Jennifer stumbled into the jumper bay, her eyes burning from lack of sleep, a heavy field pack dragging at her shoulders. Her body continued to insist that it was 4 a.m., and she realized that some part of her subconscious mind expected the jumper bay to be dark, empty, deserted. Instead, it bustled with quiet, purposeful activity. Military men and women in black clothes, bristling with guns, moved among the jumpers with silent, deadly intent.
Panting under the weight of the pack, swearing once again to get herself in better shape, Jennifer felt like a ping-pong ball as she bounced around the room trying to stay out of the way and looking for someone to give her instructions. Eventually she located several of the command staff -- Rodney, Ronon, Major Lorne -- gathered around Colonel Carter. Jennifer started to slip into position beside Rodney, but backpedaled at the last minute and took a place near Major Lorne instead.
Carter was pacing, her crutches tapping on the floor, and Jennifer winced as she noticed the colonel's leg, stiff in its cast, tapping along just as carelessly. Obviously Carter hadn't been listening to Jennifer's instructions not to let the pain pills lull her into an illusion of good health she didn't have.
"Colonel Sheppard has been in the hands of the Nolari for just over six hours," Carter was saying as Jennifer slipped into the group just behind Lorne's shoulder. "They are not known for treating their prisoners well. Our attempts to negotiate have been refused." Her lips twisted. "Their only response is that they do not negotiate with terrorists, and that Colonel Sheppard will be executed at dawn, as an example to us."
From her position in the semicircle of people, Jennifer could see Rodney's face, white against his dark uniform; she saw him flinch at Carter's blunt words.
"It's winter in the Nolari settlement, so the nights are long," Carter went on. "Their local time is just past midnight, and dawn is about eight hours away. That's your window. This is a simple retrieval, a grab-and-run. As the major has already briefed you, M5Y-PX7's Wraith defense system is Ancient-built, and equally effective against jumpers. We're gambling that a single jumper may be able to evade detection long enough to land.."
Her gaze swept over them. Jennifer couldn't read any expression on her face. This was a side of Carter she'd never seen; she was used to the open, friendly woman who always had a smile for her, not this brusque, deadly serious stranger. Jennifer felt suddenly adrift, the lone civilian in a room full of soldiers.
Well ... not quite the only one. Her eyes locked onto Rodney again, trying to figure out if he looked as scared as she felt. She wished she could catch his eye, but his gaze was fixed on Carter, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to see what would be in his eyes even if he did look in her direction. She hadn't spoken to him since their brief not-quite-date, and had the distinct impression that he'd been avoiding her.
"Minimize unnecessary bloodshed, but take whatever actions you deem necessary to accomplish your objective, while preserving your own lives and those of your teammates," Carter was saying. "If we haven't heard from you by one hour before Nolari dawn, 1100 hours Atlantis time, we will assume you've failed and scramble a heavy strike force." She glanced around at the grim-faced, black-clad men and women loading the jumpers.
"One more thing. The Nolari possess radio technology and know at least some of our frequencies. With Sheppard in their hands for the last six hours, we must assume that our