feel around for a toehold. Promptly losing his grip, he slid down another few feet. Snow cascaded down around Caldwell, pelting his face and torso.

"We're going to die," Rodney said in a fatalistic tone.

"That's the spirit, McKay." Caldwell carefully swung himself down beneath the pine tree, hanging the P90 over his shoulder so that he had both hands free. The slope wasn't entirely vertical, and there were actually quite a lot of little trees and bushes, half-covered with snow. If it had been summer, the climb would have been relatively easy. What made it difficult was the snow -- covering up handholds, just generally being slippery and unstable.

"Hey! You can't leave me here!"

"I'm not leaving you, but I can't exactly climb for you, either. You've got to do this on your own. And you'd better do it soon; I imagine the Lieutenant has no intention of letting us get back to the Daedalus." As he spoke, Caldwell was scrambling farther down the slope, a move calculated to galvanize McKay into action as the source of his protection got farther away. And it worked; glancing up, he saw the scientist unhappily clambering into motion. He'd seen Sheppard handle McKay; he had a pretty good idea of how it was done.

"Where do you find these people?" Rodney demanded, groping about for a foothold. "Between Nurse Kevorkian and your trigger-happy pal up there, you've got a full complement of wackos on your crew, don't you?"

Caldwell didn't answer, because it was a fair enough accusation, and it stung. He'd always had the utmost faith in his people ... barring the odd Goa'uld possession or mind-altering device, always a concern when one worked with the Stargate program. But the idea that two, and maybe more, of his crew members, in full possession of their faculties, had orchestrated something of this nature, burned him deeply.

"And you accused me of being a traitor." Despite the obvious strain and fear in his voice, Rodney's smugness seemed to have returned full force.

"You know, McKay," Caldwell said as he divided his attention between hunting for footholds on the cliffside and scanning the skyline for Armstrong's head, "I have a lot of bullets, and you're currently between me and the wacko in question."

"Are you threatening to shoot me? You are, aren't you? You do realize that I'm submitting a detailed grievance to the IOA the minute we get back to Atlantis, don't you? And I intend to include that remark, I'll have you know ..."

He was talking, but he was also moving at a fairly respectable pace, so Caldwell let him babble and tried to ignore it. The Colonel paused for a moment on top of a big rock to rest and get his bearings. They hadn't come very far down the cliff compared to how far they still had to go, and it bothered him that Armstrong hadn't reappeared. The man might be crazy, but he was also very, very good in the wilderness. Caldwell didn't like it.

A moment later, as if conjured by his thoughts, he heard Armstrong's voice above the roaring wind: "Colonel!"

Caldwell didn't answer; he slipped the P90 from his shoulder into his hands instead.

"Colonel!" Armstrong shouted again. "I know you're down there!"

Rodney had almost caught up to him. "Aren't you going to answer him?" the scientist demanded as he slithered down another few feet in a semi-controlled fall.

"Not planning on it, no."

The top of the cliff was almost invisible in the blowing snow. Dimly, Caldwell saw a figure arise from the blizzard. He raised his P90, but Armstrong didn't seem inclined to make any threatening moves.

"Colonel! You think you're safe down there? You think you can escape? Neither of you are going to live to tell anyone what you've seen here. And after I kill you, it'll be the girls' turn next."

Caldwell realized that his teeth had clenched so hard that his jaw muscles hurt. He'd trusted Armstrong. He'd liked him.

"So long," Armstrong called, but instead of shooting at them, he strafed the snow at the top of the hill.

It took Caldwell's brain a second to catch up with what was happening. Avalanche.

"Move!" he yelled, and reached out to seize hold of Rodney's leg, yanking the other man loose from his precarious purchase on the cliffside.

"What are you doing? We're going to fall --"

"Worse than that'll happen to us in a minute!" From above, there was a low rumble, felt more than heard, as the snow overhanging the edge of the cliff began to give way.

In his boyhood, Caldwell and his friends used to dare each other to run down a very steep hill in their neighborhood. You could do it, he'd learned, if you kept running and never stopped -- falter and you'd fall, keep running and gravity would be on your side. He doubted if McKay had been the type to do anything similar, and there was no time to explain the theory, so all he could do was pull the scientist into a run and hope that he got the idea.

"You can't outrun an avalanche!" Rodney shrieked in horror.

"What's the alternative?" Caldwell shouted back over the gathering roar. "Stand here and die?"

Once they started running, there was absolutely no question of stopping. It was really just a semi-controlled fall, getting less controlled every minute, and this was a much steeper hill than the one he remembered. Caldwell lost track of McKay, lost his grip on the P90; it was every man for himself. Desperately, he clutched at trees and rocks, trying to slow his headlong rush towards the bottom of the canyon. He bounced off a pine tree and saw a boulder coming at his head; flinging out his arm to protect himself, he felt something crunch. Then the snow caught him -- he tumbled end-over-end, his arm was a wash of white-hot pain ... and he was lying on his back, half-buried in the snow, staring up at dancing snowflakes and aware that he had lost a bit of time. He couldn't move his arm, couldn't really move much of his body, either. There was no sound from McKay.

We are screwed, he thought calmly. He hoped Cadman and Seavey had had a chance to get away. McKay was right -- as rescues went, this one was shaping up into a world-class fiasco.


Impact plus 20 hours 47 minutes

Sheppard flew low along the fringes of the huge storm system, giving Simpson an opportunity to take readings.

"Yes!" She pumped her fist in the air. "It's a lot easier to get a position on the emergency beacon from the atmosphere. I thought it might be."

"You got it, Doc?"

She nodded, and pointed. "That way. But be careful. There's a mountain range under all those clouds, and we're going to be flying mostly blind."

The wall of thunderhead came up to meet them -- and their screens were swallowed by gray-white murk. Sheppard was flying on instruments alone. This wasn't something that bothered him; he'd done it a million times before. What gave him pause was that, if Simpson was correct, his instruments might not be 100% reliable in the storm.

Another truly disturbing thing about flying the 'jumper in a storm was that the inertial dampeners cushioned them from the effects of turbulence -- but he could tell from the readouts that they were getting thrown around. He could feel it in the controls, just not in his body, and that made compensating difficult. It was like trying to walk on uneven ground when you couldn't feel your feet. He made a decision.

"Any of you guys get motion sick?"

"No," Simpson said. Ronon just grunted.

Beckett closed his eyes. "Oh, God, what are you going to do?"

"Dial back the inertial dampeners. It's going to get rough, but I can't fly this way, not in this."

He was doing it as he spoke. The shuddering that he could feel in the controls spread to his whole body; then they hit wind-shear and he was flung forward in his seat as the craft plummeted before he managed to level it out.

"Mother Mary, we're going to die," Beckett managed to say through clenched teeth.

Sheppard spared enough attention to say, "We were doing this before; you just couldn't feel it." Then he had to concentrate on navigating an obstacle course of mountains and ravines. "Are we on the right heading, Doc?" he asked when he could relax enough to talk again.

"Yes; in fact it should be right -- there!"

They broke out of a low-lying bank of clouds, and there it was, laid out below them, dimly visible though a haze of swirling snow: the Daedalus. For a second Sheppard just stared, awestruck at the tremendous channel the ship had cut down the side of the mountain. It was lying sideways across the slope, listing towards its downhill side, with a twist in the middle and bits of wreckage scattered around.

Beckett was leaning forward as if he wanted to crawl through the viewscreen. "God," he whispered.

"Daedalus, this is Colonel Sheppard. Daedalus, do you read me?"

The reply came back an instant later. "Sheppard, this is Major Perry, acting commander of the Daedalus. You would not believe how glad I am to hear your voice."

Acting commander -- which likely meant that Caldwell hadn't survived the crash, or at least wasn't in good shape. Which meant they'd suffered injuries, possibly deaths. There were a million questions he wanted to ask, starting with Are Elizabeth and Rodney okay? but instead he said, "We're right over you in a puddlejumper. We've got four more jumpers above the clouds. I'm going to try to reach them on the radio, which might mean taking a short hop into the upper atmosphere -- the storm is giving our communications systems hell. Where do you want us to land?"

"Most of us are in the cargo bay, Colonel. You can probably see from up there that there's a rip in the hull -- if you can find a flat place to land near it, that's how we've been getting in and out. And -- we've got wounded."

"Acknowledged, Daedalus. We have a medical staff with us. We'll be on the ground in a few minutes." Turning his head, Sheppard saw that Beckett was opening his mouth -- probably to ask about Cadman or the others. "Doc, get your gear together. We'll be landing in a minute and I need you ready to go."

Beckett looked as if he wanted to protest, but nodded and got up. Sheppard was glad he hadn't argued -- there wasn't anything they could do from up here, no matter what the answer was about their people on the ground, and they'd find out soon enough.


Impact plus 20 hours 55 minutes

Keisha's feet slipped and skidded in the snow. At some point her hood had been knocked askew, and her ears were going numb, but she didn't dare stop to put it back up. Cadman leaned heavily on her shoulder, and Keisha shook her gently. "Ma'am? Can you hear me?"

Looking back, she saw that they were leaving a trail of red spots in the snow -- blood dripping from Cadman's injured arm. Her entire sleeve was soaked, and Keisha could even smell it, a heavy metallic reek.

She was terrified of pursuit, by either Armstrong or the wolves, but if she didn't stop and do something about the bleeding, Cadman was going to die.

They were currently in some sort of valley. High cliffs helped to cut the wind, as did the pine forest through which they were currently making their way. Keisha stopped under a pine tree and helped the injured lieutenant sit down with her back against it, wishing that she had any sort of woodcraft skills. She'd been through simple wilderness-survival training in Basic, but the only thing she could remember off the top of her head was how to purify water by digging a hole in sand, which wasn't especially applicable to their current situation. She was a city girl, darn it; her only experience in the woods was summer camp, and her main memory of that was nearly drowning when she'd fallen out of a canoe.

Cadman's hood was down, too, and her blond hair straggled limply into her face. Keisha had to call her name several times to get her attention, and she raised her head with a dazed, drugged look on her face.

"Lieutenant Cadman? I need to look at your arm, ma'am. Where does it hurt?"

Cadman stared at her for a moment before slowly focusing. "Shoulder," she said. "Shot in the shoulder. I think."

Keisha partially unzipped the parka and pulled it back. The shoulder of Cadman's uniform was a sodden mess; Keisha picked at the fabric but couldn't tell where the bullet had gone in or whether there was an exit wound.

"Wolves," Cadman said suddenly.

"It's all right, ma'am. I think we lost them."

Cadman shook her head. "No. Blood." She sounded a bit stronger, but her teeth chattered with cold. "If they're like Earth predators, they'll be able to smell blood. We have to keep moving."

Keisha paused from examining the injury to snug Cadman's parka hood back up over her head. "We have to rest for a moment, ma'am, and I have to take care of your wound. Do you have anything we can use for a bandage?"

"First aid kit in my vest."

Keisha found it, and bound the shoulder as tightly as she could. Cadman bit her lip and hissed softly in pain, but didn't move.

"I think the bullet might still be in there, ma'am, but I can't do anything about that."

Cadman nodded, and then she tugged at Keisha's arm with her good hand, getting her attention. "Listen, you saved my life back there. Twice. Thank you."

Keisha looked away. "You would have done it for me, ma'am."

Cadman laughed a little. "I'm not so sure of that. I froze up, do you know that? I knew that Armstrong was going to kill me and I just ... couldn't make myself shoot someone wearing the same uniform as mine. I just kept thinking, this is Dennis, I know him, it's got to be some kind of mistake ..."

"I still can't believe it, ma'am," Keisha said fervently. "Airman Ludwick, and Lieutenant Armstrong ... how is it possible?" She paused, swallowed, as a frightening thought occurred to her. Looking up and meeting Cadman's eyes, she saw that she wasn't the only one.

Cadman spoke quietly. "There could be more of them, back on the Daedalus. And Armstrong may be headed back there right now. We have to get back and warn them."

"Colonel Caldwell will ..."

"Airman, we don't even know if he's still alive." Cadman grabbed at the trunk of the tree, dragging herself upright. Keisha scrambled to her feet and tried to help. "We have to get back, have to let them know what happened." She reached awkwardly across her face to tap at her radio. "Daedalus, this is Cadman. Daedalus, come in, please ... It's no use. Even without the storm, all these cliffs would block our radios in any case." Looking around, she said slowly, "Er, Airman, where are we?"

Keisha gulped. "I was hoping you wouldn't ask me that, ma'am. I have no idea."

Cadman stared up at the cliffs around them. Their tops were lost in the blizzard; it was impossible to see the mountains at all. Then she looked back over her shoulder. The wind had already wiped out their trail.

"I think we might be in trouble," Keisha admitted in a tiny voice. "I'm sorry."

"Not your fault, Airman." Cadman looped her good arm over the younger woman's shoulders, easing her weight onto Keisha's solid frame. "We know which way we came from. Let's see if we can cut over and get on top of these hills. We might be able to orient ourselves that way."

Keisha nodded, and the two of them began to move, awkwardly, through the snow.


Impact plus 21 hours 0 minutes

Almost exactly twenty-one hours to the minute after the Daedalus dropped off Atlantis's sensors, rescue arrived. And a lot of worried people stopped counting minutes.

But the search for the missing ship was only the first skirmish in a much longer battle -- and that battle had only just begun.


Despite the winds buffeting the jumper, Sheppard set it down feather-light beside the hole in the side of the Daedalus's cargo bay. As he stepped out of the lowered bay door, the wind hit him like a solid wall of distilled cold. Damn ... Simpson hadn't been kidding; it was freezing out here. He looked up to see the rest of the jumpers break through the storm, coming in formation to land around them. Realizing that he was mentally critiquing their landing skills, he looked instead at the small group of people who had come out to meet them.

"Colonel? We've met before, on Atlantis; I'm Major Perry, acting commander of the Daedalus, and this is Major Ling; she's our CMO."

Sheppard returned their salutes. Beckett appeared at his elbow, and wasted no time. "Hello again, Carol. You said you have wounded?"

She just nodded and led him towards the ship. Sheppard fell into step with Perry, while Ronon loomed quietly behind him. "What's the situation here, Perry? How many wounded?"

"About half the crew are injured in some way, sir. We have eight fatalities and a few people in critical condition ... including your Doctor Weir."

The knot of tension in Sheppard's stomach gave a sudden, hard twist. "Is she ...?" He trailed off, realizing that he wasn't sure what he wanted to ask. Dying?

"She's in a coma. We've been hand-ventilating her. I'm sorry ... I know that's not what you wanted to hear, sir."

"I didn't exactly come out here expecting good news, Major." Sheppard forced down the part of him that was screaming, the part that wanted to run to Elizabeth's side, the part that wanted to grab Perry and shake him and demand to know if Rodney was one of the eight dead. He was in crisis mode -- cool, contained, efficient. Elizabeth would have approved. Elizabeth ... Rodney ... "What about the rest of our people? Are they all right?"

"There are some minor injuries. One of your engineers was killed -- a Dr. Estvaag -- and another is badly injured: Dr. Zelenka, I believe."

Radek. Hell. But he hadn't listed Rodney among the dead. That was something, anyway. "What about McKay?"

Perry took a deep breath, and began, "He wasn't injured in the crash --" Then he was interrupted by Ling as she gave him a hand up into the cargo bay. But something in Sheppard had gone limp in relief. He allowed himself to be helped up next. Perry clearly had more to say, and Sheppard needed to hear it -- for one thing, he wanted to know why Rodney hadn't been there to greet the jumpers with the rest of them. Before he could get his thoughts together enough to ask, though, Ling pulled back a curtain and he saw Elizabeth.

He spoke her name before he knew that he was going to; the word was torn out of some private place deep inside him. He couldn't believe how fragile she looked, how broken and small. Standing beside her, feeling dazed, he watched her chest rise and fall with the rhythmic squeezing of the ventilator. Ronon's bulk was warm and reassuring behind him -- maybe the only thing, he thought, that kept him from falling down.

After a moment's frozen shock, Carson was in motion. He gave Carol Ling a single glance, and she returned a slight nod -- Yes, you're in charge, do what you need to do -- and then he was giving orders with a firmness that belied his normal unassuming manner, that gave the lie to the pain in his blue eyes. After only a slight hesitation, the military people around him scrambled to obey his commands, hastening out to the jumpers to fetch power cables, portable heaters and lights.

Sheppard backed away quietly, understanding now how small his part in this thing really was. He'd delivered the doctors and would help take them and their precious cargo back to Atlantis, but from here, there was little that he could do. When he looked around for Perry, he saw his own feelings mirrored on the Major's face. Perry, he realized, must have been in nonstop crisis mode ever since the Daedalus crashed. Now, suddenly, the crisis had been handed off to someone else.

And there was something that Sheppard needed to know. Crossing the jumper bay back to the tear in the side of the hull, he asked, "You were saying something about McKay. Where is he?"

Rather than answering, Perry glanced up at Ronon. "I think we should talk about that privately, Colonel."

The knot in Sheppard's belly twisted tighter. "There's nothing you can say to me that Ronon can't hear, Major."

Perry said nothing until they had climbed down, once again, into the blowing snow. The wind snatched away voices and made the perfect privacy screen. In that bubble of white noise, Perry turned to face Sheppard and spoke in a soft, deadly-serious voice. "It was sabotage that caused the ship to crash, Colonel. Dr. McKay is currently the prime suspect. He is also suspected of the murder of a Daedalus crewman and the attempted murder of Dr. Weir."

Somehow, Sheppard wasn't as shocked as he thought he should be. He'd felt earlier, in a way he couldn't explain, that they hadn't had enough bad yet -- that worse was on the way.

"Liar." Ronon's voice was a growl. Sheppard sensed his teammate moving forward, and raised his hand, just a little. Ronon stopped.

"So, where is he? In custody?" Oh, heads were going to roll for this.

Perry shook his head. "He took a crew member hostage and took off into the blizzard. About an hour ago."

Now all Sheppard could do was stare. He felt as if he'd accidentally stepped into some kind of Twilight Zone episode. "You're kidding, right? Rodney? Took a hostage? Are you sure you don't mean he was taken hostage?"

"We have a witness who saw him holding a gun on a young woman, sir -- Airman Cora Ludwick, one of our medics. Colonel Caldwell has taken a search party to track them down."

He couldn't understand it. Something else had to be going on here ... something that scared the hell out of him. "You said they've been out there for an hour?"

"Give or take, sir."

Rodney. In a blizzard. For an hour. The man had the survival skills of a depressed lemming; it would be a miracle if he hadn't fallen off the side of a cliff or pissed off a polar bear or something. He'd turned and was already halfway back to the jumper before a powerful hand settled on his shoulder and stopped him as implacably as an iron bar to the chest.

"I can track 'em," Ronon said.

Sheppard turned to face him. "In a blizzard? After an hour? I don't know much about tracking, but it sure doesn't look like good tracking weather out here to me."

"Worth a try."

"The jumper's a better bet, and a hell of a lot faster."

"You're needed here."

Sheppard looked around. "I don't see for what. This is a medical mission now, Ronon. It's Carson's show. Lorne and Perry can handle directing people around." He tapped his radio. "Lorne, I need to see you for a minute."

The snow was falling so thickly now that he couldn't identify Lorne by shape from a distance, until one of the figures turned towards him and slogged over. "Colonel?"

"Lorne, Major Perry's just informed me that both Caldwell and McKay, among other people, are somewhere out in that." He jerked a thumb to indicate the white-out that had drawn a hazy curtain across the nearby trees. "While we prep people for transport, I'm taking out a jumper to search for them."

"Sir, I can --"

"No. I'll be flying it. You're in charge here, Major." He thought about explaining his decision to Lorne -- and that was a measure of how much time he'd spent around civilians lately, that he thought he had to explain. But he didn't say anything. Because as hard as he rationalized it to himself -- and he really was the best pilot they had, possibly the only one capable of flying through mountains in this sort of storm -- what it came down to was that he simply couldn't sit here and wait. Couldn't. Wouldn't.

The snow kept falling around them. Thicker. Faster. Wiping away every trace of the fugitives' tracks, until they might never have been.


"They're funny things ... snowflakes."

"Snowflakes? Why?"

They were walking, walking ... had been walking for some time through a still, white world. The thickly falling snow made it seem as if they were the only two people in the world, like explorers on a distant planet and not two children walking home from school on a city street.

"Look up." The small, mittened hand was warm in his, and he couldn't help thinking, This is wrong. She shouldn't be here. Why is she here?

Out of habit, he rolled his eyes. "Can't you just tell me?"

"Look up," she said in the same impatient tone that he had used on her. Little blond girl, in a pink snowsuit with a teddy bear on the sleeve ... She shoved him, that little blond girl, and he shoved her right back as another thrill of wrongness went through him. She shouldn't be here. But he did look up.

"Well?" Jeannie asked. "Do you see what I mean?"

He didn't answer immediately, because he was strangely transfixed. He knew that he was looking at little falling bits of ice, no more mysterious and magical than so many chunks of concrete. Yet there was something fascinating about the way they dipped and swirled, dark against a white backdrop of clouds. It felt as if he could fly loose from the world and fall up into that void.

"Do you see?" Jeannie asked, her voice echoing down the halls of memory.

"Yes, I see," Rodney said aloud, and licked his lips, tasting blood. He blinked as he stared up into an infinity speckled with tiny dark stars. Snowflakes. They looked very like the ones that he remembered from his childhood, the ones Jeannie had loved on those long-ago walks through the snow.

He twisted his head to the side, still caught up in the memory and half-afraid to see Jeannie sitting next to him with her blond curls and that silly pink snowsuit she used to wear. But of course, there was no Jeannie, just a broken expanse of snow and uprooted bushes. And he hurt. All over. He swallowed the taste of copper, and gagged a little. Good God, he was bleeding. From the mouth. That really couldn't be good.


"Here," he tried to say, but choked on a mouthful of blood. He rolled to the side, coughed and spit and nearly threw up from the horrid, thick saltiness of it. After a brief moment of pure Oh God I'm dying panic, he raised a hand to his face and touched tender, bruised flesh. Stripping off a glove, he felt his face, found that he'd bitten his tongue and his nose was bleeding.

"You okay?" Caldwell's voice sounded strained, and a bit muffled.

"No!" he snapped, spitting more blood. Talking hurt his bitten tongue, which just irritated him more. "Why do people always ask me that after something catastrophic has happened which basically guarantees that anyone in the vicinity will not be okay? Sheppard does that too. Do you people learn it in basic training or something? Along with the stock responses -- 'Why yes, old boy, I'm perfectly fine, just collecting my limbs over here.' And how are you, Colonel?"

There was a brief silence -- what Rodney tended to think of, with Sheppard, as a "hit him or laugh at him" silence. Then Caldwell made a sound that might have been a brief laugh. "Pretty much the same."

Moving was probably bad, very bad, because he might have hurt his back -- but lying here and not knowing if Armstrong was even now standing two feet away from his head was even worse. Slowly, painfully, Rodney pushed himself upright. He was partly buried in snow, and found it surprisingly heavy as he scraped it off his legs with aching arms. Between getting knocked around in the crash, and now this, he felt like one gigantic human-shaped bruise. On the other hand, all his limbs worked, and he supposed that was something.

Looking around, he saw that they had come very close to being swept into the river. Even at this time of year, it was not entirely frozen -- it was too savage for that, frothing over rocks that jutted like teeth out of the black water. The sides were skimmed with ice that grew treacherous towards the center before vanishing completely in a twisting cascade of open water. In some places the spray had created fantastic ice sculptures rearing outward from its overhanging banks and low-lying tree branches. Rodney supposed that some people might consider it beautiful, but he wasn't given to appreciating the beauty of something that could have killed him if he'd slid another twenty feet. No one could fall into that ice-cold torrent and live.

One advantage to being down at the bottom of a ravine was that they were now cut off from the worst of the wind. The snow still fell, though, swirling down thickly as Rodney crawled over to Caldwell. The Colonel was sitting up and struggling to extricate himself as Rodney had done, but was hampered by having only one hand to do it with. His other arm was held stiffly against his chest, and his lips were compressed into a thin white line. He did a double take when he saw Rodney's face.

"Oh what, what? What do I look like? I broke my nose, didn't I? They never go back together straight, you know." Rodney tried to imagine himself with a crooked nose. The effect might be kind of rakish ... on someone else. On himself, it would probably just look kind of lumpy and make women laugh at him even more than they usually did.

"You definitely look like you tangled with the wrong end of a tree branch." Caldwell kicked some more of the snow off himself. Rodney gave him a hand with some of the bigger, icier chunks.

"You didn't answer me. About the nose."

"No, it doesn't look broken, McKay, for crying out loud, although it's difficult to tell with all the blood..." After that entirely unreassuring statement, Caldwell began running the fingers of his good hand through the snow around him. "Damn it, I lost the P90. You don't see it anywhere, do you?"

"No, but I don't see Armstrong either. Maybe he thinks we died in the avalanche and left."

"I sincerely hope he thinks that." Caldwell climbed shakily to his feet; Rodney thought about offering a hand up, but he'd already gotten there on his own before the decision could be made. "But I'm not holding out a lot of hope that he won't come back to make sure. He was always very thorough, very conscientious."

"Correct me if I'm wrong here, but he's some kind of Daniel Boone wannabe too, isn't he?"

"Of all the people on my crew, Armstrong's the best in the outdoors ... that I know of, anyway."

"Of course he is," Rodney muttered.

Caldwell reached into his coat and drew out a stubby 9mm pistol. It looked very small and not very efficient. Sometimes Rodney thought that ignorance was bliss when it came to guns, because now he was remembering Sheppard's lessons about how effective at long distances those things weren't.

Snapping off the safety, Caldwell said, "Come on."

He started walking upriver. After a moment, Rodney followed him, with a plaintive, "Where are we going?"

"Back to the Daedalus, where else?" The footing down here was terrible -- uncertain and treacherous, even without the added debris field from the avalanche. They were probably walking over gravel bars and driftwood, covered with snow. The way the river wound around, it might even be flowing under their feet sometimes, and that idea made Rodney shudder. He still had a horror of drowning, especially now that he'd cheated fate twice on that score.

"And that's the way we're going?"

"I assume so. At least indirectly." Caldwell paused to struggle over a fallen pine tree, with one hand tucked into his coat and the other occupied with the gun. "The Daedalus is pretty high in the mountains, and rivers flow downhill, so the uphill direction is most likely to get us closer ... or at least not too much farther away."

"That's great," Rodney muttered. "They're all frikking Daniel Boone. Excuse me if I missed the course on following rivers while I was studying advanced astrophysics. And, by the way, aren't we going to climb out of here at some point?"

"If you want to tangle with Armstrong and the wolves, be my guest."

"On second thought, it's rather nice down here. Cozy. Sheltered. Hey, why are you stopping?"

Caldwell had paused to stare at the pine tree he'd just crossed. It was a big one and went all the way across the river, its feathery tip resting securely in the snow on the opposite bank. "I was just thinking that Armstrong has no way to cross the river, not from up there. And the wolves might stay on the other side as well. We'll be a lot safer if we cross."

Rodney looked down at the churning dark water, and swallowed. "Yeah, but we won't be safer if we fall in."

"Then we don't fall in." Caldwell put away the gun and mounted the tree once again.

"We're going to have to cross back, you know!"

"We're heading upriver; it should be narrower there."

"Says you," Rodney grumbled, but he grabbed hold of branches and pulled himself up.

Nerve-wracking as the crossing was, it really wasn't terribly difficult to stay anchored on the tree trunk, with so many close-together branches to hang onto. The only part where Rodney did fear for his life was near the end, when the thinner top of the tree began to bend under their feet. Caldwell jumped off into the snow and Rodney hastily, gratefully, followed suit, gasping in relief.

Caldwell unholstered his gun once again and looked behind them. Rodney looked, too, but there was nothing to be seen except for snow. The tops of the cliffs were hidden in the blizzard. If Armstrong was up there, they couldn't see him, and he couldn't see them.

"Now what?" He hated deferring to Caldwell's leadership in this way, but it wasn't as if he had the slightest clue where to go.

"Now we find a place to climb out, and get up top." Caldwell forged ahead, and Rodney had no choice but to follow. "We're leaving a trail down here, and it'll take the snow awhile to cover it up, but once we get up there where the wind is blowing, I'm thinking that even Armstrong isn't going to be able to track us. Then we get away from the river a bit, and find somewhere to hole up until this passes; then make our way back to the Daedalus."

"I don't believe it," Rodney said, slogging along after him. "You actually have a plan. And it sounds like a halfway decent plan."

"This is unusual?" Caldwell inquired.

"For the sort of missions I'm used to, namely those involving Sheppard? Yes."


With the inertial dampers dialed back as far as they could safely go -- leaving just enough to shield their bodies from excessive g's on the hard turns -- the puddlejumper bucked and shuddered in the wind. Sheppard could feel the sweat trickling down the back of his neck as he struggled with the controls. Ronon, thankfully, was a silent and undemanding passenger. This would have been next to impossible with Rodney complaining about every bit of turbulence.

Rodney ... God. What was going on? What had happened back on that ship?

The first time the LSD gave him a cluster of life signs, he broke out of the clouds and swirling snow just a few dozen yards above the shaggy backs of a herd of large, yak-looking animals with wide spreading horns. "Sorry," he muttered as they scattered under him, their bleats of fear audible through the ship's external sensors.

The second time, it was a pack of some kind of huge, wolflike predators, their lean bodies coursing rapidly across a snowy hillside. His attention focused on them, Sheppard very nearly flew into a cliffside that loomed suddenly out of the white-out. He wrenched the controls and went into a vertical climb with feet to spare, massively grateful that he wasn't actually flying any sort of Earth craft because a stunt like that would probably have stalled him out. The cliff went up ... and up ... finally topping out, only to reveal still taller mountains dangerously close behind. Sheppard kept climbing until he felt safe enough to level off for a moment, but the wind continued to fling the jumper around.

Short of being actually shot at with RPGs, this was probably the most dangerous piece of flying he'd ever done, and that included some pretty hairy search-and-rescues, even the time he'd helped rescue some fisherman from a swamped boat in a hurricane. But the hell with that -- they didn't leave people behind, and seeing how bad it was out here confirmed his decision to get Rodney, Caldwell and anybody else who was out in this mess back to the Daedalus.

He glanced over at Ronon. "You want to go back and get dropped off, just say the word. We're putting our necks on the line here."

Ronon just gave him a look as if to say, How dumb are you? And that was it for any talk of leaving him behind.

Unfortunately, with visuals all but down, it seemed he was reliant on the puddlejumper's not-very-reliable LSD. Rodney could probably have calibrated it to pick out human life signs, but Rodney wasn't here.

After a couple more false alarms, though, he came out of the swirling snow nearly on top of two small, parka-clad figures toiling their way up a ridge. Relief made him weak; he kept his grip on the controls tight, though, as he banked and brought the jumper down in one of his hastiest, sloppiest landings ever. He and Ronon slid on the tilting deck and jumped out into knee-deep snow to see that the two people were slogging in their direction, one leaning heavily on the shoulder of the other.

A few yards away, they stopped and the obviously less-injured of the two drew a 9mm and pointed it at Sheppard and Ronon. Sheppard noticed out of the corner of his eye that Ronon had already drawn his gun.

He could see from here, though, that the person holding the gun was young and female, and obviously afraid. Her hand trembled on the weapon. "At ease, uh ..." He tried to see any rank insignia, but her parka covered it up. "Soldier," he finished. "We're here to help."

"You'll forgive me if I don't trust anybody right now, sir." She slogged another couple of steps closer, and the person leaning on her shoulder raised a blond head. Sheppard could have laughed aloud with relief -- it was Cadman, and her eyes slowly focused on him with recognition.

"Colonel! I'm not hallucinating, am I?"

"Nope. Good to see you too, Lieutenant. Want to tell your friend that we're the good guys?"

Cadman looked blearily down at the arm holding the gun. "Keisha, stand down. It's Colonel Sheppard, from Atlantis."

"They could be in league with Armstrong, ma'am."

Cadman raised a hand weakly, folded it over Keisha's. "No. Not him. We're safe."

Her knees buckled then, and Ronon moved even faster than Sheppard, getting an arm around Cadman while Sheppard supported Keisha as she sagged, too. Letting her down onto the jumper's tilting floor, he closed the back door and they were enfolded in warmth and stillness -- a massive relief after the screaming wind outside.

"Where are the others?" Sheppard asked over his shoulder.

"We don't know, sir," Keisha said, huddling in her parka and dripping half-melted snow on the floor. "We were all split up. When I last saw them, Dr. McKay and the Colonel were together. Mike ... Mike's dead, so's Cora. And Lieutenant Armstrong ..." She swallowed, and huddled deeper into her coat.

Ronon was stripping off Cadman's parka. "Got a bad bullet wound here, looks like," he reported. "She's about bled out. Need to get her back to the ship."

He hated leaving without Rodney, hated it with every fiber of his being, but Ronon was right. "We'll drop you off, come back," he told his passengers as he felt the wind catch the ship. "And I think I need to hear what happened. Last I heard was some kind of crazy story about Rodney taking hostages."

Cadman snorted weakly. "Bunch of lies, sir," she said, and keeled over on Ronon.

On the short flight back to the Daedalus, Keisha filled them in on the basics of the events that had taken place -- the betrayal by Cora Ludwick and Lieutenant Armstrong, the fight and subsequent flight into the wilderness.

"You're saying there could be others on the ship," Sheppard said over his shoulder, diverting as much attention as he could spare from flying to listen to her.

"I'm afraid so, sir. There's no way to know. I'd've never pegged Airman Ludwick or Lieutenant Armstrong for traitors either."

Wasn't it bad enough to deal with a raging blizzard and a ship full of injured people without this too? From the sound of things, his people on the Daedalus were in as much danger as the ones out in the storm. By the time the spaceship's bulk came in view, Sheppard knew what he was going to have to do. He couldn't take off again without leaving behind someone he could trust who could handle a gun. Ronon wouldn't like it, but that was just too bad.

He set down in the same spot as before, noticing that two of the jumpers were already gone, while Lorne supervised the loading of the other two. As he climbed out with Cadman's arm over his shoulder, Lorne hollered at him over the wind, "We didn't wait for orders to leave, sir! Simpson says the main body of the storm is heading for us. In half an hour or so, we may not be able to take off, so we're sending out the worst wounded as quickly as we can."


"She was on the first jumper." He nodded towards the Daedalus. "Except for Doc Zelenka, all the most critically injured have already been evac'd. We're loading the less wounded now."

"Well, I've got another one for you. She needs a doctor pretty quick, if you happen to have one hanging around."

Taking Cadman's weight from his shoulders, Lorne acknowledged her with a quick, relieved, "Lieutenant." He peered past Sheppard into the depths of the jumper, seeing only Seavey and Ronon as they joined the Colonel in the snow. "The others?"

"McKay and Caldwell are still out there," Sheppard said grimly. "If we don't need this jumper for critical cases, I'm staying behind, going back for them."

"Sir, you really need to talk to Simpson about the storm."

"I'll do that. First I need to see Beckett. Where is he?"

"Engine room." Lorne pointed, and then helped Cadman to one of the jumpers. Sheppard gave Seavey a gentle shove in the direction of the Daedalus. "Go get some dry clothes and food, Airman. And ... nice work out there."

She smiled over her shoulder at him, a bit shyly, and then hurried off towards the ship.

Sheppard went the other way. The engine room turned out to be easy enough to locate, because a jumper had been pulled as close to the side of the Daedalus as it would go, and power cables snaked from its open hatch into another hole in the side of the ship. Sheppard climbed up and found himself in what must once have been a ventilation shaft. He slid down and dropped out to find himself in a scene of startling devastation. If the rest of the ship looked like this, it was amazing any of them had survived; he even saw scorch marks on the bulkheads. At the moment, arc lights had been set up around the room, and he saw Simpson talking to Hermiod and Novak over by the wall. In another direction, he located Beckett at the hub of a bustle of activity that appeared to be centered on ... Good God. Vaguely aware of Ronon behind him, he stepped over a humming, portable heater and knelt down next to Beckett, who was holding an oxygen mask over the scientist's face.

"Damn," Sheppard whispered, staring at the jagged edge of metal protruding from Zelenka's shoulder.

"Aye," Beckett agreed. "He's in bad shape. We're just about to begin cutting him free."


"She's already on her way to Atlantis." Carson's face said clearly that he wished he could have been there, but knew he was needed here. "She's stable, at least, if not good. As soon as we get Radek stable, we'll be taking him as well. Did you -- ah ..."

"We found Cadman."

"Oh, thank God." He sagged a little against the wall. "Is she all right?"

No point in sugarcoating it. "She's been shot, actually, but Lorne's getting her onto a jumper."

"Shot?" Carson's face darkened. "What the bloody hell went on here in the last twenty hours, Colonel?"

"I'm still putting it together myself," Sheppard said softly, "and I'm not liking the picture that's coming up. There were saboteurs on the Daedalus, Carson -- at least two of them, possibly more. One of them is out there in the blizzard, and so are Rodney and Caldwell."

"Carol's given me a bit of a primer on the sabotage situation." Beckett looked down as Zelenka stirred restlessly. He laid a calming hand against the scientist's forehead. "She said there's a contingent of arseholes -- pardon my language, but I think the term fits -- among the military who blame Rodney for it."

"Yeah, so I heard. The upshot of it all, Doc, is that Rodney's out there in a blizzard with a killer, and you people aren't necessarily safe here either. I'm going to leave Ronon to watch your backs." He heard a soft rustle of leather and an intake of breath from behind him. "No arguing, big guy. You know I don't have a choice."

"Not letting you go out there alone," Ronon replied, with his implacable "just try to change my mind" face on.

"The hell you're not. I'll be in a warm, safe jumper, with sensors and drones. I need someone here to keep an eye on things -- someone I trust. You want some creep with a gun to jump the Doc from behind? You want to see some helpless geek strung up by a mob and know you could have done something about it if you'd been here?"

Ronon looked away.

"I left Teyla on Atlantis because I needed her there." The low note of command in Sheppard's voice drew Ronon's eyes to his face. "Well, I need you here. There's no point in two of us going in the jumper, especially when only one of us can fly it."

In a voice pitched for Sheppard's ears alone, Ronon murmured. "I hate this."

"I know what you mean." And he did. Scattered, isolated, alone -- this wasn't how the group of them were meant to be. Their strength was each other.

Zelenka moved suddenly and made a soft sound in his throat, drawing Sheppard's attention away from Ronon's too-naked eyes.

"Don't try to talk, then," Beckett soothed.

Radek reached up and nudged at the oxygen mask until Beckett, reluctantly, lifted it away. "You came," he whispered.

Carson smiled, just a little. "Was there ever any doubt?"

"Lots of doubt ..." His voice started to trail off sleepily, then he looked past Beckett, at Sheppard, and managed to focus again. "Where's Rodney?"

Carson pushed him back against the wall as he started to lean forward. "You let the Colonel, here, worry about that. You've got your own concerns at the moment."

Radek looked blearily around the engine room, and mumbled, "Oh hell. I'm still here."

"Not for long, we hope. Just lay back and we'll be giving you something that should make you feel a lot better."

"I feel fine," Radek murmured. "It doesn't hurt. Where'd the Colonel go?"

"I'm here." Sheppard leaned over Carson's shoulder. "You listen to the Doc ... Doc. You'll be fine."

Carson tried to replace the oxygen mask. Radek batted at it feebly. "Colonel, you tell Rodney -- tell him, when you see him -- tell him he's not ..."

He started coughing; Beckett supported him until the spasms eased. "Son, for the love of all that's holy, will you stop talking!" Looking over his shoulder at Sheppard, he added in a soft voice, "Colonel, Simpson says it'll get worse out there before it gets better. You'd best be gone."

Sheppard nodded, reluctantly, and straightened up. Radek noticed the movement and redoubled his efforts to get the oxygen mask off. Shoving it to the side, he looked up at Sheppard and slurred, "Tell that pitomec his social skills are pitiful, but he's still not as bad at certain things as he thinks he is."

Sheppard snorted. "Is there anything Rodney thinks he isn't good at?"

Radek grinned a little; his head slipped to the side. "Just tell ..." His voice faded as Beckett got the oxygen mask back over his mouth.

"Sheppard." Ronon looked up at him. "What are you waitin' for ... Spring?"

He looked down at them, at Carson unwrapping the blanket from Radek's injured shoulder, at Ronon looking up at him with eyes that contained too much. He hadn't had an unhappy life on Earth. Never felt like something was missing. All he ever wanted or needed was to fly. And now ... now all that he wanted, all that he needed, was here in this room, and back on Atlantis, and out there in that blizzard.

He almost hadn't come to this galaxy. It had turned on the flip of a coin.

"Sheppard," Ronon repeated, impatiently.

"Yeah. Going. See you guys later."

And he went.

Coming out of the ventilation shaft, he nearly ran into Perry and Ling. Perry saluted him quickly. "Still no sign of Colonel Caldwell, sir?"

"No, but I'm going back out." Sheppard paused, remembering Perry's earlier accusations about McKay, and as he passed the man, he added, "We did find Cadman and another of your people, and it was a very interesting story they had to tell, regarding just who exactly was a hostage out there, and who wasn't."

"I heard," Perry said shortly. "I suppose we'll get the full truth of it when the Colonel turns up. You have to admit though, sir -- you can see how we might have made the mistake."

Sheppard stopped. Didn't turn around. "What do you mean by that, Major?"

"No offense intended, sir. But you work with Dr. McKay; you must have noticed that he's ... not the most personable man."

"And that has what to do with his value as a scientist or as a human being, Major?"

"Nothing, sir. Good luck out there."

Perry turned away, and muttered something under his breath. If the gusting wind hadn't chosen that moment to die briefly away as it changed directions, his comment would probably have passed unnoticed; as it was, though, Sheppard heard it loud and clear. "No great loss if you don't find him."

Sheppard spun around, quick as a striking snake, but Ling was faster yet -- by the time Sheppard had reoriented himself, Ling was already in Perry's face. "We've served together for years, Jason, and I'll pretend I didn't hear that -- as long as I never hear anything like that from you again."

Looking from Ling to Sheppard, seeing the anger on both their faces, Perry looked stunned, and sheepish. "It's been a hell of a long day. I was out of line." To Sheppard: "No offense, sir."

"Offense taken, Major." Sheppard realized that he was visibly shaking with anger, and stilled himself by force of will. There was a time and a place to give in. This wasn't it ... for one thing, because he outranked the man; he had recourse other than violence, satisfying though it might be. "Listen to the lady, Major. Nobody talks about my--" friends "--people that way. Not in my hearing and not behind my back. Do we understand each other?"

He could see that Perry was taken aback at his quick defense of McKay, and perhaps more so at Ling's; she was bristling next to Sheppard like a little tiny bulldog. "Yes, sir," he said quietly, and then, "If you're going to be flying in this, you should take survival equipment with you. I'll have someone bring you a parka and boots."

Sheppard nodded, briefly, still angry, still trying to swallow it. "That'd be good." He turned on his heel and walked away.

The quick crunching of snow behind him let him know that he was being followed. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Ling's dark, snow-speckled hair. "Nice to see that Rodney has one defender on this ship," he said.

Ling laughed softly. "Not at first, believe me," she said. "Let's just say that I saw something in him I never thought to see -- and I can understand why you would defend him so fiercely. There is ... just something about him."

Sheppard smirked in spite of himself. "You don't know the half of it."

"Here's hoping I get the chance to find out." She stopped at the base of the jumper's ramp. Sheppard couldn't help thinking, for a moment, of Teyla back on Atlantis, forced to stay behind, depending on him to do what she could not. Bring them back safely, John.

He would. He swore he would.


They found a place to climb the cliff where a creek, now frozen, had cut a deep notch in the side of the river canyon. With the creek frozen and covered with snow, what remained was a steep chute choked with brush. To Rodney's eyes, it appeared nearly vertical from below, but once they were climbing he found that it actually wasn't as hard as it looked. Caldwell, hampered by the gun and by his broken arm, had considerably more trouble. About halfway up, Caldwell made a soft sound in the back of his throat and sat down in the snow. Rodney, above him, paused and looked down. Oh HELL, you'd better not pass out or do anything crazy ... "What's wrong?"

"This isn't working," Caldwell said, unzipping his parka. "I think I'm going to need your help for this."

Rodney stiffened in place. "Dare I ask, my help with what?" He watched with mounting alarm as Caldwell stripped off his coat, apparently oblivious to the snowflakes settling on his head and shoulders. Wasn't taking off your clothes one of the symptoms of end-stage hypothermia? So help him, if he had to deal with a naked Caldwell on top of everything else ...

"Binding my arm," Caldwell said, and Rodney sighed with relief and slid back down to join him -- sparing a moment's regret for the lost time he'd spent climbing up those few extra feet.

They had nothing to use for binding material, so Caldwell opened the top of his coverall -- again getting a horrified look from Rodney, which he ignored -- and used his military-issue knife to sever strips of the T-shirt he wore underneath, with deft slices. Rodney stared. "I don't think I'd be wielding a sharp implement that close to my vital organs, Colonel, but maybe that's just me."

Caldwell glowered at him. "Well, help me, then!"

Gritting his teeth, Rodney held a handful of the T-shirt material away from Caldwell's body so that the Colonel could cut it at a slightly less awkward angle. Caldwell worked his injured arm out of his coverall's sleeve and, with Rodney helping to hold and tie knots, used the sleeve and the T-shirt strips to bind his arm to his torso. He was white-faced and breathing hard by the time they were done. Despite the cold, a thin sheen of sweat glistened on his forehead.

"You look like crap," Rodney told him as the Colonel worked his parka back on one-handed.

"I wish you could see what you look like right now, Dr. McKay."

Self-consciously, Rodney raised one hand to his face. "What? Seriously, how bad is it? I can breathe okay, so I don't think my nose is broken. Does it look like it's broken to you?"

Caldwell snorted as he finished zipping his parka. "It's not broken. At least, I don't think so. Hard to tell under all the blood."

Rodney scrubbed at his face with his glove, hissing in pain as he accidentally bumped various tender spots. His face, like the rest of him, seemed to be one gigantic bruise. "Did that get it?"

Caldwell just shook his head with a little laugh, and resumed climbing.

"Ah, I see," Rodney said darkly, bringing up the rear. "The mocking begins. Let's all laugh at the smart man -- it's a common problem on Atlantis as well. Why none of you physical types seem to have outgrown grade school is an absolute mystery to me."


You had to do one of two things when you spent any amount of time around Rodney McKay: kill him, or get used to him and start playing the game on his level. Caldwell had gone with option #2 and found that he was actually enjoying it.

The man had really done a number on his face when he'd fallen. There was blood everywhere, and a couple of spreading purple bruises, one covering most of his chin and the other crossing the bridge of his nose and blackening one eye. On the other hand, Caldwell doubted if he looked any better, between the lingering effects of the crash and the new abrasions and various other injuries that he'd obtained in the avalanche.

When they reached the top of the cliff, the wind struck them and nearly drove them to their knees. Rodney whispered "Jesus!" and raised one hand to pull his parka hood down over his eyes, shielding his face. Caldwell braced his knees, turning his head away from the wind. They were definitely in the full grip of the storm now. Even if, through some miracle, Perry's team managed to get the F302 bay open, nobody would be coming after them until the storm died down.

He could only hope that Armstrong was having as much trouble with the weather as they were. Maybe he'd given up and gone back to the Daedalus. Remembering how deftly and easily the man had navigated through the snow, though, Caldwell had a sinking feeling that it wasn't likely. Armstrong had everything to lose if any of them survived, and it wasn't likely that he'd stop hunting them until he had their bodies at his feet.

Cadman and Seavey ... But there was nothing he and Rodney could do to help them. Scattered to the storm, they were all on their own.

"You said we're going upstream?" Rodney yelled over the wind.

"That's the plan, McKay." Luckily this wouldn't take them fully into the teeth of the wind -- it was blowing across the river at an angle. But Caldwell could already feel the sharp bite of the cold, even through his parka, on the windward side of his body. The windchill out here must be astonishing.

The land along this part of the river sloped down gently from a stand of pine trees to the edge of the cliff. With the falling snow and the wind, the trees were only visible as a hazy, jagged outline, and whatever lay beyond was shrouded in the blizzard. A cave, Caldwell thought, or a deadfall, even a cleft in the rocks -- that's what we have to find. They couldn't survive indefinitely with the wind stealing the heat from their bodies. But as visibility was so poor, they'd almost have to stumble upon something by accident. He was beginning to regret not staying down at the bottom of the ravine, where at least they were sheltered from the wind ...

It would be possible to climb back down if they could find better shelter down there -- slightly counterproductive, but possible. Caldwell made his way closer to the edge, cautious so as not to slip and fall over.

"Now what are you doing?" McKay demanded.

"I'm just checking for ..." His voice trailed away into a low curse.

"What? What?"

Caldwell didn't answer immediately. Between waves of blowing snow, he'd caught sight of a small dark figure at the bottom of the ravine -- on their side of the river.

"What?" McKay asked again, reminding Caldwell of a particularly annoying parrot.

"Armstrong. He's following us."

Rodney stopped in his tracks and then he ... the only suitable word was scuttled, in timid-woodland-creature fashion, a lot closer to Caldwell. "What is he, superhuman? How in the world can he actually find our trail in this, this ..." His hands waved wildly around, indicating the storm "... this example of nature gone horribly out of control?"

"At least if he's here, he's not pursuing Seavey and Cadman." Caldwell peered over the edge of the cliff thoughtfully. "And I'm thinking that two can play the avalanche game."

Rodney's eyes grew wide. "Ah! Yes, yes. You need some sort of concussive shock ... I don't suppose you carry grenades ..." He began to pace, excited by the prospect of finally having some kind of puzzle to solve. Caldwell impatiently nudged him away from the edge of the cliff: frequent peeks over the side indicated that Armstrong was rapidly toiling his way towards them, and he would probably be able to see them if he looked up.

"Mind the personal space, Colonel!"

"Mind the bad guy watching us from below," Caldwell retorted, and backed away from the cliff himself. In all likelihood, Armstrong was going to try to climb up the very same frozen streambed that they had used, which meant that this was where their efforts should be concentrated. If they could just get a lot of snow going down that chute, they might eliminate the whole problem.

The trick, though, was how to do it. "And no, I don't have grenades," he said, seeing Rodney's mouth open again.

Armstrong had used bullets, but there was no way that the little pistol could do it, and that method was probably only effective on a steep cliff with a lot of overhanging snow, anyway. Rodney obviously realized this, because he didn't ask about the gun; he just slid down the side of the little ravine and stared at the snow.

"You thinking of something, McKay?"

"Why is it that neither you nor Sheppard seem to realize that every minute I spend trying to explain my brilliant plans to you is another minute I'm not executing said brilliant plan?"

Caldwell crouched down in the snow at the top of the ravine, presenting less of a target to the wind. "And do you actually, in this case, have a brilliant plan?"

"Well ... no ... but I'm working on it, and would be working on it faster if certain people would stop bothering me ... hey, waitaminute ..." Perking up suddenly, he tried to snap his fingers and gave a reproachful glance at his glove-clad fingers when they refused to snap.

"Got something?"

"Hmph," was the only response, as he scrambled up to the top of the ravine, shoving Caldwell out of the way in passing. For a minute he just stared into the blizzard, muttering to himself -- calculations from the sound of things. Then he turned to look at Caldwell with a manic gleam in his blue eyes.

"There are tons of snow up here. All we have to do is get some of it started. See that dead pine tree there?" He pointed towards one on the lip of the cliff. "It looks like it would go over easily. One pine tree might not do it, but a lot of them along the edge look pretty dead to me."

"You want us to push over trees?"

"Only the ones that will fall. Now, here's what I'm thinking -- one of us shoves that tree into the canyon -- hole -- thing, whatever you call it, geology is a pseudoscience anyway, admittedly one I wish I'd paid more attention to -- where was I? Anyway, of all of them, that tree looks unstable enough that it could actually be pushed over. I can't believe that I'm actually coming up with plans that involve shoving trees into canyons ..."

Too impatient to wait for the tortured chain of logic that made up Rodney's thought processes, Caldwell slid over the edge into the frozen streambed. "Well, let's push some trees, then!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! We're gonna get one shot at him, Colonel -- and by the way, speaking of which, where is he?"

Caldwell risked a glance over the edge, just in time to catch a glimpse of Armstrong vanishing into the brush at the bottom of the creek bed they had followed to the top of the cliff. "Climbing," he reported in a lower voice. "He'd be easily within target range if he could see us or hear us, so keep your voice down."

Rodney swallowed, his confidence visibly faltering. "You have a gun too ..."

"With nowhere near the range or accuracy -- this is not a distance weapon, McKay! Now, I'm climbing up there and pushing down that pine tree."

Rodney drew a breath, and pointed behind him, at another stand of pines. "Right. Yeah. And what I was saying earlier is that this'll be a lot more likely to work if we can both do it at once. We have to get enough snow, and whatnot, moving that it'll build up momentum and, pardon the pun, snowball."

"So? Let's go!"

With that he turned his back on McKay and began to scramble up the far side of the ravine. It was much steeper and took all his concentration, with only one arm available to help himself. They had only minutes, if that, before Armstrong would be too high for this to work.

"Wait for my signal! Remember, both at once!" Rodney shouted after him.

"Shut up," Caldwell muttered under his breath. Hopefully Armstrong hadn't been able to hear that over the sound of the wind.

The last leg of his climb was a frantic scrabble across loose rocks stripped clean of snow by the wind, and then he was standing under a listing, very precarious-looking pine tree. Looking back, he could see why McKay thought this might work. The ground fell away steeply beneath him, and once the tree began to tumble, it might go for quite a ways before getting hung up on brush along its descent. He couldn't see Armstrong at all now, and that worried him, although with the steepness of the cliffside, once Armstrong was climbing up the ravine they wouldn't be able to see him from above in any case.

Rodney was a small figure moving through the snow, now pausing beside one tree, now moving on to the next one. Caldwell gave his own pine an experimental shove and found that Rodney was right -- the tree's roots had only a fragile grip on the frozen soil, and when he leaned against it, they began to snap. The tree creaked and ice clattered down onto his head from the branches. "Come on, McKay," he whispered, mentally hurrying the scientist's form as he paused and stared at another pine.

Then Rodney turned and gave a sweeping, expansive wave and a thumbs-up that was visible even through the blowing snow. Caldwell turned and threw his whole weight against the tree. He sucked in a sharp, hissing breath as a bolt of pain shot through his arm. But the tree yielded to the pressure, and with a great snapping and cracking of branches, it went over the edge. Caldwell flung himself the other way, nearly getting carried over the edge with it. The wash of pain as he jolted his arm nearly made him pass out. He lay flat on the ground for a minute, then sat up slowly and looked over the edge.

He was just in time to see the tumbling shape of the uprooted pine tree vanish in a wash of white as the unstable cornices along the top of the cliff let go. Unfortunately his vantage point meant that he couldn't see a whole lot of the avalanche itself, but he could feel the vibration through his hips and legs, and he could see the great cloud of loose, powdery snow kicked up into the air over the river canyon.

When the haze began to clear, Caldwell could see that a swathe had been cut down the cliffside, much like the one Armstrong had caused earlier. Of Armstrong himself, there was no sign -- just a lot of splintered and broken trees along the path of the avalanche.

He used another, slightly more stable tree to pull himself upright. Could it actually have worked -- could they be that lucky?

McKay was waving to him from the top of the cliff, and Caldwell waved back, when a movement beyond Rodney caught his eye. He dropped his hand instantly.

Oh hell.

There was Armstrong, just coming over the edge of the cliff, a couple hundred yards beyond Rodney. He hadn't been in the ravine at all. He must have realized, even if he hadn't heard them, that he'd be a sitting duck if he continued to follow their trail ... and he'd circled around, found a different way up the cliff.

Now he was behind Rodney.

Caldwell had opened his mouth to shout a warning, when he saw Rodney spin around. Rodney's hands flew up in the air. Armstrong approached the scientist at a slow, measured pace, and Rodney backed away until he came up against the edge of the cliff.

The one good thing about all of this was that Armstrong hadn't once looked up towards Caldwell under the pine trees. He didn't know that Caldwell was up here. Armstrong might have gained the element of surprise for himself, but the Colonel still had it too. Gun in hand, he slipped quietly over the edge, trying to seek cover as he climbed down into the ravine. He would have to get much closer before he could have any hope of hitting Armstrong with the pistol.

As the wind rose and fell, he caught snatches of their voices. "-- dragged me out here without a coat!" Rodney was saying, his voice rising in aggrieved tones.

Caldwell gritted his teeth. Don't make him shoot you before I can shoot HIM, McKay.

"Shut up!" Armstrong snapped, and he must have waved the gun to punctuate his words, because Rodney fell silent as if a switch had been flipped. Caldwell peeked out from behind the clump of brush that he was presently using for cover. From where he was, the two of them were seen in profile -- all Armstrong would have to do was catch a bit of movement out of the corner of his eye, and everything would be over.

But Armstrong's attention was still riveted on Rodney. "Where's the Colonel?" he demanded.

"Dead," Rodney said.

Caldwell scrambled a few feet closer. Too slow, too goddamn slow. He could see that this line of questioning wasn't going to last very long and it didn't have anything good waiting at the end.

He couldn't see Armstrong's face, but he could hear, over the whisper of his own boots and the muted roar of the wind, a loud snort of derision. "I followed two sets of tracks."

"He was caught in that avalanche, you ignorant ape. I saw him go over the edge." Rodney's eyes were wide, holding only fear. Caldwell thought McKay might actually be using his fear as a shield, hiding the lies behind a wall of terror.

And Caldwell finally saw -- really, truly saw -- why Sheppard was willing to go offworld with this man at his back. That McKay was brilliant, he already knew -- a brilliant, annoying, egotistical prima-donna. But the other person, the one in Sheppard's reports ... he'd never really seen that version of Rodney McKay before. Until today.

And he couldn't get close enough, fast enough, to stop what he knew was about to happen.

The gun was trained, unwavering, on the scientist's forehead. "If you're lying, McKay, you're a dead man."

"It's the truth! The truth, dammit! Do I look like the sort of person who's capable of lying with a gun in my face?"

I never would have thought so either, Caldwell thought, and went to his knee in the snow, because he wasn't going to make it in time, he wasn't close enough to touch Armstrong with the 9mm, but maybe he could manage some sort of distraction.

There was a slight relaxation in the set of Armstrong's shoulders, as if a little of the tension had gone out of him. "Then I guess all I have left to worry about is you," he said in a voice so soft that it could barely be heard over the wind.

Too. Goddamn. Slow.

Caldwell squeezed the trigger at the same time as Armstrong did. His own shot fell short, as he'd known it would, hitting a snowbank several yards from Armstrong's feet. Maybe the sharp report of his 9mm, coming at the same time as Armstrong pulled the trigger, could have thrown off the Lieutenant's aim a little. It didn't really matter, not at that range, not with a cliff under McKay's feet. It was like a slow-motion ballet -- the sharp jerks of Rodney's body as the bullets hit him and a spray of blood flew, as he tumbled backwards off the edge of the cliff, falling, falling, to break through the thin black ice on the river's surface and vanish without a sound into the water. To sink, and not to rise.


Simpson hadn't been kidding about the storm.

If Sheppard had thought the wind had fought him before, trying to ride it now was like trying to ride a bronco. A forty-foot bronco, on steroids, with a saddle full of spikes.

The controls wrenched at his hands, as the storm tried to wrest control of his ship away from him. Trying to divide his attention between flying and reading the LSD was a nightmare. He kept having to take the ship up as high as he could go and still pick up readings -- the wind was no better at 3000 feet, in fact it was worse, but at least there weren't so many things to run into, so he could actually look at the screens long enough to read them. Then, because he still had no way to sort out the life signs except by visual confirmation, he would have to dive back into the maelstrom, relying on the altimeter, the collision detectors and his own quick reflexes to save him from one near-crash after another. As visibility grew steadily worse, he had to come down below treetop level to get visuals on the LSD readings -- he'd lost count of how many times he'd clipped trees with the jumper's undercarriage. At least most of the animals on this world, in typical Arctic fashion, were large and therefore easy to see.

He kept telling himself he should go back. Telling himself it was hopeless, that he couldn't find anything in this, that the risk wasn't worth the cost.

Knowing that he never would, that he'd die before he'd return empty-handed.

Caldwell wouldn't have done it for him. "Not a good risk-reward situation," he would have said. Maybe that was why Sheppard had to be out here now. One reason why.

Oh hell. May as well be honest with himself. He wasn't staying out here because of Caldwell. Not that he wanted to see the man die, not that he wouldn't do everything in his power to save a fellow soldier's life -- he'd gone onto a hiveship for Sumner, and he hadn't even liked the guy, whereas he did actually like Caldwell most of the time. But ... if Rodney, Caldwell and a busload of nuns were on fire, he'd put Rodney out first. That was just how it was.

A mountain peak reared up in front of him, looming out of the clouds. Sheppard yanked the controls, felt an instant's panic when he thought he was losing control as the jumper plunged a few hundred feet and spun to the side, missing a rocky outcrop by what had to be inches. He wished he dared take his hands off the controls to wipe the sweat from his forehead, but a moment's inattention could be fatal.

It was crazy to be out here in this weather. Crazy. If any pilot in any unit he'd ever commanded had tried something like this, Sheppard would've grounded him for weeks ... after buying him a drink.

He glanced at the LSD, and dropped downwards through the featureless whiteness. The bottom fell out of his stomach as the jumper plunged -- he still had the inertial dampeners dialed most of the way down.

Imminent collision. He veered wildly, knocking the snow off the tops of a stand of pine trees that he almost hadn't seen at all. The jumper skimmed over another little herd of those yak critters, so close Sheppard fancied he could smell them. Then he was pulling up into a hard climb, the jumper bucking in the wind, nearly impossible to keep steady and -- SHIT. Mountain.

It filled the screen. Hell, it filled the whole world -- a vast cliff coming up to smack him in the face. There was no way on Earth or any other world that he could avoid this, even with the puddlejumper's incredible ability to maneuver in three dimensions. But still he tried, hauling back on the controls so hard that the muscles in his back and shoulders screamed in protest. There just wasn't enough time to respond. He'd finally cut it too close. The most he could manage to do was turn so that rather than smacking into the peak head-on, he'd hit it at an angle.

Every pilot who keeps flying eventually makes their fatal mistake.

His, apparently, had been going out in a storm that he had no business flying in.

Strange how much time he had to think, in that split second as the mountain came up to meet him. And the thought he couldn't shake was that if he had to do it all over again, he'd do the exact same thing. Sitting warm and comfortable on the Daedalus while Rodney froze to death in a lethal storm ... it wasn't something he could do and still look himself in the mirror.

He just regretted losing the jumper.


Caldwell helplessly watched Rodney fall, and realized in that same moment that he'd just given away the advantage that Rodney had sacrificed his life for ... given it away in a futile attempt to help someone who was already dead. But he couldn't have stood there and watched a man die, not without trying to do something. Maybe Sheppard was rubbing off on him.

As Rodney's body vanished through the ice on the river -- perhaps still alive, even now, but not for long, not once that bitterly cold water got hold of him -- Armstrong spun around and fired in Caldwell's direction. The Colonel threw himself flat and then rolled over the side of the ravine, dropping to the brush-choked frozen stream, thinking Shit, shit, shit!

"I might have known he was lying!" Armstrong's voice drifted down to him. "But let's face it, old man -- I've got twenty years on you, and I spent my boyhood hunting and tracking things in the woods. You can't hide from me out here."

He was going to survive this, if only to make the bastard pay for that "old man" crack. And for McKay. He never would have believed he'd miss that stubborn, irritating ass. Keeping to the side of the ravine, Caldwell started running.

Luck was with him for a change. The ravine that dropped off into the river canyon was not just the product of one creek, but a number of them, all coming down from the hills and braiding together. It was virtually a maze, especially with the blizzard to help confuse sight and sound. Caldwell took turns at random, fighting his way through and over log-jams and tangles of brush. For the most part, the streams were frozen solid and covered with snow, but behind one snarl of dead trees he stumbled into actual, standing water. Reflex sent him stumbling backward at the sound of the first splash, and only that saved him from lethally sodden feet. He stood for a moment, staring at the water blocking his path and spreading out into the trees on either side; then he climbed the bank up into the trees, crunching through a shelf of yellowish ice and sinking into knee-deep snow under the trees.

After the first round of taunts, Armstrong had not said anything else, and Caldwell had no idea where he was. Seeing how quickly and silently Armstrong had circled around them back at the river, though, he tried to be alert to the possibility of attack from any direction. Based on Armstrong's record, the man's wilderness skills were second to none, and it had actually been one of the deciding factors in approving him for transfer to the Daedalus -- Caldwell remembered thinking that a man like that would be a good one to have around. Now he was kicking himself, remembering more details of Armstrong's files that now seemed like danger signs: a loner, keeping mostly to himself despite his apparently gregarious personality; a man who preferred the wide-open cold spaces to the company of other people. Caldwell could sympathize with the need for solitude; he was like that himself. But after serving on the Daedalus crew for months, Armstrong hadn't really made any friends, at least not that Caldwell could remember -- and that was something he needed to watch out for in the future.

If he got out of this.

The pines began to thin, and he crested the top of a rise, looking down into a valley. At least he presumed it was a valley -- all he could see was the slope underfoot, fading away into a white haze of blowing snow. Below him, something moved in a direction counter to the driving snow, and Caldwell jumped, wrenching his broken arm painfully as he brought up the gun. Then he relaxed, seeing that it was some kind of large animal. For a moment, he stood and watched it; the beast was the size of an elephant, and reminded him vaguely of the woolly mammoths at the natural history museum he'd seen as a child. Or maybe more like a giant woolly rhinoceros, or moose or something -- it had a long upper lip, but not long enough to really be considered a trunk, and branched, spreading antlers. Its fur was thick and shaggy, hanging in long, tangled hanks to brush the snow.

Watching it browse on brush in the valley, Caldwell realized that he could use it to his advantage. The snow around the animal's legs was churned up by its huge tracks. Between that, and the damage it was doing to the landscape as it searched for food, he could possibly confuse his trail enough to throw Armstrong off. At the very least, it might slow down Armstrong enough to let the storm do the rest of the job of hiding his tracks.

The wind slammed into him as he left the shelter of the trees, nearly knocking him off his feet. Lowering his head, Caldwell slogged down the hill, keeping the gun ready. Not that he had any illusions that a 9mil would do anything against a creature the size of a house ... but if it did make any aggressive moves in his direction, the noise might help.

It didn't show any signs of attacking, though -- just rolled one large, bloodshot eye at him and went back to grazing on snow-covered shrubs. Caldwell couldn't help a slight thrill of elation as he crossed its path, no more than twenty yards away. Of course he'd read the SG teams' reports, and the Atlantis reports as well ... but this was still the first time he'd been this close to an animal on an alien world. Knowing that other worlds existed was not at all the same thing as actually walking on them. Despite the desperate, dangerous circumstances, his heart lifted. He could see why people like O'Neill and Sheppard were willing to risk their lives exploring beneath alien skies.

The snow behind the beast made for even more difficult walking than the hill -- punched full of giant hoof-holes, pushed into heaps and ridges as high as his waist where the animal had pawed it away from the bushes. It was all to the best for his purposes, though; the more confusing for Armstrong, the better. Caldwell picked his way through the trampled snow, breathing quietly through the pain on the all-too-frequent occasions when his arm got jolted and jarred as he negotiated the rough terrain.

A sudden loud, wet-sounding snort from the animal made him look over his shoulder. He'd either come farther than he'd realized, or the storm was getting still worse, because he could barely see the thing's great, shaggy bulk through the blizzard. He could see enough to tell that it was moving around, looking agitated.

Armstrong? But it hadn't reacted to him that way. Then he caught a glimpse of something moving through the blowing snow with slinking grace.

Caldwell froze in his tracks. It was the mega-wolves -- maybe the same ones that had attacked them earlier, maybe a different pack. He could see at least three of them now, circling the lone herbivore, stalking it. Praying quietly that they had not seen or smelled him, he backed away. Their attention seemed to be consumed with the grazing animal; its presence had surely drawn them, and maybe they had been following it for a while, waiting for it to grow tired and lower its guard.

If he could get away, this would be yet another layer of protection from Armstrong. Caldwell didn't have much hope that the guy would get himself caught by wolves, but at least he would have to detour and avoid them, leaving Caldwell's trail to do so.

The herbivore made a loud grunting noise, and broke, charging off into the snow at a ground-eating gallop. High, shrilling cries rose from the throats of the wolf creatures, and they fell in behind it -- not just the three he'd seen earlier, but at least a half-dozen or so of them. Taking advantage of the distraction, Caldwell turned and ran. He followed the animal's backtrail at first, but when it turned out to be too hard to move quickly over the broken terrain, he left it and struck out through virgin snow.

Pausing to catch his breath, he looked over his shoulder. The shrill cries had died away, and he could see nothing but the curtain of snow, concealing everything from view. Then he caught sight of something dark and large, moving among the pine trees off to his right. Shielding his eyes with his hand, he made out the large shape of the herbivore, having slowed from its run to a brisk trot. It quickly vanished from sight.

The wolves' hunt had failed. Which meant they would be hungry, and seeking other meat.

"Oh God," Caldwell whispered, as the first pair of golden eyes gleamed out of the driving snow.

He turned and ran.

He knew you didn't run from predators, knew he couldn't possibly outrace them. But out in the open like this, if they caught up to him, he was going to die. His only chance was to try to get to somewhere that he could make a stand -- get rock at his back, find a tree and climb it.

The snow hampered him. He fell, tried to catch himself instinctively with his bad arm because the other was fumbling for his gun. Instead his face smacked into the snow and he just lay there for a moment, letting the pain fade to bearable levels again.

Armstrong had been right, after all. He was too goddamn old for this. He'd put in his time in the field, and then some. At his age, he should be comfortably behind a desk, not running through the snow with a broken arm and alien wolves on his heels.

Awkwardly, he climbed to his feet, the gun in one hand, the other clamped against his chest. As he started running again, he heard the shrieking howls begin, as the predators closed in around him.


With a sudden crouch and a snap of her legs -- she dove, a slim golden body in a ruffled pink swimsuit, breaking the surface of the pool and vanishing beneath with barely a ripple. Graceful as a seal, her sleek form darted under Rodney's legs and tickled the bottoms of his feet with trailing fingertips.

He broke the surface of the pool, gasping and treading water, his strokes awkward and clumsy next to her easy grace. "Stop it!"

Jeannie followed him up, water flooding between her teeth as she laughed at him. It wasn't mocking laughter -- there was nothing cruel in her. But she was better than him at this ... had always been, and enjoyed it.

"You're going to drown me."

"If you sink, I'll pull you out," she told him impishly, paddling circles around him with a lazy backstroke.

The worst part was, she meant it. The only thing worse than having your sister be a better athlete than yourself ... was having your sister rescue you from drowning. He'd never live that down in a million years.

"And then I'd do mouth-to-mouth!" she continued to threaten, sticking out her tongue and wiggling it at him.

"You wouldn't!" He circled to follow her, his legs churning under the surface in an effort to keep himself afloat. It wasn't his fault that Jeannie was a better swimmer -- he was a sinker. He had a handicap. Jeannie floated with no effort, and it was no wonder that she was good at it, then. Just watching her made his limbs feel clumsy and heavy. He could feel the water dragging him down.

"No, no, Mer." There was an urgency in Jeannie's voice that he didn't remember from that lazy summer day, so many years ago. "You have to keep swimming."

"If I sink, you'll pull me out, remember?" It felt good to let himself go, to give over to the draw of the water on his arms and legs. Though the sun was warm on his head, he still felt cold, and that drew him down, too. They should keep the temperature in the pool turned up higher; it shouldn't be this cold.

"I wish I could, but I can't." There was fear in her high-pitched child's voice. "Nobody's going to save you, Mer. You have to do that yourself."

Okay, this water was definitely really freaking cold. Panic seized him, because he couldn't move -- it felt like he was trying to swim wrapped in a blanket. It was cold and dark, and all he could see of Jeannie was the sunlight on her golden hair.

"Swim!" she screamed at him, and though the voice was his sister's, the note of command in it made him think of Sheppard.

He broke the surface, coughing and gasping and shaking, trying to understand that he was actually still alive. Or, alive for now, anyway -- the water spun him around, ducked his head underwater and sent him glancing off something that might have been rocks or ice or submerged tree limbs. He scrabbled wildly for something, anything, to stop his headlong rush down the river -- and the answer to his unvoiced prayers came in the form of a low-hanging sweeper branch coated in ice. He smacked into it and then clung like a barnacle until he was able to wrap his arms around it and slowly, painstakingly, drag himself up onto the ice at the river's edge. He collapsed into the snow on the bank, dripping wet and shivering, with adrenaline thrumming in every fiber of his body.

After a moment he raised his head and stared dazedly at the snow in front of his face. It was red. Snow shouldn't be that color. Oh wait. He'd been shot. The last thing he remembered was a sensation like a giant fist punching him simultaneously in the chest and face. Raising a shaking hand, Rodney touched his forehead. When he brought his hand away, the glove was soaked with blood. He stared at that for a minute, too, before finally understanding what it meant. Okay, he'd been shot in the head. Strangely, there was no pain at all. In fact, he wasn't feeling much of anything. But he remembered being shot in the chest, too -- that feeling like a sledgehammer knocking the air out of him, sending him over the edge of the cliff into freefall. He sat up, reeling a little, and opened the front of his parka with fingers already clumsy from cold.

His fingertips touched the edge of his vest, felt wonderingly at the hot burn of a bruise underneath. No holes. No blood. And, dazed as he was, it took him a moment to put the pieces together. The vest! It had actually stopped the bullet. The damn things worked! No wonder Sheppard made them all wear them ... hot, heavy and uncomfortable as they could be. Not that he'd ever in a million years admit that Sheppard had been right about something.

The side of his head was starting to sting sharply, and he instinctively pressed his hand against his hairline, feeling the heat of the blood soaking through his glove. He had no way to find out how badly he was hurt, but he could still think -- sort of -- and his brains weren't spilling out, so presumably he was going to live for a little while longer. Looking down at the fresh blood smears that he'd left on the front of his coat, he found that he was tracing their bright swirls with his eyes, fascinated by the way they merged and blended with the older bloodstains from Cora's death. He shivered at that thought, and it turned into a long, uncontrollable shudder that worked its way up to the surface from deep inside him.

Okay. Soaking wet in a blizzard. Halfway delirious and getting worse. Bad, very bad. He got to his feet, staggering a little and holding his hand pressed against the side of his head in the hopes of stemming that red tide just a little.

Jeannie's words from his dream -- hallucination, memory, whatever -- came back to him: Nobody's going to save you. You have to do that yourself. The exact opposite of what his subconscious, in the form of Sam Carter, had kept trying to drill into his skull in the sinking puddlejumper. But just as Sam had been right then, Jeannie was right now. Caldwell had probably given him up for dead, and had his own problems anyway -- he wouldn't be wandering around in a blizzard looking for one wayward scientist. Sheppard and the rest of Rodney's team were light-years away. The only friends he had on this world, Elizabeth and Radek, were both in far worse shape than he himself -- and this sent a bolt of guilt and fear through him, because they needed him to look after him.

That was what really got him moving, because he was all they had. And damned if he was going to die out here and leave them at Armstrong's mercy.

He began walking, stumbling a little, looking for a place to climb the cliff.


It was nearly dark, but not totally ... the dim, diffuse glow that illuminated Sheppard's limited field of vision gave enough light that he could distinguish the ceiling of the puddlejumper.

Slowly he oriented himself in space. He was lying on his back, with one of his legs cocked up at a very awkward angle across the arm of the puddlejumper's pilot's chair. His head hurt and so did everything else, but there was no stabbling pain, no burning in his chest when he drew a cautious, experimental breath. And it wasn't cold in the jumper, so he must not have been unconscious for very long.

He worked his leg free of the pilot's chair and winced as his heel thudded to the floor, then pushed himself cautiously upright. The twilit world around him teetered and then steadied. He felt himself over quickly, finding lots of bruises and a nasty knot at the back of his head, but no broken bones -- he'd had worse falling off his bike as a kid.

Leaning on the back of the pilot's seat, he stood up and waited again for the world to settle down and stop spinning. The floor was nearly level, and from the lingering warmth inside the jumper, he didn't think the hull had been breached. The front viewport was nearly covered with snow, allowing a small amount of light to filter in -- just enough to see by. He guessed that the little ship had plowed nose-first into a snowdrift, which had probably dumped enough inertia to save him from a very messy end. His recollections of the crash were a confused blur of rending metal, violent motion, and snow flying against the viewport; it amazed him that either he or the jumper had survived more or less intact.

His hands ran over the controls and, to his surprise, the ship powered up. However, he could clearly see that they wouldn't be going anywhere for a while, if ever. He wouldn't know the extent of the damage until he looked at the outside, but the diagnostics were showing a whole board of red lights. The drive system was totally offline, and there was no way in hell he could fix it by himself. He could probably cobble together some sort of makeshift solution for a chopper -- he'd had practice at that, not to mention a couple years of aerospace engineering training that he'd never mentioned to Rodney -- but Ancient technology? Forget it.

"Daedalus? This is Sheppard. We got a problem here."

It was a long shot, and he wasn't shocked when nothing came back but static. Still, he tried the Daedalus again, then Lorne, and then, just because he couldn't help himself, Rodney. No answer on any channel.

"Damn," he whispered, and went into the back, thanking any deity that happened to be listening for Perry talking him into taking cold-weather survival gear with him. In a few minutes he was thoroughly bundled, with a P90 on his shoulder and life signs detector in his hand. As he powered down the jumper to minimal systems, he wondered if the LSD would still work in extreme cold. Well, only one way to find out.

The jumper's door would only go down halfway, due to snow blocking it. Sheppard jumped off the side of the ramp, wincing as the motion jarred his still-sore skull, and then walked around the outside. When he saw the side of the ship, he whistled softly. One of the drive pods had been very nearly torn off, and the other one was obviously damaged. The rest of the vessel was streamlined enough that the pods had taken most of the impact with the cliff -- he never thought he'd be pleased to see that. If it wasn't for the pods, there would probably be a gaping hole in the side of the ship right now. Still, it was amply clear that this ship wasn't flying again anytime soon, even if he could find somebody capable of fixing it ... namely Rodney.

Sheppard cloaked the jumper and then stood for a moment, fixing his surroundings in his mind. One of these days, all jokes aside, he really was going to forget where he parked the thing, and this had the makings of one of 'those days'.

A sheer rock face towered above him, presumably the same one he'd hit. He'd fallen between that and a snow-covered stand of rocks that made him think of the erosion-sculpted "castles" in the New Mexico desert. He decided not to dwell on the thought of how close he'd come to hitting those rocks, which probably wouldn't have left enough intact pieces of jumper to make a Tinker Toy set. As it was, the jumper had come to rest in a snowbank sandwiched neatly between the two rock faces, which provided some amount of shelter from the storm and made it less likely that the ship would be entirely covered with snow by the time he came back. As it was, the snow blowing across the surface of the cloak created a weird ripple effect. Even cloaked, it wasn't terribly well-hidden, but in this, it didn't have to be -- you'd almost have to know where it was to find it even without the cloak.

Sheppard wiped snow from the screen of the LSD with one gloved thumb. It was reading a number of life signs in his general vicinity, but none particularly close, and none in pairs. He sighed, and oriented on the nearest cluster. A brute-force search, in this mess ... he may as well just sit in the jumper and wait for rescue. But that wasn't an option, not for him, so he started walking.

Should've brought snowshoes too, he thought as he struggled through the snow. In places, where it had been scoured away by the wind, it was only ankle-deep and the walking was easy; then, three steps later, he might sink without warning up to his waist. His thighs and hips quickly began to ache from the difficult motion of lifting his feet out of the drifts.

After he left the shelter of the rocks, the wind hit him full-force and he stopped to snug his parka hood around his face. Exposed skin quickly began to ache from the cold, and icy bits of snow stung his cheeks and eyelids. He'd always kind of liked winter, and he'd never minded the cold even in Antarctica ... but he'd rarely been in situations when he couldn't stop somewhere and get warm, either.

Early Arctic explorers used to say that the wind could drive a man mad. Sheppard had first heard that story when he transferred to Antarctica, and at first he'd thought that it was just one of those hazing things that seasoned hands always told the new guy -- but after he'd been at the bottom of the world long enough, he'd started to see what they meant. The wind in these sorts of storms didn't just make a single, unified sound; it was a whole range ... shrieking and crying and sobbing, low moans like a creature in pain, high squealing that sounded just like some kind of electronic feedback. Sheppard didn't feel in any particular danger of going mad, but it did annoy him because it made his sense of hearing nearly useless. Time and again he thought he'd heard a human voice -- a cry, a groan, a low conversation just on the edge of hearing -- only to stop and realize that it was nothing but the wind keening through the pines and rocks.

When he first heard the howl, he thought it was another of the many and varied sounds of the wind: a rising, shivering wail, dying away to a series of coughing, hyena-like barks. But then it came again, and lifting under the first came a second from another throat.

Remembering the pack of wolflike creatures that he'd flown over earlier, Sheppard unslung the P90 from his shoulder, and checked the LSD. He was getting a cluster of life signs from somewhere to his right. No ... a cluster plus a lone, blinking dot -- which the pack was rapidly closing upon.

It could be almost anything. An old or sick member of the wolf pack, maybe, being chased down by its brethren. Some lone critter lost in the storm. No way to know.

Then he heard a gunshot, ringing clearly through the noise of the storm. There was no mistaking that sound for anything else.

He started to run.


Steven Caldwell ran like the hounds of Hell were at his heels. In a sense, that was exactly the case.

He pulled up short as two of the great beasts emerged from the storm in front of him, stalking with the bristled head-down posture of vastly overgrown housecats. Risking a glance over his shoulder, he saw more of them appear out of the falling snow. One made a warbling, querulous sound -- not really like any Earth animal he'd ever heard.

He definitely got the impression that they were wary of him, which might mean that these were the same group that had attacked earlier. If they'd encountered people, then maybe they remembered guns. Lowering his pistol, he took careful aim on the nearest of them, and fired. The shot went true, and the animal dropped like a puppet with its strings cut. The others startled at the sound, scattering only to regroup a moment later. The nearest ones sniffed cautiously at their dead companion.

"Yeah, that's right, I've got enough for all of you," Caldwell said loudly. When confronting a predator, make yourself seem large and threatening ... of course, this advice applied much better on a planet where predators just didn't get this big, and already had a healthy fear of people. The mega-wolves seemed more puzzled than alarmed at his voice, and one of them made another of those questioning, throaty noises.

"You want this?" he demanded, and shot that one as well. This time, rather than flinching away, the others closed around him and he saw them going flat to spring. They'd obviously decided he was a threat that had to be eliminated. He tightened his finger on the trigger, trying to calculate how many shots he had used since the last time he'd reloaded. No matter how he did the math, it didn't come out good.

The sharp stutter of automatic-weapons fire startled him so badly that he very nearly squeezed the trigger and wasted a bullet. Blood and fur sprayed in the air, and three of the giant beasts fell in rapid succession. The rest of them, with yelps and cries, scattered into the storm, fleeing and vanishing rapidly.

Armstrong? As a human-shaped figure appeared out of the falling snow, carrying a P90 with the muzzle pointed at the ground, Caldwell raised his gun. "Don't come one step closer," he snapped.

"First Seavey, now you." The voice was a very familiar, laid-back drawl. "I'm starting to feel kind of unappreciated around here."

Caldwell dropped the gun, feeling a powerful sense of unreality. Not possible. "Sheppard?"

Sheppard stepped carefully over one of the wolf-things, sparing it a curious glance. "You okay?"

"I'll live."

Sheppard was close enough now that Caldwell could see that he was grinning, but his eyes kept moving, alert for attack and perhaps for something else as well. "Great, now that we've got the pleasantries out of the way, let's get McKay and get out of here. Is he with you?"


Sheppard kept his tone light, because Caldwell really looked like hell, and finding the man alone with giant predators all around him had not done wonders for Sheppard's peace of mind. And Caldwell hadn't given him an answer. The wind seemed to blow straight through him, freezing his stomach.

"Where's Rodney?" he demanded again, and this time all the levity was gone from his voice.

"Dead," Caldwell said. His head was down and his teeth were gritted against pain and wind, but there was still some sympathy in that rough voice.

It must be the cold, that had stolen Sheppard's breath away. When he could speak, he said one word, quiet. "How?"

Caldwell seemed to also hear the buried meaning: Are you sure? "I saw it. Shot and drowned." He looked away from Sheppard, at the dead wolves on the ground, and added, "He went out well, Colonel."

"Never doubted it." He felt strange, disconnected, adrift in the wind. "Jumper's this way. Let's get you inside."

They began to walk, slogging through the snow side-by-side. Sheppard didn't offer assistance; Caldwell didn't ask for it. There was no malice intended -- Sheppard wasn't angry, wasn't much of anything at the moment, really. He just felt dazed.

"Colonel, there's a lot going on that you should know about," Caldwell began.

"Already know most of it. Talked to Cadman and Seavey." Words made him impatient. He didn't want an exchange of information, a give-and-take of "you know this, I know that." Movement was the important thing now. Momentum. "Armstrong still alive?"

"Still out there." Caldwell stumbled, caught himself with a quick gasp of pain. "He's armed, too, with a P90. I last saw him at the river, back that way. Haven't seen him since."

"And he's the one?"

Caldwell didn't need to ask The one what? "Yes."

The dark void in Sheppard curled upon itself and coalesced into one imperative: Kill.

There was no more conversation until they reached the puddlejumper. Sheppard decloaked it with a press of a button, noting idly how much snow had piled up on it since he'd been gone. He saw Caldwell noticing the damaged drive pods, saw a slight nod as if another few pieces of the puzzle had clicked into place in the Colonel's mind. Then the ramp closed behind them, leaving a ringing silence with the absence of the ever-present wind. Caldwell immediately stripped off his parka and dropped it in a melting heap on the floor. He sank down on one of the jumper's seats.

Sheppard unzipped his own coat but left it on. He wasn't planning to be inside very long. Reaching above Caldwell, he got down the first-aid kit. "Can you handle this on your own?"

Caldwell raised his head. Tired, pain-filled eyes met Sheppard's, searching his face. "You're going out there alone."

Sheppard checked the clip in his 9mm, holstered it with a sharp snap. He tucked more rounds into his vest pockets. "Yes. Because every minute we wait, the wind covers up the sonovabitch's tracks. Last saw him at the river, you said?"

"Yes. Colonel, I don't think this is a good idea."

Sheppard gave the P90 a cursory examination to make sure that the action still worked smoothly despite the moisture and cold. He grabbed more rounds for that, too. "I don't really give a damn what you think. Sir."

"Sheppard." There was a low, penetrating note to Caldwell's voice. Sheppard looked around at him. Even hunched against the side of the jumper, dripping wet and clearly hurting, he had a commanding presence. Seeing that he had Sheppard's attention, he said, "Getting yourself killed isn't going to bring anyone back. Let me finish here, get my arm set and take a shot of painkiller -- and I'll come with you."

For a moment, Sheppard just stared at him. He was having trouble tracking on things; he felt as if he was a couple steps behind in the conversation. Then he shook his head. "No. You're hurt. Tired. I'm going to move fast. Stay here." All the monosyllables were making him feel as if he was turning into Ronon. His lips quirked a little and he made a deliberate attempt not to talk like a cartoon caveman. "Whatever happens out there, I might be able to use some backup later. Fix yourself up, get some rest."

Caldwell shook open the first aid kit, one-handed, without looking at it. His eyes never left Sheppard's face. "Godspeed then, Colonel," he said quietly. "And be very careful. Armstrong is an expert at tracking and wilderness survival. As you hunt him, so, I imagine, he will be hunting you."

Sheppard nodded, and fought down an urge to salute. Instead he just said, "See ya," as he zipped up his parka and stepped back out into the raging wind.

He'd flown over a river during his search, several times, and he had an approximate idea of where it was. It had to be the one Caldwell was talking about. To get there, he'd have to go back through the area where he'd killed the wolves. Luckily, he didn't really give a damn. If a wolf got between him and Armstrong, he'd kill it.

Armstrong didn't know it yet, but he was a dead man walking.


Wearing a parka pulled loosely over his surgical scrubs, Beckett trotted through the snow at the side of the stretcher bearing a blanket-wrapped Radek. They had taken what Carson considered crude stopgap measures to keep him from bleeding to death, but the important thing right now was getting him back to Atlantis. He rested a hand lightly on the fold of blanket that was tucked over his patient's face, shielding him from the cold as best they could.

With Ling's help, he got Radek settled on the puddlejumper, setting up the IVs and oxygen. Dr. Ling followed him as he jumped off the ramp back into the snow, nearly colliding with Lorne.

"We're the last ones to leave, Doc," Lorne told him. "The other jumpers are already airborne, and more of them are on their way from Atlantis."

Beckett nodded and looked around as a hand settled on his shoulder. It was Ling. "You have all the critical cases, Carson. All that's left are minor injuries that I can handle here. From what Major Lorne tells me, there's more help on the way and we'll be able to begin the next round of evacs when they get here."

Beckett nodded. He was suddenly, desperately tired, and a long flight lay ahead of him, with the lives of a lot of badly injured people resting in the balance. "I hate to leave you like this, Carol --"

She snorted and shook her head. "We'll be fine. We've got a nice cozy ship and plenty of food; we're in good shape now that we don't have the severely wounded to worry about. Heck, Hermiod might even get the power back online soon. Stranger things have happened."

Lorne called from inside the jumper, "Doc, we need to get going. The storm's getting worse by the minute."

Ling took Beckett's hand in a firm grip. "Go! I'll see you back on Atlantis."

"Stay warm," Beckett told her, and retreated quickly into the jumper as Lorne closed the hatch. He checked on his patients and then knelt by Radek to stabilize him during what was likely to be a very rough ride to the upper atmosphere.

The jumper shuddered and rose into the air. To Beckett's relief, Lorne, unlike Sheppard, seemed to be keeping the inertial dampeners turned on.

Simpson swiveled around from the co-pilot's seat. "Dr. Beckett, have you heard anything from the Colonel?"

Beckett shook his head. "I take it you haven't either."

She smiled a little, shook her head.

"I'm sure he's fine," Carson said, with a conviction he didn't really feel. After all, it would surely require more than a blizzard to take down John Sheppard, the man who single-handedly eliminated a Genii strike force. He just hated not knowing ... and not knowing about Rodney was even worse. Sheppard, Carson knew, could handle himself. Rodney, though -- as much faith as he had in the man's abilities, he didn't know how well Rodney could manage in a survival situation.

Sometimes you couldn't do anything but hope. And pray.


The wind was a gale now, driving bits of ice against Sheppard's face like sand. He tried to keep to sheltered places, using trees and rocks to help cut the wind. Surely Armstrong, crazy as he was, couldn't be wandering around in this maelstrom. He had to have gone to ground somewhere.

Visibility was so bad that he nearly walked off the edge of the cliff along the river before he knew it was there. Backing up hastily, Sheppard looked over the edge, down to the ribbon of dark water only intermittently visible below him.

He should have asked Caldwell more questions. Shot and drowned. Clearly, it had happened here somewhere, along this river. Once again, he found himself swallowing back a tidal wave of emotion that he couldn't afford right now. Finding Armstrong: that was the important thing.

Choosing a direction at random, he began walking downstream, and almost immediately came upon a site of obvious disturbance. The snow was churned up, and looking over the edge again, he saw the track that had been cut by an avalanche down the side of the cliff. The heavily falling snow had covered over the worst of the devastation, but obviously things had happened here, recently.

And something else caught his eye, just visible under a thin layer of fresh snow. He knelt and touched it with his fingertips. Blood.

Rodney's blood.

Darkness clouded his vision, a rush of emotion so strong that he couldn't really put a name to it. Anger, grief, hate, fear? Maybe all of those, maybe none; he wasn't good with such things. All he knew was that for a moment, the world tilted, and he put out a hand blindly to catch himself on the nearest pine tree before he fell. His reaction surprised him. He hadn't expected it. But then, surprise was a fact of life when dealing with McKay.

He remained leaning against the tree for a moment longer, staring down over the edge. In the brief calm moments between gusts of wind, he caught glimpses of the river below, of the dark abyss between the ice-encrusted banks. The crazy-optimist part of him wanted to climb down there and search for Rodney, even knowing how unlikely it was that his friend could have survived. The realist in him insisted that Caldwell had been sure that Rodney was dead, and furthermore, every moment he waited here was another moment that the wind erased Armstrong's tracks. It was highly unlikely that he could find Rodney's body down there, and if he was to have any chance at bringing the killer to justice, he had to move now.

He closed his eyes briefly, then turned away.

Sheppard wasn't a tracking expert, but he didn't have to be in order to see the two sets of tracks -- one presumably belonging to Caldwell, the other to Armstrong -- that headed away from the river. Though the snow had begun to fill them in, it had not yet erased them and Sheppard could see how one set of tracks kept to the relative shelter of a series of small ravines, while the others went up the hill into the trees. It was not hard to tell which was the pursuer and which the pursued. Once again checking the action on his P90, Sheppard followed the tracks that he assumed to be Armstrong's.

He hadn't seen the wolves since leaving the puddlejumper, but every once in a while he heard one of those high-pitched, unearthly cries somewhere out in the storm. They were definitely still around. Earth predators, Sheppard knew, generally would not bother a man with a gun, but these things were entirely a different story. He felt his whole body quivering on high alert, senses attuned and reflexes ready to respond at a split-second's notice.

Adrenaline junkie. He'd occasionally been described that way by old girlfriends. If he'd been asked, Sheppard would have said that he wasn't -- assuming he was willing to discuss it at all. He didn't like being in danger, and loathed having other people in danger; he didn't like the woozy trembling that followed an adrenaline rush, didn't like the feeling of having other people's survival come down onto his shoulders. But there was something very intense, almost pleasurable, about the clarity that came from walking on the razor's edge, in the sure knowledge that a moment's inattention could mean death. Sheppard knew, as few people ever did, how alive you could only feel when you were in danger of losing your life.

Armstrong's tracks dipped towards the ravine a few times, then away; presumably he'd been keeping tabs on Caldwell but unable to find a good angle from which to shoot him. Suddenly they veered off. Following, Sheppard found that they were soon criss-crossed by other tracks. He could only assume that Armstrong, at this point, had run afoul of the wolves.

Ronon, and probably Armstrong, would have been able to look at the tracks and tell at a glance what had happened here. Sheppard felt more than just a little bit inadequate. He couldn't even tell which of the various series of holes in the snow leading away were Armstrong's tracks; if they'd been fresh-made, he might have been able to, but the wind had been filling them in until all that remained were rows of shallow pits in the snow.

After thinking about it for a moment, he picked out the set of tracks that seemed to have been made by a solo creature, not part of a group. These wended their way in and among the pine trees, eventually cresting the top of a hill.

The wind hit Sheppard afresh as he left the shelter of the trees. He realized that he was looking down into the same valley where he'd found Caldwell, but from a different angle. Just below him, the ground dropped away in a steep incline; at the bottom were more pine trees and, Sheppard saw, some more of the big shaggy herd animals, three or four of them clustered together with their rumps turned to the wind. Snow clung to their long coats, but they seemed to be weathering the storm effectively enough.

He also realized, after observing them for a moment, that they were acting slightly nervous -- shifting their feet, swiveling their heavy heads to look around. Wolves? he wondered, scanning the hills. Visibility came and went in the blizzard -- sometimes he could see across to the far side of the valley, and sometimes he could barely see the animals below him. If there were predators out there in the storm, he couldn't see them. Didn't mean they weren't there.

He also lost the tracks on the top of the ridge, to his dismay and anger. The ever-fainter traces that he'd been following came out of the woods here, but the wind was much stronger out in the open than under the trees, and any sign of Armstrong's passage -- if he'd even been following Armstrong at all -- had been completely obliterated. Sheppard hunted back and forth across the ridge in ever-increasing frustration, but couldn't pick up the trail again. Below him, he noticed the herd animals growing even more restless. At first he thought they might be responding to him, but then realized that the wind wasn't right for them to have smelled him, and they couldn't possibly hear him over the storm's noise. Whatever was agitating them must be in the upwind direction, towards the head of the valley.

Sheppard squinted against the scouring, wind-driven snow. It could easily be wolves -- angry, injured wolves. It could also be Armstrong, and right now it was the only clue he had. If he'd been following the wrong set of tracks, he couldn't possibly backtrack and find the right set before the wind completely erased the trail. And if he'd been following Armstrong's tracks, then the trail had gone cold. Either way, he needed a new tactic, and this was the only thing he had.

He turned and began to jog along the top of the ridge. He knew that he was exposed up here, and took a calculated gamble, hoping that the blizzard would hide him from Armstrong as effectively as it was hiding Armstrong from him. He could move twice as fast in the open, with its shallower snow cover, than in the deep soft snow under the trees. And every minute that passed, Armstrong slipped farther out of his grasp.

Or not.

It was dumb luck that saved him. He had been occasionally stumbling on the uneven footing on top of the ridge, and he tripped just as a single bullet sped through the place where his forehead had been a split second ago. It smacked into a tree behind him as the report of the gunshot reached his ears.

Sheppard threw himself flat and rolled back into the shelter of the trees, cursing himself for an absolute fool. Of course, the blizzard would only hide himself and Armstrong equally if Armstrong wasn't already hiding behind something else, waiting for him.

Caldwell's words came back to him: As you hunt him, so, I imagine, he will be hunting you.

No more shots came ... yet. Sheppard flattened himself behind a fallen, snow-covered pine tree, peeking over the top of it. In the haze of flying snowflakes, trees and boulders loomed around him as indistinct shapes, any of them providing potential cover to a killer. Armstrong could be anywhere. Looking up at the pine that had taken the impact of the bullet, Sheppard calculated its trajectory and ended up with a rough idea of where the man had been at the time that he'd taken the shot. Of course, he could easily be in motion again -- and, in fact, probably was.

On top of everything else, it appeared that Armstrong was a not-too-shabby sniper. Normally a sniper wouldn't try for a headshot if he could help it, but Armstrong no doubt guessed, correctly, that Sheppard's torso was protected. And his aim had been dead on target even in the wind. Peering over the top of the fallen tree, Sheppard gritted his teeth. Why did the man have to be so damned good at everything? Was an incompetent enemy too much to ask for?

Still no shots and no sign of Armstrong. Dropping back to the snow, Sheppard wormed his way on elbows and knees from tree to boulder to tree, putting some distance between himself and his initial hiding place. Once he thought it was safe to stand up, he did so, concealing himself behind a tilted slab of rock that looked as if a giant hand had dropped it out of the sky. His back felt horribly exposed; he didn't know where Armstrong was or what direction he might come from. Not knowing where he was, but knowing he was nearby, made the back of Sheppard's neck crawl.

Then he nearly jumped out of his skin as a commotion erupted off to his right, somewhere among the snow-covered trees. He heard a high-pitched hyena-like scream, loud cursing and automatic weapons fire, all the sounds exploding at once.

Obviously the wolves had just found Armstrong again. And now Sheppard had his answer to two questions at once: he knew where Armstrong was, and he also knew that the wolves were still hunting them. He immediately turned and began to jog towards the source of the sound, stumbling in the snow and then righting himself. Now ... now was his chance, with Armstrong distracted by the wolves and forced to give away his position. The little voice in the back of his head, telling him that it wasn't a good idea, was one he'd long since learned to ignore.

A moment later he nearly stumbled over a huge, white-furred corpse. Steam still rose from the blood leaking out of dozens of bullet holes in the wolf's pelt. The snow was trampled and sprayed with red, as if someone had painted it with a spray can. Armstrong was nowhere to be seen. Sheppard hissed softly in anger and ducked down behind the wolf's body. So close -- he was so damn close! Which way had Armstrong gone? Or could he be hiding behind one of these trees, waiting for Sheppard? He looked around warily, and then whipped his head around at a movement from behind him.

A low, warbling growl rose from the throat of the huge beast stalking towards him, no more than thirty feet away.

Sheppard didn't know what was going through the wolves' heads. Any Earth predator would have long since given up in the face of a clearly superior enemy, and fled for safer hunting grounds. These blasted things just didn't give up. Maybe they were simply too dumb to know better, or maybe humans were just so far outside their experience that they simply couldn't understand. Not that he cared, really, aside from purely academic curiosity. He gave the wolf a faceful of P90 bullets for its trouble; it dropped in a twitching heap, and Sheppard realized that he'd just done exactly what Armstrong had done, and given away his position. Cursing, he made a dash for the shelter of the trees -- then realized that he could do what he'd suspected Armstrong might have tried: he could hide and wait for his enemy to show up looking for him. Ducking behind a pine, he did exactly that.

A couple of minutes went by. No Armstrong appeared, and the only things moving were the swirling snowflakes. Sheppard had a bizarre mental image of each of them hiding on a different side of the wolf carcasses, each one crouched and waiting for his enemy to appear. If that was the case, then whoever's nerve broke first ... would lose.

He didn't move a muscle, even as his legs began to protest and the sensation slowly disappeared from the tips of his fingers and toes.

No Armstrong.

What the hell? Maybe the guy really had gotten nipped by a wolf and had crawled off somewhere to bleed to death. There was so much blood splashed around in the trampled snow that he really couldn't tell if all of it came from the dead wolves or not.

Sheppard waited another minute or two, then straightened up and, shifting the P90 to one arm, patted down his pockets for anything he could use as a decoy. He was in luck -- one of the pockets contained a folded and crumpled wool hat. Sheppard broke off a branch from the pine tree and stuck the hat on the end of it. A less convincing decoy had probably never been created in the history of sniping, but he was in a hurry and the visibility was lousy out here, and getting worse.

He poked the hat out into the open, and waved it around a little bit. Nothing happened. He withdrew it, then poked it up again, trying to make it look like somebody peeking around the side of the tree.

A stutter of P90 fire tore the branch and hat out of his hands. Bingo! And he'd seen where it came from -- behind a grove of small trees across the clearing. Sheppard returned a quick burst of fire, watching the bullets tear a spray of needles and bark from the trees. He withdrew quickly behind the tree, then peeked around it again. No more shooting, and he didn't think that boded well. Armstrong would be either waiting for Sheppard to come out into the open, or circling around --

The sound of a snapping twig alerted him and he spun around, gun coming up, just as Armstrong did likewise. At least, he could only assume this was Armstrong -- a big blond guy with a wrestler's build. Sheppard remembered seeing him around with the Daedalus crew, but they'd never been introduced.

The two men faced each other, a few dozen yards apart. Armstrong, Sheppard noticed, had a puzzled look on his windburned face.

"Well, well. Colonel Sheppard, of Atlantis. This is highly unexpected."

"Nice to meet you." Sheppard spoke through clenched teeth; his jaw was locked so tightly that the muscles hurt.

"I assume that you're not out here to chat and have a cup of coffee." Armstrong had a pleasant smile -- open and friendly-looking. Even with a gun pointed at Sheppard's head, he still looked like someone you'd want to strike up a conversation with. It just went to show that you couldn't tell by looking.

"You assume correctly." Sheppard cleared his throat, raised his voice so that his words carried through the noise of the storm, ringing and clear. "Lieutenant Armstrong, by my authority as military commander of Atlantis, you are under arrest for murder, attempted murder, and treason against your country. If you resist arrest, I will use force to restrain you, up to and including lethal force."

Armstrong just laughed. "By whose authority? We're in a whole new galaxy, Colonel. There are different rules out here." His open, friendly smile grew predatory. "The weak perish. The strong survive. Which are you?"

Sheppard, through long experience, had learned to attune himself to minute changes in an enemy's body language. He saw Armstrong's hand start to tense, just in time to throw himself to the side while simultaneously squeezing the trigger of his gun. Both of them raked a wild spray of bullets across the space the other man had occupied a second before; both of them missed, the bullets kicking up snow. Sheppard saw Armstrong dive behind a clump of brush.

"Well done so far, Colonel!" Armstrong shouted above the roar of the wind.

"Shut up, you bastard!" From his own hiding place, Sheppard swung his P90 in a quick sweep across the last place he'd seen Armstrong, giving the bushes an impromptu pruning.

"You sound a little upset, Colonel." The voice came from slightly farther away and off to his left. Invisible in the storm, Armstrong was moving.

Fury turned the blood in Sheppard's veins to molten lead. He didn't feel the cold anymore; in fact, he'd nearly forgotten about Rodney. All he wanted to do was kill this guy. Taunted, toyed with, led in circles -- he hated it.

"I know who you are, Armstrong!" he shouted into the storm. "Don't forget that! I know who you are, and I know what you've done! When I send a report back to Atlantis, there won't be anywhere in this galaxy or any other that you can hide, and you'll never see Earth as long as you live, unless it's from the inside of a jail cell!"

With that, he turned and ran, dashing a zig-zag course from tree to tree. Armstrong clearly wanted to lure Sheppard after him, intending to pick him off; Sheppard had no intention of allowing him to do that. He needed to kill Armstrong -- or at least apprehend him, he reminded himself -- as a matter of justice, but Armstrong needed to kill him as a matter of survival. If Sheppard wouldn't play the game Armstrong's way, then the traitor would have no choice but to come after him. The ball was now in Sheppard's court. He intended to keep it that way.

He needed a place for an ambush.

He was running through a region of thick pines interspersed with boulders and eerie columns of wind-sculpted rock. The valley fell away to his left, now a nearly vertical cliff. That was no good. He needed high ground. The rock towers -- tors, he remembered, was the name for such things; he'd learned that during a brief dalliance with rock climbing in his younger days -- were too steep to climb without equipment and too exposed to be much use for his purposes. The land underfoot, he noticed, was rising, and he hoped this meant it would take him up into the mountains.

Get ahead. Stay ahead. Find a high place to hide. It didn't matter if he left a clear trail or not; Armstrong would come looking for him because he didn't have a choice. And when he did, Sheppard would be waiting for him.

Gunfire, behind him. Pretty far behind him. Sheppard paused, breathing heavily, and looked over his shoulder. All he could see was snow. Another chatter of gunfire came to him between gusts of wind. Somewhere down there, Armstrong had met another wolf. How many of the damned things could there be?

At least he now had an idea of where Armstrong was. He hadn't shaken him off -- and didn't want to -- but he had a comfortable lead. Slowing to a trot, Sheppard began to investigate his surroundings more closely. He needed to find a spot with good cover and, preferably, no more than one or two approaches, yet not an obvious ambush site.

The cliff to his left mellowed out into a more navigable slope. It was still steep and tall, but probably not something that would kill somebody who fell off. To his right, he could discern a mountainside rising steeply to unknown heights. Leave the valley and try the high places, or stay with the valley and know that he wouldn't lose his way back to the puddlejumper? Choices, choices ...

A warbling cry out of the blizzard set the hairs on his arms prickling under his jacket and coat. More wolves, Jesus ... A moment later, there was furtive motion, white on white. Sheppard raised his P90 to his shoulder, trying to figure how many bullets he had left. He was going to need a fresh clip very soon, and he didn't have that many more.

The wolf circled him, barely close enough to see in the storm. Sheppard kept walking slowly, swiveling the P90 to cover it. He stepped over a bloodstain in the snow, and realized that the wolf was injured, bleeding. Maybe it was one of the ones Armstrong had shot, or maybe Sheppard himself had winged it when he'd attacked the pack earlier. It made that ululating growl again, and Sheppard, turning, saw that it had abandoned caution and rushed him, charging forward at a gallop, faster than a running horse.

"Crap!" Recoil hit his shoulder and he saw blood spray from the white fur; then a ton or so of furious predator slammed into him and sent him tumbling down the hill, locked together with the animal. He could feel its hot breath on his cheek and hear the burbling of its hoarse breathing -- he'd hit it somewhere vital, but it was still alive and he sank the fingers of his free hand into its fur, straining against bone and muscle to hold it away from his throat. If it hadn't been injured, he'd be dead: damn thing was big as a horse. Even in its weakened state, it thrashed and fought him, and a scream was ripped from his throat as claws tore through the leg of his BDUs into the flesh beneath. They rolled end-over-end in a whirling cloud of snow, Sheppard twisting his body in a desperate effort to avoid being crushed under the animal's weight. He still had the P90, and in a burst of wild strength, he brought it up under the beast's chin and pulled the trigger.

Blood exploded in his face, and so did pain, as the recoil kicked the gun back into his jaw. He thought NO ... and fell into darkness.


"Get up."

Rodney cracked an eye open, peeking in the direction of that high-pitched, impatient voice. Somehow he wasn't surprised to see Jeannie crouching beside him. The hood of her little pink snowsuit, with the white fluffy fur trim, was pushed back and snowflakes dusted her blond pigtails, her lips and eyelashes. The snow did not melt, but neither did it fall through her. He wasn't sure which option disturbed him more.

"Mer, come on. Get up."

He shook his head, feeling the ice crystals under his cheek rasping against the skin. "I'm warm and comfortable and I intend to stay here." At least that's what he thought he said. His lips were stiff and words seemed to be difficult to form. The fact that Jeannie could, apparently, understand him just fine, should have worried him more than it did.

"You aren't warm. You're freezing to death. Get up."

"You always were a pest, you know that?" He lurched to his feet, staggered and managed to regain his balance.

Looking around, he saw trees. Damn forests. All of them looked alike. No telling where he was. Somehow, he'd made it out of the river canyon, though he couldn't really remember how. Now he was just walking, not really sure what he was looking for.

"You need to find shelter." Jeannie crossed her arms in a manner that Rodney recognized as his own. Well, it wasn't too surprising; he knew she'd come from his mind, after all.

"I have a very unruly subconscious mind, you know that?" he told her petulantly, leaning against one of the damn, ubiquitous trees. "I bet other people's subconsciouses don't talk to them and dress in pink." Subconsciouses? Is that even a word? he wondered. His thoughts drifted.

"It's your own fault for being so repressed," Jeannie retorted.

"Me? Repressed?" His lips were limbering up a little, with the exercise. Unfortunately, he couldn't really say the same for the rest of him. His body felt heavy and cold, like a frozen block of wood. "Excuse me? I'm a realist here; I'm well aware that I talk constantly. Everyone says so."

"You talk a lot, but do you say anything worth hearing? Anything that you really mean? Or do you use words to avoid saying what you mean?" Jeannie pushed off and began walking briskly between the trees. Rodney followed her, because he really wasn't done with this conversation even if he was having it with a figment of his imagination. He hated losing arguments, but losing arguments to himself was just intolerable.

"That makes absolutely no sense. It isn't possible for words to not have a meaning; they're intrinsically loaded with meaning. Otherwise they'd be, well, not words. And why do I always end up having philosophical conversations with my subconscious when I'm about to die?"

Jeannie turned to look up at him. "Maybe because you won't do it at any other time?"

"Saving the city! No time for useless soul-searching! That's Heightmeyer's area."

His coat was sheathed in ice. It crackled when he moved. Next to Jeannie's light grace, he felt like a clumsy, half-frozen lump. Just like being back in the pool on those long-ago summer days. On the other hand, anything that he tried to verbalize along those lines would just prove that she was right and he was psychoanalyzing himself.

Even being angry at his subconscious wasn't enough to keep his legs moving, though. He was just too damn tired. Giving in, he sank down against a pine tree and rested his spinning head against the rough bark.

"Don't stop, Mer."

He opened one eye just enough to see if she was still there. She was. "D-don't be stupid," he slurred wearily. "When you're lost in a blizzard, you should stay in one p-place or you'll just get more lost. Any idiot knows that." He kept having to clench his teeth against uncontrollable waves of shivering, distorting his words into utter incomprehensibility.

Jeannie crouched down with her arms folded over her small knees. "Rodney, you don't know a thing about wilderness survival."

"How do you know?" he challenged.

"Because I'm you."

Couldn't really fault that logic, he supposed. "Okay, so I'll rest for a minute and then get up."

"If you fall asleep, you'll die."

A slow burn of weary anger flared inside him. "I'm going to die anyway, though, aren't I?" He held out one arm, sheathed in ice and smeared with his own blood. "I'm soaked and shot and b-bleeding and stranded in the middle of the wilderness in the winter, with wolves and a crazy guy with a gun and who knows what else. C-Caldwell's probably dead by now. Hardly anybody knows I'm out here, and the few people who do know, don't really care, certainly not enough to come find me. I'm so cold I can't even feel my legs. I'm going to die, Jeannie, and there's not a thing I can do about it. Snuffed out in the prime of my genius. And Elizabeth and Radek are going to die, and eventually, everybody else on the Daedalus. If the winter doesn't get them, the Wraith will, once Armstrong and his crazy friends figure out how to call them down on our necks."

Jeannie laced together her fingers over the top of her knees. She was not wearing gloves; the small, bare fingers were pink and warm-looking. "Deep down, you don't want to die. I can say this with authority, considering that I am you, deep down."

"Yes, I came face to face with that side of myself in the puddlejumper, a side of myself which is very annoying and unhelpful and won't shut up. Only last time you were Sam, and this time you're my sister, and why does this sort of stupid thing always happen to me?"

"Inside you, there's a core of steel," Jeannie told him softly. "You are not a person who gives up easily, and, on some level, you know that. If you didn't know it, I wouldn't know it."

"Go away." He started to close his eyes, then flinched, stiffened and opened them again. "What was that?"

"Gunshots," Jeannie said, cocking her small head to the side.

"I know that. I was being rhetorical."

"I know you know. I'm you, remember?"

"I think I liked you better as Sam," he muttered. "I'm guessing that Caldwell p-probably just met a sticky end at the hands of our friendly neighborhood terrorist."

"So why are you getting up?"

"I don't know!" he snapped, finding that he was leaning weakly, but vertically, against the tree and couldn't even remember how he'd gotten this way. "Maybe I can die quickly rather than slowly! Maybe I can give Armstrong a good shock and he'll collapse from horror at my miraculous return from the dead. This will be followed by my miraculous return to the dead because I'm still freezing to death. Er ... Jeannie?"

He looked around. No little girl in a pink snowsuit. Did this mean that his will to live had given up on him? Was it possible to be so abrasive that you drove off your own subconscious?

Woozily, he pushed himself away from the tree and kept walking, in the general direction of the gunshots. Because it seemed the thing to do. Where there were gunshots, there were people, and even though one of them was trying to kill him, it was always possible that the other side had won. He'd actually be happy to see Caldwell or Cadman right now; at least they could both probably handle themselves in a snowstorm. One thing he did know for sure, through the fog that seemed to have taken over his brain: he wasn't going to survive out here by himself. He'd just have to gamble on finding someone who could help him before he found Armstrong. And, hey ... at least getting shot would mean that he'd die quickly.


"Sheppard, this is Atlantis. Do you copy?"

The voice was Teyla's. From the back of the jumper, kneeling next to Radek, Beckett looked up as Lorne reached for the radio.

"This is Major Lorne. We're heading home with full jumpers, Atlantis. We've got a lot of injured, but very few dead."

For a minute, there was no sound from Teyla, but Carson could picture the gateroom -- the moment of paused surprise turning into celebration. Then Teyla's voice spoke again, and he could hear the smile in her words. "We will be happy to see you, Major. We have already sent the next team of rescue jumpers, so you will be passing them in a few hours." She hesitated. Carson imagined her trying to figure out a way to ask about their own people without sounding insensitive to the plight of those from the Daedalus.

Lorne seemed to understand. "We've got a few wounded among ours. One dead -- a Dr. Estvaag, I'm told. Dr. Weir's injured, and so's Doc Zelenka and Lt. Cadman. Dr. McKay ..." He paused, then continued. "McKay's MIA. Sheppard's still on the planet, looking for him."

"I ... see." Her voice had lost its smile.

We were hit hard, Beckett thought, lightly touching Radek's pale face as he checked the scientist's wound. The Atlanteans were close-knit, all of them, but some more than others. The tightly woven fabric of that bond had been stretched and frayed. Now they were scattered, some wounded, some missing and perhaps dead. It startled him to realize that more than anything else, he wanted to be down on that planet, helping Sheppard look for McKay. Not tucked into a warm safe lab, not surrounded by the familiar cradle of the infirmary. No ... God help him, he wanted to be out in the cold and wind and snow, looking for a missing friend.

The Pegasus Galaxy had changed them all. Some of the changes were hard and dark -- Carson still shied away from thinking of some of the things that he'd seen, that he'd done. If the changes in him, personally, balanced out to positive or negative ... he supposed the jury was still out on that.

The only thing he was really sure of, now, was that if they ever went back to Earth, none of them would be the same people who had left. At this point, he did still want to go back to Earth, but he wasn't entirely sure he'd be happy there. In another ten years, he might not even want to go back.

And ... what if Sheppard and McKay didn't come back from the planet? What then? The idea of an Atlantis without those two ... Quiet, peaceful, he thought, but his recalcitrant brain returned with Empty, unfulfilling, lonely.

The Pegasus Galaxy had taught him courage and hope. It had also taught him loss and fear. Which of those lessons would dominate, in the future ... he didn't know.

He listened to Lorne fill Teyla in on the situation, and checked his patients' vital signs in silence, lost in his own thoughts.


They held Rodney's memorial service in the jumper bay.

Sheppard wasn't really sure why; he hadn't been consulted. But it seemed appropriate, this vast, echoing utilitarian space. Rodney would have approved.

It had been awhile since he'd worn a suit. The last time, in fact, was when he'd gone to talk to Ford's family back on Earth. Suits were for weddings and funerals, in Sheppard's world.

And that called up an unwanted memory, a snide voice remarking, Of course, because everything's a shortcut in Sheppard's world. Rodney. Everything seemed to just come right back to Rodney.

Elizabeth was speaking now, but Sheppard wasn't listening to what she was saying, until he heard his name and looked up to see her sympathetic eyes on him.

"Do you want to say a few words, John?"

No, he didn't; there was nothing that he wanted less, in fact. Standing up in front of all those people and baring his soul sounded like hell to him. But it didn't seem right not to say something. He owed Rodney that.

Even though he hadn't been able to save him.

Maybe this was his punishment for not being there when he should have been.

He could feel all eyes in the room on him as he rose and approached the podium that had been set up at one end of the room. Elizabeth stepped aside and he was alone, with a microphone in front of him and the combined population of Atlantis and the Daedalus sitting silent and still, watching him. He saw Teyla gripping Ronon's arm with fingers clenched white, and Cadman resting her head on Beckett's shoulder, while the doctor looked red-eyed and stunned. Zelenka sat stiffly, looking as if a wind could blow him over. Even Hermiod was there, in the back.

Sheppard wondered if Rodney would have been surprised, to know how much he was missed. Reaching for the mic, he saw that his hand was trembling, and realized that he didn't have the slightest idea what to say.

Finding words had never been a problem when talking to Rodney. There were too many words, in fact. But never words for what mattered, never words to express what was between them. And that had been all right. Neither one of them went for that kind of thing.

Now it was too late, and yet here he was, making the effort. Maybe it was just Rodney's last attempt to embarrass him from beyond the grave.

"I'm not good at this," he said, and had to pause, hearing the sound of his own words booming out into the room from the microphone. Having to hear himself, having everyone else hear him ... this was hard, so hard. And maybe it should be, maybe it meant less if it was easy, maybe that was part of what he should say because it certainly seemed to sum up his friendship with Rodney. "I don't know what to say. If Rodney was standing here, if he was listening -- and who knows, maybe he is -- anything I could say at this point would just embarrass us both."

He darted his eyes towards Elizabeth, saw her give him a small, encouraging smile, and found the strength to continue. "Rodney McKay was a good man. I know that sounds empty and hollow, like every eulogy you've ever heard, but I mean it. He wasn't necessarily a nice person, although he could be -- but he was a truly good person, and there aren't too many of those.

"Like all of us, he came to this galaxy without leaving too much behind. We're flotsam, all of us. They picked us for this because there wasn't really anybody to miss us back on Earth. Some of us have parents --" his eyes picked out Beckett's pale face "-- and some had lovers --" and here he glanced at Elizabeth, and then had to look away from the desolation in her eyes "-- but all of us had, and have, one thing in common: there was nothing, no one, on Earth to tie us there. We all felt that we might find something better here."

Despite the hollow ache in his chest, Sheppard found himself smiling. "And we did, didn't we? Something we never expected. I don't really even know what to call it -- friendship isn't really deep enough, family is too specific. I don't think it needs a word. Talking about it just cheapens it."

His voice faltered, but went on. "The good things in life aren't the things that are easy. They're the things you have to work for. And being Rodney's friend takes -- took a lot of work." Hell, he couldn't let go of the present tense, even now. Couldn't accept that Rodney wasn't going to come walking back into his life. "But it was worth it. Always worth it."

He was still waiting for somebody to fidget, or cough, or get up and leave the room. But they were all listening as if transfixed. Teyla had begun to weep softly, and Beckett looked on the verge of it, but no one seemed bored. They were all focused on him, awaiting his next words.

And suddenly, he didn't know what words to give them, because there were no words to make this better, no words to ease them from the part of their lives that contained Rodney to the part that didn't. No words to replace the arrogant, abrasive, larger-than-life figure that would never again terrorize the labs, save the day, or drive John Sheppard crazy like no one else ever could.

He'd never been good with words, and now he found that the words were deserting him again, leaving without a trace. He should have been good at this by now; he didn't know how many times he'd had to find the words to deliver this message to a soldier's family, by letter or videotape or email or in person. Each time, it never got easier, and this time, he felt as if each word was being ripped out of his raw bleeding heart.

"I wish he'd come back," he said softly. His fingers clutched at the edge of the podium, digging into the wood. The words, the comforting words to keep everyone at a distance were gone. There were only feelings now, and he couldn't deal with them. "I want him back. I'd give my life to have him back."

And then he found that he couldn't talk anymore, because, to his horrendous embarrassment, he was actually crying. The sensation was almost totally unfamiliar -- it actually took him a minute to figure out what was happening. And now he was breaking down in front of everyone he knew. He tried to stop, but couldn't, and turned his face away, trying to shut them out, close himself down, simply not be until he could deal with it.

No one spoke or coughed or even moved, and he was cold, the world was cold. Somebody turn up the heat, he wanted to say, and with a choked laugh he realized that he was dreaming, and blinked snowflakes away from his eyes.

He raised his head, or tried to. There was a great weight on top of him, and as he began to understand where he was and what it was, he fumbled with desperate fingers to feel along its massive rib cage for any sign of breath. But the wolf was dead, well and truly dead -- half its head was blown away. Its slowly cooling bulk must be helping to insulate him from the cold.

Taking stock of his body once again, he moved his legs and froze as a hot, searing pain spiked from shin to hip. Okay. Moving the legs was bad. He tried his arms, found them unhurt, then flexed his fingers -- stiff, but not numb. Stripping off a glove, he raised his hand to his face, and stopped at the hot moisture that he felt there. At first he thought it was blood, and some of it surely was that, or worse -- cooling clots from the wolf's shattered skull. But there was also a salt-water taste on his lips that he couldn't mistake.

Tears. Damn. He hadn't cried since ... since when, anyway? Since his father's funeral, maybe, the year he turned eighteen. He was John Sheppard, tough-guy pilot, and he hadn't cried when his girlfriend of six years, the woman he'd thought would bear his children someday, had dumped him after one deployment too many. Hadn't cried when Mitch and Dex took an RPG on a medivac outside Kabul. Hadn't cried when he'd left Earth, knowing he might never return, knowing also that there was precious little to return to. As he'd tried to tell himself in his dream, it just wasn't something that he did.

And here he was, lying in the snow with tears running down his face for a smug, arrogant, hypochondriac physicist who didn't know one end of a P90 from the other ... crying for an egotistical SOB with the social skills of a five-year-old child, who terrorized his employees, annoyed his co-workers, and generally made an ass of himself every time they took him offworld.

Crying for the best goddamn friend he'd ever had, who'd died on an alien planet because Sheppard hadn't been able to protect him.

"Sonovabitch, McKay," Sheppard muttered, scrubbing his hand across his burning eyes, wiping away the tears and blood and maybe even a little of the pain. "You're even annoying me after you're dead."

He wriggled around under the wolf carcass, teeth gritted against the pain in his leg. He didn't know how long he'd been out, but Armstrong would surely have heard his gunshots, and assuming that Armstrong didn't have problems of his own, would be on his way. Raising the knee of his good leg like a lever, he managed to roll the animal's bulk off into the snow, and he sat up. The BDUs on his right leg were shredded into bloody rags by the beast's claws. He didn't know how bad he was hurt, didn't have time to figure it out -- the only question that mattered right now was whether or not he could move. Flexing his leg, he discovered that, as long as he was willing to accept a certain level of pain and not bend it too much, he could get by.

The P90 lay next to him in the snow. Sheppard picked it up, checked it over quickly. The clip was nearly spent, with only a couple more shots left. He reached into one of the parka's deep pockets for another.

"Still alive, I see," a quiet voice said, out of the storm.

Sheppard froze, one hand in his pocket and the other on the gun.

Armstrong stepped forward, out of the blizzard, his weapon trained on Sheppard's face. "Is that all its blood, or some of yours? Seems you've had a rough time."

Sheppard noticed that the man's hair was askew and the shoulder of his parka had been torn up. "Looks like I'm not the only one."

Armstrong snorted. "Touche." He gestured with the muzzle of the gun. "Hands where I can see 'em, and toss that over there."

"You're going to kill me anyway, so give me one good reason why I should cooperate with you?"

Armstrong's lips twisted in a flat smile, a mockery of the warm one he'd worn earlier. "You strike me as a man who doesn't throw away hope, however thin the shreds might be. If you don't cooperate, I shoot you dead where you sit. If you do, then you get to live a little bit longer."

"And what's in it for you?" Sheppard asked, carefully removing his hand from his pocket. "Somehow I doubt if you're keeping me alive out of the goodness of your heart. I would've expected you to shoot me by now."

"You have a point. But I have some questions for you, starting with how you got here and how many people came with --"

At that point, Sheppard flung the P90 at him and rolled to the side, tumbling behind some rocks. Bullet scattered off the stone as Armstrong recovered from the split-second's distraction and squeezed the trigger; a flying chip of rock glanced off Sheppard's face. He fumbled under his coat for the sidearm strapped to his leg.

"Or maybe I'll just kill you," Armstrong said from the other side of the rocks.

"Lots of luck. I imagine you're running pretty low on bullets by now. How many did you use up on the wolves?" Sheppard looked around and stifled a curse. Additional cover -- trees, rocks -- lay several yards away. He'd have to run in the open to reach it, and somehow he didn't think Armstrong intended to give him that chance. The 9mm felt very small and useless in his hand.

"I still have enough to kill you." The voice sounded closer.

Yeah, that's it, sucker, Sheppard thought. Just keep coming.

He worked his way quietly to the other end of the pile of rocks, leaving great swatches of blood in the snow from his injured leg, and risked a quick peek. Just as he'd thought -- Armstrong was doing likewise. He obviously intended to ambush Sheppard from this end.

Sheppard was a great believer in the tactical advantage of doing something stupid. It threw your enemy off guard. Nobody in their right mind would try a full-frontal assault on a much more heavily armed opponent, so Armstrong wouldn't be expecting it.

He came out shooting, emptying the clip into Armstrong's face. The man was already moving, ducking, firing as he went, but Sheppard was in motion too, going low and smacking headfirst into Armstrong's knees. The two of them fell over together, dropping their now-empty guns and grabbing at each other. Sheppard felt his fist connect with some part of Armstrong's head and let out a yell as fingers sank into his hair and yanked on it, jerking his head backwards so hard it nearly gave him whiplash.

"Pulling hair, asshole?" he panted. Armstrong almost got him in the crotch with a knee, but he managed to block it -- with his bad leg, unfortunately, sending all the breath out of him in a rush. "Thought you were ... man ... not grade-school girl."

Armstrong's elbow clipped him in the temple and he saw stars, but he managed to drive his own weight into the other man's stomach and heard a loud grunt of pain. Then Armstrong got a better grip on his hair and whacked his head against something, catching him right where he'd hit his head in the puddlejumper crash. His vision went white and his hearing blurred out in a rush of static. As he desperately clawed his way back to consciousness, he found himself lying flat on his back. Armstrong was holding him down with one hand while pointing a pistol at his face.

Sheppard thought at first that it was his gun, in which case it would be out of bullets, but then realized that Armstrong would have probably had one, too.

"So long, Colonel," Armstrong said.

The next sound, though, wasn't the sharp report of a bullet -- it was a soft snick, the sound of a gun being cocked. Armstrong froze.

Caldwell, Sheppard thought in relief, and he looked up past Armstrong's face, past the 9mm which was now resting against the back of the Lieutenant's head ... up a parka-clad arm with blood liberally splattered all over it, into the wide, slightly dazed-looking blue eyes of Rodney McKay.


Sheppard's world froze in perfect white stillness for just a moment -- the swirling snow, the white sky, white ground, and in the middle of it all, Rodney's eyes, bluer than blue.

Time started again when Rodney said to Armstrong, in a voice so slurred that it was barely comprehensible, "Let him go."

The gun in Rodney's hand -- that was Sheppard's gun. The empty one. He recognized the little scratch on the barrel. In which case they'd be doing fine right up until Armstrong called Rodney's bluff, at which point they'd both die.

But Sheppard was already moving, lashing out and up into Armstrong's face. One hand smacked into Armstrong's 9mm and sent it flying; the other hand went straight for the throat in a hard jab at the lieutenant's windpipe. As Armstrong reeled back, choking, Sheppard reared up out of the snow -- just hitting him, as hard as he could, as many times as he could, until Armstrong slumped facedown in the snow and did not get up.

Gasping, Sheppard crouched for a moment with his hands sore and hot and sticking to his gloves at the knuckles. Then he turned and looked at Rodney. Just stared at him for a moment. One side of his face was covered with blood, matting his hair and coating his neck and the collar of his parka. The parka hood was down, and his hair, clothes, even his eyelashes were covered with ice and snow -- it looked as if he'd been rolled in ice crystals. He was shivering so hard that his movements were jerky and uncoordinated. He'd dropped the gun.

"Rodney," was all Sheppard could manage to say.

"I would ask what you're d-doing here, Colonel, but it's gotten to the point where following the sound of gunshots and finding you doesn't even surprise me anymore. All I want to know is, since you're the military one, why do I always end up saving your ass?" He managed to sound petulant even through chattering teeth. And then he folded up without another sound and crumpled into a boneless heap, joining Armstrong in the snow.


Sheppard crouched down next to him -- or started to; he'd forgotten about his leg, which buckled under him and spilled him on his face in the snow next to Rodney.

"We're a real healthy bunch," he muttered, picking himself up. Stripping off a glove, he laid the back of his hand against Rodney's face. Cold as ice. In fact, ice was exactly what he seemed to be covered with. Touching one sleeve of Rodney's parka, Sheppard found it heavy and stiff. Probably about as insulating as being wrapped in a wet towel. Before he had time to think about what he was doing, he slipped out of his own coat and tucked it around Rodney. The wind seared through his jacket as if it wasn't even there. He clenched his teeth and tried to ignore it.

Rodney McKay was alive. He didn't know how, didn't know why -- all he knew was that when they got back to the jumper, he planned to have a nice, long, loud chat with Caldwell about checking for a pulse before declaring someone dead, possibly with a little added lecture about not leaving people behind.

And then there was Armstrong. Taking his own advice, Sheppard limped over to Armstrong's still form and felt for a pulse. Strong, hard and fast. Damn. He loathed the thought of shooting an unconscious man, loathed the thought of turning his back on him even more. But he did have zip ties in one of his vest pockets, and securely bound Armstrong hand and foot. If he ended up with frostbite, well too damn bad. It was the least he deserved for killing Rodney. Or ... whatever. If he hadn't succeeded, he'd certainly tried. He'd killed others, and considering that he was one of the saboteurs, there wasn't a soul on the Daedalus whose life had not been threatened by his actions. Sheppard tucked Armstrong's gun into a pocket of his coat and reloaded his own before holstering it.

Rodney made a faint, garbled sound behind him. Sheppard spun around so quickly that he took his weight on his bad leg and nearly toppled over in the snow. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he limped over to Rodney.


Rodney blinked, and turned his head to one side to squint up blearily at Sheppard. "I thought I dreamed you," he said in a sleepy voice. "Maybe I'm still dreaming. You were Jeannie last time, weren't you?"

"Er ... no." Sheppard leaned down to wrap an arm around the physicist's shoulders and struggled to lift him to his feet. "Rodney ... c'mon, give me some help here." This got no response, so he tried snapping at him, "McKay, on your feet!"

"You were a lot nicer when you were Jeannie," Rodney mumbled, his legs wobbling as he made what appeared to be an earnest effort to stand independently. Most of his weight ended up bearing down on Sheppard, who let out a sharp breath as he tried to stabilize them both and wrenched his leg. He could feel blood trickling down his thigh, hot against the cold skin.

"You haven't seen the not-nice version of me yet, Rodney, and you don't want to. I'm gonna need you to walk out of here on your own, because I sure as hell can't carry you." He didn't like the weakness in his own knees, didn't like the way that he'd already almost stopped noticing the razor-sharp edge of the wind cutting through his jacket. "Now move it, McKay, I'm not kidding around here!"

He could only hope, as they began their slow forward progress through the snow, that no more wolves showed up before they could make it to the jumper. He was already shivering so hard that he wasn't sure if he could aim.

"You're shivering, Jeannie," Rodney mumbled, leaning into him. He pawed at the front of Sheppard's coat, lacking the manual dexterity to do anything more. "Here, take my coat ..."

"For God's sake, McKay, stop calling me Jeannie. You're really creeping me out. And quit that." Sheppard smacked his hands away from the front of the coat.

As they left the semi-protected area against the hill, the wind roared down on them in earnest. Sheppard stumbled and managed to right himself only because he had to -- because he knew that to fall down now would be to die. The valley channeled the storm like a wind tunnel. Sheppard could barely see more than ten feet in front of them. He realized how incredibly easy it would be to walk past the jumper in the white-out. It could be no more than a few paces to their left or right, and they wouldn't even know it was there. To make matters even worse, darkness had begun to threaten. Soon it would be pitch-black. They were both covered with blood, and Sheppard seriously doubted if he and Armstrong had managed to kill all the wolves.

I'm sure I've been in worse situations, he thought, struggling grimly through the drifts while half-dragging Rodney. I just can't think of any right now ...


"What?" he responded automatically, before the actual name sunk in, and then he cuffed Rodney lightly on the shoulder. "Damn it, McKay, stop calling me that!"

"My imagination's better than I thought it was," Rodney slurred, his head lolling against Sheppard's shoulder. His hood had slipped off again at some point, and Sheppard could feel the prickle of Rodney's blood-stiff hair against his cheek. "You really sound like Sheppard. You've even got that weird flippy thing his hair does ..."

"That's because I am Sheppard, and what weird flippy thing?" There was something deeply surreal about the fact that he was arguing with a delirious Rodney in a blizzard. And yet, there was a certain comfort to it, too -- the familiar give-and-take, push-and-pull. As long as we can still argue, we can get out of this.

"Sheppard -- Sheppard's back in Atlantis. Safe. Warm."

"No, I'm out here in a blizzard, saving your accident-prone ass." At least he sincerely hoped he was doing that, and not just prolonging their deaths. Either the snow was getting heavier and harder to wade through, or his legs were getting a lot weaker, and neither option boded well.

One of Rodney's arms was loosely slung around his shoulders, and Sheppard felt the hand tighten suddenly, spastically, on his arm. Rodney stopped walking. Sheppard literally dragged him for a step or two before he stopped walking, too, and used the side of his head to push Rodney's head off his shoulder so that he could look him in the eyes. "Okay, now what?"

Rodney was staring at him as if he'd never seen him before. At the moment, that could well be true. "You're here," he said. His voice was still soft and slurred, but there was a sharper note in it, as if he'd rallied enough to try to fight through the fog in his brain.

"Yes, now move."

But Rodney just stood still, continuing to stare at him. It was getting slightly creepy. "How did you get here?"

"By puddlejumper, how else? Rodney, we're freezing to death as we stand here. Move!"

He responded to that, weakly, slogging another few steps through the snow before stopping again. "Teyla? Ronon?"

"Teyla's back in Atlantis; Ronon's on the Daedalus." Sheppard had had to think hard to remember where Ronon was. He couldn't really feel the cold at all anymore. Walking might be warming him up ... he hoped so, but somehow he doubted it. "Rodney, seriously, we need to keep moving."

Rodney's hesitation continued for another few seconds and then he got himself moving again with little, hitching steps. His head sank down again, resting on Sheppard. "You know what's crazy?" he murmured.

"No. Tell me." Because he needed to keep talking. Stay awake. Keep moving.

"I thought you'd come. I mean, it's crazy and stupid and there's no rational reason for it." Rodney's words started and stopped, with ever-longer pauses between them. Sheppard, through long experience at deciphering just about every dialect of McKay-ese, strung them together into a coherent whole without even having to think about it. "My subconscious kept telling me you wouldn't, that I had to make it out on my own. And it's crazy, because back in that puddlejumper, underwater, I had the opposite problem. I didn't think you'd come. I really didn't. Sam said you would, but I didn't believe her. And then you did ... you did." His voice trailed away and then picked back up again, so slurred that Sheppard could barely make it out. "I think that was the last time I ever thought you wouldn't."

Sheppard felt strangely warm, from head to foot. Maybe it was just the hypothermia. "Well, don't thank me yet, Rodney, because we're a long way from the puddlejumper." And he couldn't feel his feet, which was making it even harder to find and keep his footing in the snow. On the other hand, it was dulling the pain in his leg, and that was helping with the whole keeping-vertical thing.

That was the last coherent thing that he got out of Rodney, who degenerated into a mumbled, monotone tirade about something-or-other having to do with ZPMs. And then at some point he stopped talking, but Sheppard wasn't even sure when it happened, because by that time it was taking all his concentration just to keep walking, especially with Rodney getting heavier and heavier against his side.

When his injured leg crumpled and slid out to the side, he didn't even realize what had happened until he was facefirst in the snow, half buried under Rodney. Oh, well, this isn't good, he thought, trying to turn himself and just managing to thrash around in the snow a little bit. "Rodney," he said through a mouthful of snow. Or thought he'd said it. Maybe he didn't. Rodney, in any case, remained a limp and unmoving object across his chest.

Sheppard tilted his head back and let the snowflakes brush his face. It was nice here, down in the snow, out of the wind. He didn't hurt, he wasn't cold. And he'd found Rodney. All he wanted to do was sleep. Some deeply buried part of his mind was railing at him, telling him to wake up, get up, keep walking. But he couldn't remember why. And he didn't want to. It had been a hell of a long day. Sheppard figured he'd earned a rest.

He closed his eyes, and let himself drift away. It felt as nice as he'd thought it would, and finally the part of his brain that wanted him to get up got with the program and shut up, letting him sleep in peace.


"Oh for ... Where were you on the day they handed out brains, Colonel Sheppard?"

Caldwell knelt in the snow next to the two unconscious men. Using his teeth to remove the glove from his good hand, he tucked his fingers into Sheppard's collar, relieved to feel a pulse beneath the cool skin. He repeated the process on McKay, although he had to forcibly move the man's head to do so -- Rodney, probably unconsciously seeking warmth, had burrowed his face into Sheppard's shoulder. Caldwell couldn't feel a pulse, but holding the back of his hand against McKay's mouth, he could feel the slight warmth of shallow breaths.

Operating one-handed, he yanked Sheppard's coat from McKay's shoulders, levered Sheppard off the ground with his knee and tucked the coat around him. Then he shook him. Hard. When that didn't work, he smacked Sheppard across the face.

Sheppard made a garbled sound and opened his eyes, blinking owlishly as he tried to focus. "Wha-- Stop it," he mumbled, waving one hand feebly around his head in an attempt to fend off his assailant.

"Colonel, look at me. Colonel!" When Sheppard's eyes finally focused, Caldwell sat back on his heels and informed him, "You are an idiot."

"Why?" Sheppard splayed his hands out to the sides, trying to support himself in his half-sitting, half-lying position. Then his dazed eyes focused as things began to register on him: first that he was wrapped in his own coat, and second that Rodney was no longer lying on his chest. "Rodney!" He rolled over to the side, fumbling at Rodney's pulse points with hands that trembled violently from cold and, judging from the amount of blood on him, possibly shock as well.

"He's alive," Caldwell said. "No thanks to you. Giving him your coat was the stupidest thing you could possibly have done."

"And why might that be?" Sheppard snarled, in the process of shrugging off his coat to do it again. "He's hypothermic, goddammit."

"So are you, now," the Colonel retorted. "And the two of you would have died if I hadn't come looking for you. You can't help anyone if you allow yourself to become incapacitated, and you know it's true. First rule in a survival situation." He held out his hand. "Get up. I'll take him."

A bit reluctantly, Sheppard allowed himself to be hauled to his feet. He was obviously still somewhat out of it, and the blood on him wasn't just Rodney's, but this wasn't the time or place to figure out how bad he was hurt. Caldwell steadied him with a hand until he seemed able to stand on his own. Then he got a solid grip on McKay's ice-encrusted parka and hauled him up, hooking his good arm under the scientist's shoulders while trying not to jostle the broken one too much. A hiss of pain still escaped him. Back in the jumper, he'd stared longingly at the morphine auto-injectors in the medkit, but didn't dare muddy up his thinking -- damn good thing, obviously. The snow was getting deep out here and he could see why Sheppard, injured as he obviously was, hadn't been able to make it with McKay's dead weight to haul around.

He couldn't believe McKay was alive. Armstrong's shot must have only winged him, but still -- he'd survived a plunge into a winter-locked river, and, soaking wet, had managed to avoid dying of exposure and also evade Armstrong. Caldwell would never, never have imagined the physicist possessed that kind of guts and stamina. Wouldn't have given him up for dead if he had known.

"Where's Armstrong?" he asked Sheppard as they started on their way.

Sheppard swayed, but he was damn well going to have to stay upright on his own -- Caldwell wasn't feeling too steady himself, and he had his hands full with McKay. "Unconscious and tied up," Sheppard said in a thick voice, catching himself on a snow-covered tree. "Back up the valley -- near the head of it."

"Not dead?"

You didn't turn your back on someone that dangerous, and Sheppard had to know that, because he wouldn't meet Caldwell's eyes. "No," he said shortly. "Not dead."

They weren't far from the jumper, but it was nearly dark by the time they got back. Caldwell had not bothered to cloak it and, on top of that, left the running lights on as a visual aid -- they gleamed like beacons through the falling snow, lighting the way home. He lowered the ramp, shedding snow all over the floor as he lowered McKay to one of the jumper's seats and then turned back around.

"Hey ..." Sheppard was leaning on a bulkhead, pale and shaking. "Where are you going?"

"I'm going to find Armstrong before it gets completely dark." The ramp closed behind him, cutting off the light along with Sheppard's protest.

He paused for a moment, knee-deep in snow, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. It was not fully dark yet; he could still see a little, and he did not switch on the light of his P90 -- not yet, not unless he had to.

Sheppard was probably right to protest. Caldwell was injured himself, and leaving two badly injured men alone in the puddlejumper. But he had to do this. For his crew, for his ship, for himself. Armstrong had shattered Caldwell's faith in his people -- in his own ability to judge character, as well. For his own sake, as well as to give closure to the deaths of those whose lives had been lost, he had to bring this whole thing full circle.

Eyes half-closed against the driving snow, he began to walk, into the teeth of the wind.


During his time in Antarctica, Sheppard had suffered through at least a half-dozen cold-weather survival courses, usually pretending to pay attention while reading a year-old copy of Gun & Ammo tucked inside a training pamphlet. And he'd participated in rescue efforts, even watched from the corner of his eye as field medics rewarmed lost, hypothermic servicemen in the back of the helicopter he was flying. He knew the basics: warm the body's core first, no jarring or rough handling, warm fluids and sugar if they can swallow ...

And strangely, all of it seemed to have gone straight out of his head when confronted with a limp, unresponsive Rodney who felt like an ice cube to the touch. He'd been confronted with a hypothermic Rodney once before, after rescuing him from the sunken puddlejumper, but that had been a very mildly hypothermic and, more importantly, conscious Rodney, and Zelenka had handled most of it anyway -- getting him into dry clothes, wrapping him in a blanket and then just keeping him from wandering all over the jumper criticizing their rescue efforts until they could hand him off to Beckett back on Atlantis. The main problem had been getting him to shut up and stop telling them about the fifty different, better ways of rescuing him that he'd come up with underwater.

This cold, fragile, pale version of Rodney scared the hell out of Sheppard. All he wanted right now was for Rodney to wake up and tell him that he was rescuing him wrong.

The puddlejumper's standard emergency equipment included sleeping bags and thermal blankets. Limping heavily on a leg that would barely hold him, Sheppard began unloading supplies from the bins above and below the seats. He unrolled a sleeping bag on the floor and was then faced with the unpleasant task of peeling a limp and exceedingly unhelpful Rodney out of his clothing. The outer layers were frozen solid, the inner layers soaked and clinging damply to his cold skin. Sheppard dried him off as best he could, wincing at the technicolor bruise that spread across Rodney's chest -- obviously the impact of a bullet on the vest; he'd had those before himself -- before wrapping him in a thermal blanket and sleeping bag on the floor. Rodney's hair clung to his forehead in damp and bloody spikes, and Sheppard realized that on top of all the bruises, there was some kind of head wound as well. It wasn't bleeding much at the moment, perhaps an actual side benefit of the hypothermia. Sheppard did a quick patch job with the first-aid kit supplies, but he was a lot more worried about getting Rodney warm than dealing with his superficial injuries. The scientist's skin was pale and cold as ice. Sliding his hand down Rodney's bare arm inside the sleeping bag, Sheppard felt no heat in him, none at all. It was like touching a dead man. He spread his fingers across Rodney's chest, reassured by the slight movement that his friend still drew breath.

The Antarctic rescues in which he'd participated had had equipment that the puddlejumpers did not. A warm-air ventilator would come in particular handy right about now. The jumper's first-aid kit did contain an IV, but Sheppard didn't have the foggiest clue how to insert it, and figured he'd better not try.

A wave of dizziness washed over him and Sheppard found himself sitting on one of the bench seats with his head in his hands, not really sure how he'd gotten there. He became aware of an expanding pool of blood underneath his right foot, not to mention that his leg hurt like fucking hell. When he tried to get up to get to the first aid kit, he nearly took a header on top of Rodney.

Great. Just great. This was just a beautiful day, in so many ways.

He took off his pants and dropped them in a crumpled heap -- they were soaked with melted snow and blood. His right leg was a mess of blood from mid-thigh to below the knee; in places he could see skin hanging down like shredded paper. He couldn't think how to begin to clean it; he didn't even know where to touch it, and the pain was hammering a spike behind his eyes. Screw it all, he thought, and wrapped the hell out of it with most of the remaining bandages in the first-aid kit. The important thing was to stop the blood loss; Beckett could sort out the rest later. There were oral antibiotics in the kit. He checked the dosage and dry-swallowed some. Then he sat for a moment and stared at the morphine auto-injectors. Yeah, it'd knock him on his ass, but right now he could hardly think because of the pain. If he had to choose between being fuzzy-headed from pain or from morphine, he might as well take the more comfortable option.

The tingling rush came almost immediately, a warm feeling not unlike fatigue that seeped through his veins and chased the pain to a small corner of his mind. Sheppard got up, swayed and caught himself on the side of the jumper. He took a small, experimental step and found that, although his leg wanted to buckle, it didn't feel like someone was pounding spikes through it every time he took a step.

So far so good.

"So how you doing down there, McKay?" He bent over Rodney and slipped a hand inside the sleeping bag to check on him. Still ice-cold. He remembered vaguely that hypothermic people couldn't generate enough heat to warm themselves back up, once they stopped shivering. Or maybe that was just something his buddies on McMurdo used to say, some sort of urban legend thing. He really should have paid more attention to those first aid courses. And maybe taking the morphine had been a mistake; this would all be much easier if he could think straight.

Sheppard sat down next to Rodney on the floor. McKay needed to be warmed up, core first, and Sheppard didn't really have any way to apply heat to him other than the standard movie treatment for hypothermia. Which he'd never seen anybody actually do in real life, and was probably a stupid idea, not to mention embarrassing as hell.

Still ...

Rodney was unconscious, Caldwell was gone ... it wasn't like anyone was ever going to find out about this. He didn't know what else to do, and the idea of sitting around and letting Rodney die when he could do something to help him, but wouldn't due to embarrassment -- how could he ever face himself in the mirror again? Frankly he'd rather throw himself on a live grenade than crawl inside a sleeping bag with a mostly naked teammate. If only there was a grenade handy.

Rodney's shallow breathing hitched slightly, and Sheppard groaned to himself, and peeled off his jacket and shirt. If Rodney woke up in the middle of this, Sheppard had every intention of smacking him unconscious again.

Rodney was shockingly cold, especially when touching him with bare skin. That was probably just as well, though, because in Sheppard's opinion, cuddling with a mostly-naked McKay should not be in any way a comfortable experience. He wrapped his arms around Rodney and proceeded to squirm, shift and try every possible angle until concluding that there really was no comfortable way to do this, especially while trying to have as little physical contact with Rodney as was possible while trapped in a sleeping bag with the man. When they got back, he was definitely putting in a request with the SGC for a beautiful 25-year-old female astrophysicist. Did Carter have a little sister?

There was another of those little hitches in Rodney's breathing and for a moment, he actually seemed to stop breathing. Sheppard froze in an instant of numbing terror, and then he was afraid to move again, afraid that one more twist or jostle was going to be the one that stopped Rodney's heart.

The arm that was currently jammed underneath Rodney's shoulder had already started going numb. Sheppard wriggled, as gently as he could, into a less painful position, with one arm tucked under Rodney's neck so that they rested forehead-to-forehead, practically breathing the same air.

This had better goddamn work. He was torn between wanting to see those blue eyes flutter open, and wanting Rodney to stay safely unconscious for the next couple hours and never, ever find out about this as long as he lived. Leaning heavily towards the latter option.

He really didn't mean to fall asleep. For one thing, falling asleep in Rodney McKay's arms was pretty high on his list of Top Ten Things I Never Want To Do in the Pegasus Galaxy; for another, he kinda needed to stay awake to make sure that the irritating SOB kept breathing, and then there was the whole "keeping an eye out for Armstrong" thing. But he hadn't slept in nearly two days (passing out didn't count), had been running on adrenaline for much of that time, and had just dosed himself on heavy-duty painkillers. The nearly unbearable pain in his leg had faded into a muzzy, drowsy feeling, and Rodney's icebox-like chill was actually starting to warm up a little bit.

For the first time since the Daedalus had dropped off their screens, he felt the tension in his body uncoil. For the first time, he felt that they might actually, all of them, have a pretty good shot at getting out of this.

Maybe it was okay to sleep, for just a little while.

So he did.


A blast of Arctic air swirled into the jumper, ruffled Sheppard's hair and jolted him out of his drowsy state into dazed and uncomprehending wakefulness. For a moment he just lay perfectly still, assessing the situation. He was cold, but not as cold as he felt, for some reason, that he really should be. He couldn't feel his left arm and a dull throbbing had begun in the general vicinity of his right leg.

He reached instinctively for where his gun should be, touched bandages and recoiled from a jolt of pain. No gun. Crap. His head snapped up, and then he realized that the figure unbundling in front of the jumper's floor heaters was Caldwell.

Memory returned, and with it, a gigantic load of embarrassment. Sheppard pushed himself up on arms that trembled slightly with fatigue and residual weakness from being so cold. He didn't think he'd been asleep very long; his head ached and the jumper did slow loopy rolls around him. Definitely avoiding the morphine in the future. He looked down at Rodney, noticed that a little color was starting to come back into the physicist's white face. Then he looked up to see that Caldwell, stripped down to a T-shirt, was looking at him.

"Er ... this isn't what it looks like."

Caldwell's expression was faintly amused. "It looks like you're trying to warm up a hypothermic team member with your body heat."

"Oh. Well, then, I guess it is what it looks like." Fighting off fatigue and morphine-induced wooziness, Sheppard extricated himself with some amount of difficulty from the octopus-like clutches of Rodney and the sleeping bag. His pants ... aw, hell, they were in a bloody, sticky pile on the floor, and he'd rather be fed on by Wraith than try to put them back on. He dug through the jumper's cargo bins until he found a pair of coveralls and gingerly pulled them over his injured leg. There was a dry jacket too. Would wonders never cease. After getting himself dressed, Sheppard sank down onto one of the bench seats and scrubbed his hands through his hair, trying to get his brain moving again. It seemed that there was something he needed to ask about, something important. Eventually he figured out what it was. "Armstrong?"

"Gone," Caldwell said simply. He peeled off his gloves and laid them on top of the jumper's heater vents, where they began to steam. After a moment he added, "I found the place where you fought with him. Found a few zip ties that'd been cut through. He must've had a knife on him. I didn't find any guns, so he's probably still got those."

"I took his 9-mil." The P90, though ... damn. He really hadn't been thinking straight.

Caldwell sat down across from Sheppard and worked at the frozen laces of his boots. "You should have killed him."

Sheppard leaned his head back against the wall. "Thank you for telling me what I already knew. I'm sure Ronon's gonna read me the riot act, too. And you know what? I don't really give a damn. Yeah, the bastard tried to kill me, tried to kill us all, and I still couldn't blow him away, not tied up and helpless. I know it's stupid. But I couldn't."

Caldwell didn't say anything as he pried off his boots. Sheppard reached over his head and snagged another set of coveralls, which he tossed in Caldwell's direction. The Colonel caught them without speaking. Sheppard pushed himself up off the bench and limped up to the pilot's chair to check on their power consumption. Low, he found. They weren't even running the cloak at the moment, so the only thing drawing power was the heater and lights. He dialed down the heat a little -- between the heaters and the melting snow, it was like being in a sauna -- and set the jumper in lockdown mode, so that no one could enter it from outside. Should've done it before, but well ... he'd had other things on his mind.

Looking over his shoulder, he saw Caldwell looking down at Rodney on the floor. "How's McKay?"

"Alive." He thought about adding No thanks to you, but realized that his initial flare of anger at Caldwell had died away. The man had made a bad mistake. From the look on his face, he knew that. Maybe if Caldwell hadn't just saved both their lives, it would be easier to stay mad at him. At the moment, he was just too damn tired. He slumped down into the pilot's chair.

Caldwell looked at him, then nodded a little, and looked away. "Don't know about you, but I could use some food." He stood and reached with his good arm into the overhead bin that contained the jumper's food supplies -- mostly MREs and a few freeze-dried items for variety.

Sheppard pushed himself up again and limped back to the jumper seats. "Hang on. I've got something better than MREs."

Hopefully they'd restocked after the last trip ... He opened up the cargo bin under one specific jumper seat (it was marked with a teeny-tiny "X") and pulled out a large coil of rope, behind which they kept what they'd all started calling the goodie box. He dragged it out and began to unload it. The first items on top were a little Sterno stove, an electric hot-water maker and a large box of hot cocoa, those being the items most commonly used on their overnight offworld excursions.

Caldwell stared. "You keep hot cocoa in the puddlejumper?"

Sheppard felt a bit defensive. "You know, we do spend a lot of time on long trips in the jumpers, and we all figured out a long time ago that it's better to be comfortable."

The exact contents of the goodie box varied depending on what the Daedalus had brought on the last run and what Sheppard or one of his team had managed to abscond with from the cafeteria or elsewhere. At the moment, it contained a number of different varieties of dried soups and ramen, packages of cookies, makings for s'mores, bathing suits and sunscreen, paper cups, a little RC car and a few board games.

Caldwell's eyebrows went up a little bit more at each additional item. "Your team does ... work occasionally, right, Sheppard?"

"You're allowed to share in our bounty only if you keep our secret, sir." He filled the electric teakettle with water from the jumper's emergency supply, dumped in a package of soup and plugged it into an outlet under the jumper's dash. Thanks to Rodney and Zelenka, all the jumpers had a number of standard North American-style outlets wired on top of the Ancient outlets, ostensibly for plugging in laptops but in reality used for a variety of other things as well.

Caldwell hadn't said anything yet, so Sheppard looked up to find the Colonel watching him with a very slight grin. "I do wonder about you sometimes, Sheppard. All of you." He shook his head, easing the dry coveralls over his bound arm. "But it works. Somehow, it works."

"Yes, sir," Sheppard said quietly, looking down at Rodney. All that was visible of him at the moment was a few tousled spikes of brown hair.

"In case it wasn't obvious, Sheppard -- no, I don't plan on ratting you out. Is that soup hot yet?"


Rodney floated.

He'd drifted towards consciousness briefly, found a sleeping Sheppard wrapped around him, and after a moment of utter panic, decided that his dreams had taken a definite turn for the bizarre even compared to the whole Sam Carter thing, and drifted off again. Since then, he'd faded in and out enough times to have figured out, more or less, what was going on, and decided that pretending to have been asleep the whole time and never, ever speaking of this again was definitely the only honorable choice under the circumstances.

Not really asleep, but not really awake either, he listened to the comforting murmur of Caldwell and Sheppard's voices without trying to understand the words. Somewhere on the edge of awareness, pain lapped at him, but he didn't care to wake up enough to figure out what was hurting or why. He wasn't scared and running anymore; on some deep level, he felt safe and content, and he understood, in some part of him beyond words or consciousness, that Sheppard's presence had a lot to do with that. Of all the changes that Atlantis had wrought in him, this was perhaps the one that amazed him most -- even beyond his late-discovered capacity for heroism, because really, Rodney had always suspected that he could be brave and selfless; he was just too smart most of the time. But the idea that he could trust, beyond all logic or reason ... this would never in a million years have occurred to him. Being heroic, well, there were all kinds of good reasons for that, not the least being that it made sense to save his own ass along with everyone else's, and it brought much-deserved accolades as well. But trusting people could never do anything other than hurt you. Or so he'd always thought. And yet then there were times like this, when trust could fold around you and chase away the cold.

He owed his life to Sheppard for about the umpteenth gazillion time. And yet he'd stopped keeping score long ago. Rodney's world was, and had always been, made up of quantifiables, things that could be measured and counted and tallied. Yet this ... this could not be couched in such terms. He'd tried to, at first. You save my life, I save yours ... but after a certain point, after so many such exchanges, it didn't make any sense to keep track anymore.

The thought occurred to him, distantly, that he really must be out of it, to be musing about such things.

A hand cupped under the back of his head, startling him halfway out of his comfortable daze. The fingers were callused but unexpectedly gentle, and so was the voice. "Hey, Rodney, wakey-wakey."

Now that he was a little more awake, he realized that the pain was coming from ... pretty much everywhere. Mainly his hands and feet -- burning, tingly pain -- and a stabby pain in his head ... and thank you so much to Sheppard for jarring it. He mustered enough energy to mumble, "'m sleepin'. Go away."

"No can do, sorry. Think it might be a good idea to get something hot into you. I've got a cup of soup here; want some?"

He felt shaky and nauseous, in a way that could either mean he was starving or about to throw up. Maybe both. "Not really."

The hand under his head raised him up a little higher and a knee was wedged under his shoulders. "Great! Here."

"You don't listen, do you? Ow." The edge of the cup bumped against his bottom lip, which at some point had gotten bruised and split -- maybe the avalanche, maybe falling into the river; he was really losing track of where all the damage came from.

"You know, you look like hell, Rodney."

Rodney cracked an eye open. All he could really see of Sheppard was a dark, scruffy-haired silhouette. "You try going through what I've been through and see what you look like, Colonel."

"We've all got our problems, McKay. Drink up."

The cup tilted against his lips and he swallowed a few small gulps of the hot soup, at which point his stomach decided that it was, after all, nausea and not hunger that he was feeling. He raised a hand shakily, pushing the cup away.

"That's all you want?"

"Unless you want to be wearing it, Colonel."

Sheppard snorted and let Rodney's head back down to the sleeping bag. "Fine, more for the rest of us."

"Who's 'us'? Don't tell me Ronon and Teyla are here too?" Something nagged at his memory. He'd asked about them before. But he couldn't remember the answer.

"No, Ronon's on the Daedalus and Teyla's back in Atlantis. Nobody here but us Colonels, Rodney."

It took him a minute to parse this. "Oh. Caldwell."

"Yeah. He's asleep at the moment. Hang on a sec; I'm going to get you some water."

Little rustles as Sheppard withdrew. Rodney pushed himself up on his elbows, closing his eyes against a rush of dizziness and then opening them again. The lights in the jumper were dimmed, and he realized that he must have fallen asleep, because the last thing he remembered with any clarity was listening to Caldwell and Sheppard talking. Caldwell was now curled up on one of the jumper's bench seats with a sleeping bag wrapped around him. Sheppard returned from the front of the jumper's cabin, limping heavily. Rodney watched him ease himself carefully to the floor without bending his leg.

"Okay, what did you do to yourself this time, Colonel?"

"Hand-to-hand combat against Lassie's meaner big brother. Here, brought you some Tylenol too."

Rodney stared at him. "You fought one of those wolf things with your bare hands?"

"Bare hands and a P90. It helped. Here, take your meds."

Rodney accepted the Tylenol and a cup of water, noticing the slight tremor in Sheppard's hands that matched his own. Glancing up at the Colonel's face, he noticed that Sheppard didn't look much better than he himself felt. There was a nasty bruise across his jaw, another under his eye, and he looked as if he hadn't slept in weeks.

"Oh," Sheppard said to himself, and heaved himself up off the floor again, limping industriously back towards the front of the jumper. Rodney sighed and took the pills with a few cautious sips of water. His queasiness seemed to be abating slightly as his body adjusted to the whole idea of having food around again. In fact, it seemed to be wanting more. His head still hurt; he reached up to touch his forehead and discovered that a bandage had materialized there, apparently during one of his unconscious periods.

Sheppard limped back and settled down on the floor again, his back against the jumper's seat. He was carrying two cups that steamed slightly. Rodney accepted one of them warily, then with more enthusiasm as he smelled the familiar and welcome aroma of hot cocoa. "Hey, you broke into the goodie box."

"What better time?" Sheppard tossed a small, squarish object into Rodney's lap: a Hershey bar. Rodney pounced on it in delight. "I would have made s'mores," Sheppard added, leaning his head back against the bench seat and sliding down so that he wasn't resting against Caldwell's leg. "But have you ever tried s'mores made over a can of Sterno? Not the world's greatest taste treat."

"Why doesn't it surprise me that you have." Rodney rested his aching head against the opposite jumper seat and nibbled on the chocolate. He had to keep setting down the cup of cocoa; though it wasn't more than mildly warm, the heat felt scorching on his hyper-sensitive fingers. He felt too tired to even complain about it, though. With each sip of the cocoa, warmth seeped outward to spread down his limbs. However, various concerns were niggling at his sense of well-being. Finally his worries rose to the surface and jumped on him from several directions. His head snapped up with a violent flinch. Sheppard, who looked as if he'd been nodding off with his cup of cocoa resting on his chest, jumped.

"What's the matter with you?"

"Wraith worshippers!" Rodney gasped. "Elizabeth! Zelenka! Cadman! Oh, God!"

"Whoa ... calm down." Sheppard leaned over to plant a hand in the center of his chest and push him back down. "Just take some deep breaths and hear my story."

As he talked, he pulled down another sleeping bag and stretched out on the floor, one arm propping up his head. Rodney listened with only a few interruptions, sipping on his cooling cocoa while Sheppard told him about the puddlejumper rescue party, about retrieving Cadman and Seavey from the storm and sending Elizabeth and Zelenka back to Atlantis on the jumpers with Beckett.

"Ronon stayed behind on the Daedalus in case Armstrong and Ludwick had friends. I figure if anyone can handle a few Wraith worshippers, he can."

"Get lost in a blizzard for just a few hours and everything changes ..." Rodney murmured sleepily, slouching down in his sleeping bag. The sense of well-being had returned full force. There was still a deep, nagging worry about Elizabeth and Zelenka, combined with guilt that he hadn't done as much as he could have. But mostly, he was just happy. The Tylenol had finally kicked in, and he even had chocolate.

Sheppard laughed a little, drained his cup of cocoa and laid his head down on his arm. "Excuse us all for not putting our lives on hold 'till you got back, McKay."

"Excused," Rodney mumbled. He was aware that the conversation had begun to degenerate into one that didn't make a whole lot of sense, but then, it wouldn't be the first time with the two of them. "Hey ..." He realized that there was one question that hadn't yet been raised, and dragged himself back from the brink of sleep to ask it. "Say, do we need to stay awake to look out for a very angry Armstrong coming back and trying to break into the puddlejumper?"

"No, I've --" Sheppard broke off for a jaw-cracking yawn. "... I've locked it down; there's no way he could possibly get in. Even if he empties his P90 into the hull, it's a spaceship. It's designed to withstand minor asteroid strikes. A bazooka might hurt us, but not anything that he's got."

"Well, why are you still awake, then?"

"Insomnia, that's all," and as the blatant lie was interrupted by another yawn, Rodney realized Sheppard must have been waiting for him to regain consciousness.

"Well, go to sleep then ... moron."

"You too." The words were a whisper, and followed almost immediately by snoring. Sheppard must have been exhausted. Rodney carefully set his mostly-empty cup on the floor and nestled down inside the sleeping bag, sinking slowly into the warmth that beckoned him.


Under a cold, piercing sun, the snow glittered in an unbroken white blanket, softening the sharp edges of the hills and valleys. The storm had moved on, leaving behind a still and starkly beautiful world.

Through the featureless white wilderness, three shapes moved -- bundled human figures toiling through the fresh snow. Their tracks wound behind them, in and out of the trees, up and down the hills. Occasionally the leader of the three would stop and stand dead-still for a minute, or bend over to stare at the snow before continuing.

The two shorter figures following him shared increasingly skeptical glances as the crisp winter morning wore on. Finally, Keisha Seavey found the nerve to say, very quietly, "Do you think he knows where he's going?"

Dr. Ling lifted her shoulders in a slight shrug under her parka.

"I know where I'm going," Ronon said without looking back at them. The lower edge of his leather coat trailed in the snow. He'd slapped a parka over it; the combination should have been ludicrous, especially since the sleeves of the parka didn't quite reach his wrists, but Ronon could probably manage to look threatening in a muumuu.

Keisha slapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a slightly hysterical giggle at that thought. Getting a strange look from her superior officer, she murmured, "Sorry, ma'am," and snuck a quick, nervous look at Ronon. If he'd heard, he didn't say anything.

Over the last couple of hours, her deathly fear of Ronon had slowly faded into a sort of cautious truce, the way you could get used to having a poisonous snake at the bottom of your sleeping bag as long as you knew exactly where it was at all times and didn't make any sudden moves. She'd been scared stiff of him from the moment he showed up on the Daedalus, all muscles and hair, bristling with weapons that were not standard military issue and refusing to take orders from anybody but Sheppard ... who wasn't there. She'd hoped that he would leave with the jumpers, but the last one had taken off and Ronon had stayed behind.

Her worst fear had been realized when the storm had passed over and talk had turned to sending someone after their missing people. Like an absolute fool, she'd volunteered before realizing just what, exactly, this duty entailed. Now here she was with the absolute last person that she wanted to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with. At least the doctor was along too, which made it less likely that Ronon would ... oh, she wasn't sure what she was afraid he'd do. Kill and eat them? Sheppard wouldn't trust someone who'd do something like that, would he?

Ronon obviously had no desire at all to have anyone accompany him. Keisha didn't even know what Perry had said to talk him into it. He strode through the snow at a leg-breaking speed, showing no inclination to slow down for them; his opinion was obviously that if he must have an escort, he had no intention of changing his behavior on their behalf.

Their rate of speed, thankfully, had slowed once they crossed the river and Ronon began questing about for tracks. Keisha had no idea how he could be finding anything. Surely any signs of the people they sought would have been erased by the storm. But he seemed purposeful; with any hope, he wasn't simply pretending that he knew what he was doing.

Something moved among the trees off to her left. Keisha whirled, raising her gun, and out of the corner of her eye saw Ling doing likewise. Then she jumped nearly out of her skin at the deafening BOOM that rolled off the hills. Among the pines, a single mega-wolf pitched forward with a gigantic hole blown through its head.

Keisha and Ling turned, as one, to stare at Ronon, who was holstering his gun. "Never seen one of those before," he said, shrugged and went back to staring at the snow as if he knew what he was looking at.

They encountered two more of the giant wolves. Ronon killed both of them -- one, in fact, before either Keisha or Ling had even noticed it; all the warning they got was Ronon saying a calm voice, "Hold still", and then shooting over their heads up at one of the hills.

Keisha's only comfort was that Ling seemed to be nearly as freaked out as Keisha felt. The doctor just hid it better.

"Stop," Ronon said, and both women froze instantly in place. Two statues could not have been more still. He gave them a look, lips quirking up just a little bit at the corners, and then gestured ahead of them. The land rose sharply in a rough slope littered with boulders poking out of the snow. The mouth of a cave was just visible, and even Keisha could see that the snow around the cave mouth had been disturbed since it had fallen. "I think he's gone to ground."

"Caldwell?" Ling asked.


"We've been following Armstrong? I thought we'd been following Caldwell and McKay. And more to the point ..." Ling's eyes narrowed. "How do you know?"

"Can't be positive. But I'd know Sheppard or McKay's tracks anywhere. And if it's Caldwell alone, then McKay's dead and that ..." Ronon lifted his shoulders, just a little. "He's not," he said flatly. He drew out his gun; it made a faint whine as he powered it up. "Stay here."

"Now wait --" Ling began.

Ronon's dark eyes, which a minute ago had been wryly amused, fixed on Ling with an expression that made Keisha's stomach plunge. "Stay here," he repeated, and then started walking up the hill.


Once he was free of the women, Ronon moved swiftly and silently, using the boulders for cover. This was a dumb place to hide. Visibility down the hill wasn't too bad, but it was very easy to approach the cave unseen. Since no one had shot at him yet, he inferred that Armstrong wasn't even keeping a lookout.

He'd conceded Perry's point that he should take along the doctor and a third person who could go for help if need be. It was a good idea. But right here, right now, Ronon had his own role to play, and the Earth military had no part in it. Armstrong might be technically of Earth, but from all Ronon had heard, he'd chosen to play by Pegasus Galaxy rules. And that meant opening himself up to Pegasus Galaxy justice. Caldwell wouldn't like this. Hell, Sheppard probably wouldn't like this, though Ronon thought he'd understand. But Ronon really didn't care.

The minute Armstrong threw his lot in with the Wraith, he'd forfeited any right he may have had to the protection of the Earth government. And when he'd tried to kill Ronon's friends, he'd sealed his fate. Dennis Armstrong was not leaving this world alive.

Ronon flattened himself beside the cave mouth. This close, he could smell faint traces of wood smoke. He'd been able to catch whiffs of it for the last few hundreds yards of their trek through the snow, and that was what had really convinced him that it was Armstrong they were following. Of the other three possibilities, he seriously doubted if any of them, Sheppard included, had the wilderness skills to build a nearly smokeless fire -- and none of them would have tried, anyway. In this clear, cold weather, the smoke from a normal fire would have been visible for miles. The person he was tracking was deliberately trying to conceal himself, and that probably meant Armstrong.

He risked a quick peek around the corner into the cave. Mere feet away from him, he saw a hunched-over, parka-clad back and a scruff of blond hair, bent over a small fire.


Ronon slipped around the corner and struck Armstrong across the back with the butt of his gun. He could have simply shot him where he stood, but there was information to be acquired first. Armstrong staggered away with a low cry and sprawled on the floor of the cave.

"Lieutenant Dennis Armstrong?"

Even if they don't intend to, most people respond automatically to their names, and Armstrong was no exception. His head came up immediately at the sound of Ronon's low, rough voice and he stared, crouched on the cave floor. "Who are you?" he demanded.

Ronon didn't answer, just took aim with careful precision and shot him in the right hand.

Armstrong screamed as the fine bones of his hand disintegrated. "What -- who -- why did you do that!" he yelled, scrambling backwards on his knees until he flattened himself against the cave wall. His arm curled against his chest, blood smearing across his coat; he made tiny sounds in his throat as he flattened himself against the wall.

Ronon nudged the P90 propped beside the fire with his foot. "Don't want to take any chances on getting shot. Now, got a question for you. Dr. McKay, Colonel Sheppard and Colonel Caldwell. Seen 'em?"

Armstrong swallowed. "Th--they're dead."

Ronon shot him in the leg. Armstrong screamed again. "I don't like that answer. Try again."

The only sound in the cave was Armstrong's hoarse panting. Finally he gasped out, "They were alive when I saw them last, okay? Not in great shape, but alive. Sheppard tied me up, but I got free and went to wait out the storm. I haven't seen them since. Okay?"

"Where'd you see 'em last?"

"Over there -- over the next ridge -- there's a valley. We fought. That's the last time I saw them, and they were alive then, I swear. Look, I'm bleeding here!"

"All three of them?"

"Yes! Jesus! I mean, Caldwell wasn't with them, but both the others -- I'm bleeding to death, for crying out loud! Caldwell was alive the last time I saw him, I swear! For God's sake, please help me."

"Rumor has it you're a Wraith worshipper. That true?"

Armstrong stared at him. "What's that got to do with anything? Who cares?"

"Are there any more on the Daedalus?"

"Look, I don't have to answer your --"

Ronon shot him in the other leg.

Armstrong screamed again. "All right! God! Please! No, there aren't! It was just me and Cora, and she's dead. Just us. I swear! No others! Look, I need medical help. Can you please --"

Those were the last words he ever uttered, because the next shot was aimed at his head, and it wasn't set to stun.

Ronon holstered the gun and turned away from the sprawled, wide-eyed body, feeling slightly ill. It'd been a while since he'd tortured a man to death. Hadn't liked it then, didn't like it now, no matter how deserving a man might be. Even Kel, who had probably deserved a slow painful death more than anyone Ronon had ever met -- he'd even given a quick death to Kel. He couldn't blame this one on Sheppard's bunch; he'd always been soft like that. Intimidation, maybe some judicious and non-permanent damage -- he was okay with that. Like with Kavanagh that one time. But real torture, real "you don't come back from this" torture ... it wasn't his thing.

Justice, he thought, and thought for a moment he might be ill, but it passed.

Emerging from the cave mouth into the sunshine, he discovered the two women halfway up the hill, guns drawn. "We heard shots!" Ling called. "Is Armstrong --?"

"He resisted." Which was more or less true, and certainly would have been true if he'd been given a chance to go for his gun. "He's dead."

Seavey heaved a sigh of relief and let her P90 dangle. Ling, however, was clearly no fool, judging from the frown on her face. "Traitor or not, Ronon, he's a member of the U.S. military."

"Yeah, now he's a dead one. But I know where to look for Sheppard, McKay and Caldwell. Let's go."

He shoved past them without waiting for a response. After a moment he heard Ling draw a deep, frustrated breath and her quick steps crunched after him. "Ronon? Ronon, damn it, stop!" Now he heard the soft clicks of a weapon being readied, and a sharp intake of breath from Seavey. Not terribly surprised, he looked over his shoulder at Ling, with her P90 pointed at him.

Ronon just stared at her for a moment. Seavey hovered in the background, looking terrified and very conflicted.

"I'm sorry," Ling said. "As an officer of the United States Air Force, I'm going to have to hold you in custody on suspicion of assault and murder of a USAF officer."

He continued to stare at her. Finally he said, "You think he didn't deserve it?"

Her body shuddered. "Ronon, it's not up to me to make that call. That's what it means to have laws. And I'm sworn to uphold those laws."

He raised a hand to take in the glittering horizon, the mountains scraping against the pale blue sky. "We're not on your world, Doctor. Your kind of justice doesn't follow you here."

Ling shook her head, her hands unwavering on the gun. "Ronon, I take my laws and my moral code with me wherever I go. I can't turn it off and on. What you're asking me to do --"

"You didn't do anything. I did."

"But you're asking me to look the other way."

Ronon met her eyes. "Didn't ask you to do anything. Still not asking you now. I'm going to find the rest of my team. You want to stop me, you'll need to shoot me."

With that, he turned and walked away, slogging steadily through the snow. He could feel Ling's P90 at his back, like a laser beam between his shoulder blades. He did not falter or slow, even when he heard the women's footsteps behind him as they hurried after him, catching up. Glancing down at Ling, he saw that she wasn't looking at him, instead staring off at the snow-covered hills with a dark and distant look in her eyes.

Ronon thought it likely that she would not forgive him. In truth, he didn't care. All guilt and blame for Armstrong's death was his to carry alone. Whether he'd offended the delicate sensibilities of offworlders was not his concern.

Looking back, he noticed a couple of mega-wolves sniffing around the entrance to the cave. This time, he let them alone.


"Got any ... threes?"

"Go fish." After a moment, Rodney said, "You know, I seem to recall that one of the conditions of giving these cards to you was that you would never try to make me play card games. Got any sixes?"

"Go fish. Yeah, I vaguely remember that. Sevens?"

"Damn." Rodney handed over two cards, then folded down his cards in his lap so that he could pick up the half-eaten cup of oatmeal by his thigh. Through a mouthful, he demanded, "How is it possible that you always win this game?"

"Yeah right, as if I'm giving away all my secrets." If Rodney didn't already know that he unconsciously mouthed the numbers on the cards in his hand, Sheppard wasn't about to tell him. A normal person would simply have a lousy poker face; Rodney, of course, had to do them one better, even if he didn't mean to. "And I don't always win. You've won, um ... one game, so far, I think."

"Yeah, and you've won what, twelve? I want to play something else. By the way..." Rodney's sharp eyes fixed on Sheppard. "... what's the matter with you? Bugs in your pants? If you've acquired fleas on one of the hell-hole planets we've been to, Colonel ..."

Sheppard froze in mid-twist. He'd been shifting about, trying to find a comfortable position, but hadn't realized it had been so obvious. "Huh?" he said intelligently.

"Mensa material, indeed," Rodney scoffed, setting down the empty cup and sorting his cards, studiously not looking at Sheppard. "It's your leg, isn't it? Where that wolf thing got you? Good God, what if you have space rabies?"

"There's no such thing as space rabies, McKay. My leg is only scratched, and I've been taking antibiotics. It's fine." Aside from feeling as if it was on fire every time he moved. When he didn't move, it felt more like -- as Rodney had said -- bugs were crawling under the skin. Through the hand resting lightly atop his thigh, he could feel the heat radiating from the blood-stiff bandages under the coveralls. The antibiotics didn't seem to be doing a whole hell of a lot. Or maybe it'd be worse without them; no way to know for sure.

Rodney's mouth opened and it was obvious that he didn't intend to let this go, but just then Caldwell woke up with a snort, started to roll over, and recovered himself with a sharp gasp on the verge of falling off the puddlejumper's bench seat. He sat up, looking bleary and oddly vulnerable. Glad for the interruption, Sheppard said without thinking, "Good morning, sleeping beauty." Then he winced, reminding himself that he was, after all, talking to a superior officer and not a member of his team.

Caldwell didn't answer; he looked at his watch, took another look, and then squinted up at the daylight filtering wanly through the snow on the jumper's windshield. "Why didn't you wake me?"

"Why should I?" Sheppard countered. "It was dark until a couple hours ago, and we could all use some rest. We've got one hell of a walk ahead of us unless Rodney can fix the jumper." He playfully snapped a card in Rodney's direction; the scientist ducked and glowered. "Speaking of which ..."

"Hmph. 'Oh dear, I crashed the jumper, now the scientists will fix it.' It never fails." Rodney straightened a little bit to see into the cockpit. "From here, Colonel -- Colonels," he amended with a quick glance at Caldwell, "it looks like the in-depth diagnostic is still running. I'll take a look, though; I'm as eager to get off this snowball as you are."

He started to get to his feet, the sleeping bag still wrapped around his shoulders, then froze, hunching forward. He was now wearing coveralls that obscured his bruises, but the body language spoke volumes. "Oh God. I don't think I've been this sore since the first time you and Ronon took me jogging. Do we still have morphine, or did you two use it all?"

Sheppard looked up at him from the floor. "You don't need morphine for bruises, McKay."

"Yes I do," Rodney whined piteously. "Where's the first-aid kit?"

The really sad thing was that the pitiful expression on his face was actually working, on Sheppard at least; it was just too easy to remember the Rodney of a few hours ago, pale and cold and limp, mere inches from death. It made it unusually difficult to refuse him anything -- which was a fairly big problem, considering that Rodney was not a model of self-restraint and giving in to him just once, on anything, could be dangerous. Luckily Caldwell had no such weakness.

"Touch the morphine and I'll shoot you, McKay," Caldwell said, swinging his legs down over the edge of the jumper's seat. "Do you happen to have anything vaguely resembling breakfast food in that box of yours, Sheppard?"

"Oatmeal," Sheppard said, holding up his own cup. He'd only downed a few bites, and knew that his lack of appetite was probably another warning sign.

Caldwell eyed the gluey mass in the bottom of the cup. "Huh. Think I'll stick with MREs."

Rodney, meanwhile, limped into the cockpit, grumbling all the while about jocks and people with overdeveloped pain thresholds. "Suck it up, McKay. Don't worry about it, McKay. It's only a gaping flesh wound and twelve broken ribs, McKay. Carson would have given me morphine."

Sheppard turned his attention away from Caldwell and twisted around to follow Rodney's progress, trying not to jar his leg. "I heard that the last time he did that, you hallucinated a troupe of Russian clog dancers in the infirmary and kept insisting that the nurses look up the exchange rate for rubles. And you insulted my hair behind my back and called Ronon a caveman."

"Carson told you that? What in the world happened to doctor-patient confidentiality? He won't have hot water in his quarters for a week when I get back to Atlantis, I'm telling you right now ... Oh, look, the diagnostic is done, and oh, look, we're totally screwed. What a shock."

"Can you fix it?" Caldwell wanted to know.

"'We're totally screwed' would tend to imply otherwise, wouldn't you say?" Rodney poked at the controls with sharp, angry jabs. "One drive pod's completely gone, the other one might be fixable if I had a week and a full mechanic's bay, which obviously I don't..."

Sheppard folded together his cards and laid them down. "It doesn't even have to be spaceworthy, Rodney; it just has to limp its way back to the Daedalus."

"Oh yes, I'll just wave my magic wand and ask the puddlejumper fairy for a new drive pod! How does that sound? Colonel, I may be a genius but even a genius can't fix what's simply not there to fix. Oh, I know! Let's all get out and push. Maybe we can make it back by the time we retire."

"In other words, we're walking." Sheppard gripped the bench seat and hoisted himself painfully upright.

The look of exasperation on Rodney's face changed to annoyed concern as he watched Sheppard's slow progress. "You know, call it a hunch here, but I'm guessing that your 'little scratch' is more of a gaping hole, and if we end up having to drag you back to the Daedalus, then you're going to end up owing me ... something ... valuable ... until the end of time."

"Such as my life, say?"

"I said valuable, Colonel," Rodney retorted, a little too quickly.

"First pick of pudding in the cafeteria?"

"I already have that, because I'm faster than you are."

Caldwell was wearing the slightly befuddled look that people often had when spending a lot of time in close proximity to Sheppard and McKay. Shaking his head, he reached for his parka. "Think I'll take a look around, see what the weather's doing. If the storm's cleared up, we might be able to reach the Daedalus with the radios."

Sheppard perked up a bit. "Hey, that's a --"

He broke off at a sudden thud on the side of the jumper, obviously the impact of a fist on the metal hull. At the same time, his radio crackled from his pile of discarded clothing. He reached for it, but McKay was faster, sliding to grab it before Sheppard could get himself moving. "Yeah?" he said into it, and then his jaw dropped and his eyes went round. "What the hell are you doing here?" He turned his befuddled look on Sheppard. "It's Ronon."

"What? Give me that." He took the radio away from Rodney, ignoring the startled bark of "Hey!", and raised it to his ear. "Ronon? Didn't I tell you to stay with the Daedalus?"

"Yeah, you did," the deep voice agreed matter-of-factly, but didn't volunteer anything else.

"Rodney, open the hatch." Sinking back down onto the bench seat, Sheppard said, "Is everything okay back at the ship? Are you out here alone?"

"Yes, and no." The hatch disengaged with a loud ka-thunk and quite a lot of snow spilled through it onto the floor; the storm appeared to have nearly succeeded in burying them. Over the snow, sharp sunlight shafted into the jumper's cabin along with a swirl of biting cold air. A moment later, an unmistakable, dreadlocked shadow appeared across the snow. Ronon jumped lightly to the jumper's floor, his lean figure followed by two other people in parkas.

"It's good to see you, sir," Ling told Caldwell, pushing back her hood, and added to Sheppard and Rodney, her eyes warm, "All of you."

Rodney was staring at Ronon in complete disbelief. "How in the world did you find us?"

"Tracked you," Ronon said, shaking snow out of his dreads. Ling had moved quickly to her captain and was examining his arm.

"Close the door, Rodney, you're letting all the heat out," Sheppard said impatiently, shifting his weight on the bench seat in an effort to look more natural. Damned if he was getting up.

Rodney reached absently for the button to close the hatch, while waving his other arm at the side of the jumper, and, by implication, the snow beyond. "Through that?"

"Yeah." Ronon seemed unimpressed, either by his own feat or by Rodney's agitation. "You all right?" He included Sheppard in this, with a sweep of his eyes.

"No," Rodney said promptly. "My head hurts, my chest hurts, my nose hurts, even my toenails hurt. I think I may have internal injuries and no one cares. And Lieutenant Colonel 'It's Only Pain, It Doesn't Hurt' over here keeps insisting he's fine despite barely being able to walk due to the giant, germ-ridden tooth holes in his leg that are probably killing him with alien microbes even as we speak."

At this, Ling looked up sharply from Caldwell's arm. "Tooth holes?"

"Rodney," Sheppard said, "shut up." As Ling bore down on him, he tried to fend her off. "Look, it didn't bite me, it clawed me, and it's not as bad as Rodney thinks."

"Based upon your extensive medical experience, I'm sure? Where's the first-aid kit?"

Rodney looked around for it and slapped it into her hand with a triumphant grin. Sheppard glowered at him. "Traitor."

"You were attacked by one of the wolves, I'm guessing?" Ling frowned into the first-aid kit and picked up a package of strip-style skin thermometers. "This is --? Oh, Colonel, I definitely need to have a talk with whoever stocks your first-aid supplies." She slapped a strip on his forehead, and when he opened his mouth, spoke right over him. "Where did it get you?"

"It's his leg," Rodney said. Tilted back on his heels, arms folded, he was watching with a combination of smugness and glee. Ronon cast an amused look at him. Seavey just looked baffled.

"Rodney, will you put a sock in it?" Sheppard snapped. As Ling pulled on rubber gloves and attacked the leg of his coveralls with a pair of scissors from the med kit, he protested, "I've been taking antibiotics from the med kit, Doc."

"It should be evident" -- to anyone who isn't a moron, that is, her tone seemed to imply -- "that antibiotics don't affect all organisms equally. We've had an ongoing problem with finding Earth antibiotics that work on Pegasus Galaxy microbes."

"Oh, well, that's comforting," Rodney snapped. "Why do you quacks bother putting antibiotics in the medkits at all if they don't work?"

Ling shot him a quick look. "While I take a look at the Colonel, why don't you give me a quick rundown of your own injuries, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney hesitated for an instant, looking suspicious as if expecting a trick, then launched into his litany, illustrated with hand gestures. "I've been shot in the head, and I have a gigantic bruise on my chest, bruises all over my body in fact, not to mention almost dying from hypothermia ..."

Some ten minutes later, the group in the jumper had been triaged -- Ling declared Sheppard the biggest health risk, with a mild infection that appeared to be resistant to Milky Way antibiotics, "which could turn real bad, real fast," she said, looking up from rebandaging Rodney's head with fresh gloves on. "There are more jumpers inbound from Atlantis, and I'd definitely like to see you on one of them, Colonel. And I want to keep you away from Rodney."

"Why?" both of them wanted to know immediately, Sheppard looking nervous and guilty.

"Why?" she repeated, raising her eyebrows at them. "Because you have an antibiotic-resistent infection in your leg and he has an open wound on his head, as well as elsewhere on his body; do I have to draw you a picture?"

Rodney opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, and directed a death-glare at Sheppard, who now looked even more guilty. "Colonel --" he began threateningly.

Caldwell cleared his throat from the back of the jumper. "If we're ready, Doctor, I'd really like to get moving before another of those storms rolls in."

"Could turn bad again, quick," Ronon put in. "Mountain weather. Chancy."

"Oh shit -- Armstrong," Sheppard said suddenly, as Ling helped him wrap a thermal blanket around his leg to help protect it now that the coveralls had been rendered useless. "He's still out there."

"Dead," Ronon said.

Ling and Seavey's reaction to that was odd -- Seavey looked away, and Ling pressed her lips together in a grim white line. Sheppard filed that away for future reference. Still, considering the circumstances, he wasn't inclined to be choosy. "You sure?" he asked, studying Ronon.

The former Runner met Sheppard's eyes levelly. "Yeah."

"Good enough for me," Sheppard said. There was a little nod from Ronon, and something passed between them, something he couldn't define, couldn't explain. Like so many other things about his team, it just was.

The hatch lowered into the snow with a whine of servos and a muted flumph. Ling slid an arm under Sheppard's shoulders and helped him to his feet. Caldwell and Seavey went out first, the Colonel asking questions that the young Airman answered in a quick, shy voice. Rodney hung back, looking over his shoulder as Sheppard took a few awkward, hopping steps, clinging to Ling's shoulder. "Will you at least --" he began, but Ronon's hand settled on his shoulder.

"It's under control," Ronon said. McKay gave a startled squawk as Ronon boosted him out the opening; he immediately turned around and crouched down to see what was going on inside.

"Wait, wait," Sheppard said suddenly, twisting free of Ling's hand. He bent over, sliding his leg stiffly out in front of him, so that he could scoop up the scattered cards and deposit them in a pocket of his coat. Giving Ling an apologetic shrug, he explained, "Sentimental value."

"What are you people doing down there, having afternoon tea?" Rodney demanded in a petulant whine from the jumper's hatch.

"We're coming, McKay; don't have a fit." Sheppard allowed Ling to take some of his weight, the difficult position made even more awkward by their height difference. Caught up in the pain in his leg and the effort of not falling over, he didn't notice Ronon cross the floor until the Runner loomed above him. Then he had only a split second's warning before powerful arms scooped him up, one under his shoulders and the other beneath his knees. He gaped in pain and then in embarrassment.

"Ronon, put me down," he said with all the dignity he could muster under the circumstances, as Ronon hauled him over to the jumper's hatch. That had better not be snickering coming from Rodney's direction, but he was pretty sure that it was. McKay was going to have a few new bruises as soon as he got within smacking range.

"If I do, can you walk?" Ronon asked.

Sheppard hesitated, but only for a moment. "Yes."

"No you can't. Ronon, don't listen to him."

"Rodney, shut up."

Ronon, saying nothing, ducked through the opening and clambered up to the top of the wind-driven snow. For a minute Sheppard forgot his pain and humiliation as the glittering expanse of pure-white wilderness took his breath away. The air was so incredibly clear that distances were difficult to judge, especially with most of the recognizable landmarks covered with snow; the mountains looked close enough to reach out and touch. The sky was a pale, fresh blue.

"Snow goggles," Caldwell said suddenly, snapping his fingers. "The parkas should have a pair each. Check your pockets."

Rodney had plunged his hands into his pockets, out of instinct, no doubt -- when the local military ordered you to do something in that tone of voice, even he did it -- but with a token hint of exasperation. "And those would be ...?"

"Snow blindness. You're right." Sheppard found his own pair of goggles, smoked plastic to protect the eyes from the cumulative, temporarily blinding effects of sun on snow. "Didn't they teach you anything in Antarctica, Rodney?"

"I spent most of my time trying to stay out of the snow, unlike some people."

Sheppard tilted his head backwards to get a look at Ronon. "You need a pair of these things, big guy?"

Ronon lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug. "I squint my eyes. No big deal."

"Of course you do," Sheppard muttered, pulling the goggles over his own eyes. He felt the hitch in Ronon's breathing only because he was presently held next to the big man's chest -- a laugh, suppressed; he would have missed it if they hadn't been in physical contact. Briefly, he wondered how often Ronon bit back on amusement that way ... and how difficult must have been the events that had taught him to.

"Sometime today, people?" Caldwell inquired.

Sheppard got another unpleasant surprise when Ronon, again without warning, slung him over his shoulder like a sack of grain. "Oomph," he grunted as Ronon's hard shoulder dug into his stomach, and when he'd managed to get enough breath back to speak: "All right, the other way was bad enough, but this is not even close to comfortable. And I am not staring at your ass all the way back to the Daedalus, damn it."

"Can't see you have much choice," Ronon's voice came from somewhere above the current, regrettable position of his head, adding after a moment, "Too far to carry you the other way."

"Besides, it serves you right for infecting me with flesh-eating bacteria," Rodney griped from somewhere off to his right.

Sheppard sighed and closed his eyes. The sight of the snow and the tails of Ronon's coat jouncing beneath his head was making him slightly ill. With his eyes shut, he could relax into the rolling motion of the ride. Since he didn't appear to have much of a choice in the matter, he may as well sleep through it. His team was safe ... Elizabeth was on her way back to Atlantis, as safe as she could possibly be ... and, yeah, he was safe too. Back at the Daedalus, and then on Atlantis, they'd have to confront the whole issue of Wraith worshippers, of determining who could and could not be trusted. But not yet.

Eyes closed, he listened as Rodney's current complaint-fest was cut off by Ling, who started bitching him out for not making sure that his hands were well covered -- something about hypothermia and frostbite and not getting cold again. Caldwell added something to the debate that he couldn't quite hear, but Rodney's outraged squeak made Ronon's broad back do that little laughter-hitch thing again.

We're in good hands, all of us, Sheppard thought, a bit inanely, and drowsed.


"I was right, wasn't I? Armstrong did it!"

"Rodney," Zelenka said patiently, "you thought everyone did it."

He was propped up on a pile of pillows in the infirmary. A week after the crash, he was finally out of intensive care and Beckett was allowing him more-or-less unmoderated visitors ... although whenever Rodney was in the room, the doctor kept one ear attuned to their direction. It would never do to have the two of them get into a typical rantfest and Zelenka pop out a few stitches.

Unfortunately, with Zelenka, Sheppard and Elizabeth all hospitalized, Rodney had been in the infirmary a lot. Sheppard had been released a day or so previously, with orders to stay off his leg that he promptly ignored, but he still kept coming by, too. Carson was starting to make noises about actually enforcing visiting hours for a change. (He left out the part that he'd never decided what the infirmary visiting hours were.)

"In fact," Zelenka added, warming up to the topic, "I believe the only person you didn't suspect was Cora Ludwick, who nearly killed you."

"I suspected her too!" Rodney protested snippishly. "I knew something wasn't right about her from the beginning."

Zelenka just made a "mm-hmm" noise and nestled down in his pillows, obviously deciding to win the argument by the ridiculous ploy of making himself look pitiful. It wouldn't have worked, except that Teyla and Ronon showed up just then and caused Rodney to lose his train of thought by distracting him with food.

"We brought dinner from the mess," Teyla reported, uncovering a tray. This drew Sheppard's attention; he'd been lying on the bed between Zelenka's and Elizabeth's, reading a book and half-listening in amusement to Zelenka and Rodney's argument. Elizabeth was asleep; she'd been moved out of intensive care at about the same time as Zelenka, but had spent most of her time since then drifting in and out. During one of her lucid periods -- which also happened to be during a heated "discussion" between Rodney and Zelenka -- Carson had asked her if she wanted to be moved back in. She just smiled fondly, whispered, "Not at all," and drifted back to sleep.

Sheppard rolled off the bed and joined the others for the cafeteria food that Teyla and Ronon had spread out across a couple of the bedside tables. It had become their routine, before Sheppard was released, for those of the team who had free range of the city to pick up dinner and bring it down to the infirmary so that all of them could eat together. Carson was included in that as well, since he'd been in the infirmary nearly 24-7 with the influx of critically injured patients from the Daedalus. Right now, all four of the core team members had free access to the rest of Atlantis, but they continued to eat here without ever actually mentioning the reasons why.

"They had blueberry muffins earlier," Carson said wistfully, joining them. "At least they looked like 'em. Tasted just like my mum's. Except with an odd sort of ... ferny aftertaste. I don't suppose you --"

Teyla smiled and deposited the muffin from her tray onto his. Carson knew that he probably grinned at her like a fool, but she just looked pleased. "They are made with shahali berries, Doctor, from the planet of Ghenera. What are blueberries?" The question was directed to the room at large.

"Berries," Sheppard said, his mouth full, "and they're blue."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Thank you, oh master of eloquent description. Tell me again why we always let you explain things to the aliens, anyway?"

"Because when you do it, Rodney, they fall asleep." He swallowed his mouthful, and grinned. "At least I'm interesting."

Rodney huffed. "Better accurate than interesting."

Zelenka opened his eyes long enough to add, "Ah, Rodney, you admit that you are boring?"

"What is this, pick-on-Rodney day?"

"Noise, please," Beckett said wearily, casting a quick look around the infirmary at his other patients. He buttered the muffin and wondered if it would be a violation of the Hippocratic Oath to strand them on another ice planet. With warm clothing and suitable provisions, of course. But Teyla had given him her muffin, and that did count for something. He'd let her stay, then.

"I see everything is back to normal around here."

Several heads snapped around towards the two ragged-looking individuals who had just entered the infirmary. Caldwell was limping slightly, the sling on his broken arm so dingy that it was nearly the color of his coveralls, and he'd picked up a few new cuts and bruises during the last few days of overseeing the first stages of the Daedalus repairs. Novak, behind him, looked as if she were about to drop dead from exhaustion.

"Colonel!" Sheppard said in surprise. "We weren't expecting you back yet."

"Actually -- how did you get back?" Rodney demanded, sounding suspicious. "It's a twenty-hour puddlejumper flight, and I just talked to Dewey this morning, so I know you were on the Daedalus a few hours ago. What did you do, teleport?"

"More or less." Caldwell sat down on one of the empty beds. Carson got up quickly, but the Colonel waved him off. "I'm fine. Just tired. You might give Novak a hand, though. No -- we got a ride back with the Asgard. And we'll be leaving again soon, but we needed some supplies from Atlantis."

"Wait, wait." Rodney waved both hands, forgetting that he was holding a fork and nearly stabbing Ronon in the eye. "What are the Asgard doing in the Pegasus Galaxy?"

Caldwell lifted his uninjured shoulder in a half-shrug. "Your guess is as good as mine, but to venture a guess, I'd say that we probably don't know the hundredth part of what the Asgard get up to. But they had a ship in the area, or so they say, and they've offered their help overseeing the repairs."

As Sheppard said, "Well, that's ... convenient," in a tone of heavy sarcasm, Carson turned away from the conversation to help Novak sit down; she was white as a sheet. She offered him a tiny smile when he lifted her arm gently to take a look at the cast on her wrist.

"And what have you been doing to yourself, lass?"

"She's been working for thirty-six hours without a break, and she's officially off duty for the next twenty-four," Caldwell told him. "The Daedalus is crawling with Asgard right now, anyway."

"I really want to know why they're helping us," Rodney said.

Teyla frowned. "From what you have told me, your race and theirs are allies, are you not?"

"Well, yeah, technically, but normally they look at us as the intergalactic equivalent of trailer trash," Rodney told her, which only deepened her look of confusion. "We're those embarrassing sentients from the backwards arm of the galactic spiral. I can't believe they'd have a ship hanging around the Pegasus Galaxy just in case we get in trouble."

Caldwell snorted. "Well, don't forget that according to Thor, the one thing we're good at is war. Frankly, without us around, they're going to be screwed sooner or later -- probably sooner, considering how many galactic-class enemies have turned up in just the last ten years, and how lousy they seem to be at actually fighting them -- and they know it."

There was a brief silence, and then Sheppard said, "Why don't you tell us how you really feel, sir."

Caldwell gave a sharp bark of laughter and sank back onto the infirmary bed with his arm under his head. "I'm sorry, but I don't remember the last time I slept and I've just spent the last six hours on an Asgard ship, being polite. I've got nothing against the Asgard, they're damn sharp little guys, but I know as well as you people do that they're not helping us out of the goodness of their hearts. Having said that, though, Hermiod tells me that they think they can probably have the Daedalus spaceworthy in a month or so, once they load up on various raw materials that they need from Atlantis. Not Atlantis the city, Atlantis the planet. Which they're doing right now. In the meantime, we asked them to drop off some of the more critically exhausted crewmembers -- such as Novak -- and most of the repair crews will be coming back in the next couple of days via the puddlejumpers. I gather that they can do it faster without us underfoot."

Carson had been rebandaging Novak's wrist while listening quietly. A small sigh was the only warning he got as she toppled over sideways; he caught her and lowered her to the bed she'd been sitting on. She appeared to be, as Caldwell had said, suffering from nothing worse than exhaustion. Still ... "How many more of your people are in this condition?"

"Most of us are dead on our feet, but not that bad. The others have been dispatched to temporary quarters." One of the first things that had happened when the jumpers of Daedalus refugees had begun arriving on Atlantis, was the designation of an unused wing of the city for housing the evacuees. "And now that I've brought you all up to speed, I'm going to take a shower and catch a couple hours before heading back out again." He sat up, wearily and reluctantly; a sign of his exhaustion was the length of time it took him to notice that Beckett had materialized at his elbow.

"As soon as I take a look at that arm, Colonel."

"Ling says it's doing fine."

"And Carol is a very competent physician, but she's also working in third-world conditions and probably as tired as the rest of you, so why don't you let me take a look." He glanced around at the others. "And the rest of you should get some sleep in your own quarters."

With varying degrees of reluctance, they drifted out. Zelenka was asleep again, Elizabeth had never awoken at all, and Novak appeared to be dead to the world. After their departure, the infirmary was quiet except for the sound of a nurse, across the room, talking softly to one of the injured Daedalus refugees. Enjoying the temporary peace, Beckett drew a privacy curtain and peeled back the shoulder of Caldwell's coveralls.

"How do you people do it?"

Startled, Beckett looked down at his patient. He couldn't quite see Caldwell's face from this angle, just the curve of his cheekbone. "I'm sorry?"

"This ..." Caldwell raised his good hand, then let it flop down as if he'd lost the energy even to do that. "The last week has been, not to put too fine a point on it, hell. And from what I gather, reading your reports, this isn't entirely out of the ordinary around here. You people live on a frontier, in a war zone."

"I suppose we don't think about it much," Carson said. That was a total lie -- he didn't think a day went by when he didn't think about it. But it wasn't something they ever talked about, and maybe that was something vaguely close to the same thing.

"You know, I've spent most of my adult life in one combat zone after another," Caldwell said thoughtfully. "But there was always something to fall back on. No matter how bad it got, you knew that you were, at worst, never more than a few hours' flight from the friendlies. If you got shot down, they'd send a Blackhawk to find you. If you needed an evac, there were hospitals ..."

He trailed off, and Carson didn't say anything, just finished removing the filthy and damaged cast and replacing it. He knew exactly what Caldwell meant; the only difference, as far as he could see, was that so many of them had had a year to get used to the idea of having no support at all -- and now, after that, being connected to Earth by a three-week flight or the infrequent Stargate access seemed like being just around the corner.

But he didn't know how to explain it, and he didn't really know Caldwell well enough to try. So he did the next best thing.

"If you want a place to sleep where nobody'll bother you, we have beds aplenty. There are showers in the back and a few changes of clean clothes we keep around for the inevitable clothing destruction that usually occurs before someone shows up here."

Caldwell looked up at him, and Beckett saw that the shadows in his eyes were a little less pronounced than they had been when he'd first walked into the infirmary. "I think I might take you up on that, Doctor."

"Also, there are still some muffins ..."


It was an unusually quiet and subdued group that left the infirmary. They came to the point where they should have split up, if they were actually going to head to their separate quarters as Carson had not-so-gently suggested, but they kept walking, still in a group.

Finally Rodney broke the silence. "Hey, I wasn't done eating when Carson threw us out."

"I think most of us had food remaining." Teyla smiled, and pointed. "We are not far from the cafeteria."

"At least one of us probably needs to head up to the gateroom and see if the Asgard need anything," Sheppard said, reluctantly. The three of them -- Sheppard, Rodney and Teyla -- had been rotating leadership duties among themselves ever since the missing two had returned to Atlantis, at least once Carson had found an antibiotic that worked on Sheppard's leg and he'd gotten out of isolation. According to their informal arrangement, the Colonel had been handling most things to do with the military, while Rodney took care of the civilian side and Teyla served as dispute mediator -- with Ronon often lurking silently behind her as an enforcer -- and did a lot of the paperwork. It worked astonishingly well, which was something that none of them had any intention of telling Elizabeth.

Sheppard was surprised, gratified and not just a little uneasy that Caldwell hadn't made any sort of power grab while he'd been in the infirmary. He wasn't sure if it was an olive branch or simply that Caldwell was too caught up in the Daedalus's current problems to worry about Atlantis.

"Don't see why we couldn't get something to eat first," Ronon pointed out.

"I'm with Ronon," Rodney said.

Sheppard wasn't about to admit it, but his leg was starting to hurt like a mother, and given the choice between walking all the way to the nearest teleporter versus walking to the cafeteria just a few doors down ... well, it wasn't that he was wimping out, but discretion was the better part of valor, after all. And he had his radio if anyone needed to contact him. "Well, the Asgard have been taking care of themselves for a few thousand years; I suppose they can hang on for another hour or two."

Ronon grinned and clapped a hand on his shoulder, causing his weight to come down on his bad leg and nearly sending him staggering into a wall. Clenching his teeth against a spike of pain, he recovered before anyone noticed.

"And I'm think we'd better find a table quickly, before someone falls down," Rodney said, loudly.

... or not.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes, because you're always that color."

"I will see if they have any more muffins," Teyla said hastily, darting off.

"Teyla and I'll get the food. You two find us a table before they're all taken."

Rodney and Sheppard found themselves suddenly alone. Sheppard looked around; the cafeteria was nearly deserted at this time of night, and none of the tables were in any danger of being taken. "I think this means I've been designated official Sheppard babysitter, which I can assure you is my very favorite role," Rodney said dryly, and gave Sheppard a little shove towards the nearest table.

"Do you want to pull my chair out for me too, McKay?"

"Ha! You can only dream of receiving that kind of service." Rodney plunked himself down at one end of the table and grinned smugly while Sheppard limped around to the other side.

"What was that about servicing me, Rodney?"

It was always entertaining to watch the super-genius parse an insult -- a little furrow formed between his brows and his mobile face flickered from confusion to annoyance. Quite a lot of annoyance, in this case. "I don't know why I bother spending time with you people at all. Do you know how much work I could be getting done right now? Instead I'm sitting here suffering your juvenile attempts at humor."

By the time Ronon and Teyla came back with coffee, muffins, and other assorted edibles, the situation had deteriorated to the two of them throwing crumpled-up napkins at each other. Sheppard's were much more aerodynamic, while Rodney's had a certain self-defensive desperation. Teyla and Ronon exchanged a look, sat down between them and began parceling out the goodies.

"So," Sheppard said as he broke open a muffin. "How's it going with the -- you know?"

Rodney sighed and rolled his eyes, snagging a cookie from Teyla's tray. "You're going to have to be a little more specific than that, Colonel."

"The ... investigation," Sheppard clarified.

"Oh ... that. Nothing new." They had all been quietly looking into the Wraith worshipper problem on Atlantis, with Sheppard focused on the military side while Rodney and Teyla investigated the civilians -- Teyla mostly, since Rodney was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Their one and only confirmed Wraith worshipper, so far, was Dr. Price from Botany, who had apparently met a Wraith cult offworld and had fallen hook, line and sinker. She was presently in the Atlantis brig awaiting a decision from the Earth brass on how to handle her case. The Wraith transmitter that had been found on the Daedalus was one she and Armstrong had apparently swiped from the labs. So far, they'd found no evidence that she'd actually tried to contact the Wraith from Atlantis; and, as with so many things in the Pegasus Galaxy, they simply had to hope for the best and plan for the worst.

"I do not think that the ... problem is as widespread as we had feared," Teyla said.

Rodney shrugged. "Price is a flake, and the rest of the scientists swear up and down that they had no idea. Elizabeth is the one who really should be doing this; that woman could give Caligula lessons on interrogation, and the worst part is she's so polite about it." He paused to take a sip of his coffee, and then choked and spit it out -- all over Sheppard.

"Rodney! Damn it!"

"Teyla! What the hell is this?"

Teyla sniffed at her own cup and then, with an apologetic smile, switched hers for his. "I am sorry, Rodney. I gave you my cup of tea by mistake. The cups look very much alike."

"Tea made from what, a camel's ass?"

"If I've caught anything from you, McKay..." Sheppard growled, dabbing at his wet shirt with a handful of napkins. "Good God, Rodney's right, this stuff smells nasty."

"It is made from the bark of khafos, a tree on the mainland. It is an ... acquired taste. Like your coffee." Teyla's nose wrinkled on the last sentence. She'd never picked up a liking for coffee, despite her teammates' attempts to lead her down the coffee-drinker's path.

"Gah! It's 'acquired' like a case of the flu! My taste buds will never be the same."

"Have a muffin." Ronon plunked one down in front of him.

"Oh, thanks for the pop psychology there, He-Man -- 'have a muffin', that certainly makes up for the trauma I've just experienced. Peh!"

"Gets the taste out of your mouth."

Teyla smacked him in the shoulder. "I have seen you drink khafos-bark tea, Ronon, and you finished your cup."

"I also ate urgu droppings one time 'cause I was starving. Didn't mean I liked it."

This time her punch was less affectionate, and promised quite a bit of pain at their next sparring session.

Sheppard gave up on dabbing at his wet shirt, and leaning on the end of the table, he listened to his team bicker. Didn't have anything to add, not this time. Just wanted to hear it. For the first time since that terrible cold moment when the Daedalus had dropped off Atlantis's sensors, he felt as if he'd finally managed to get warm again.


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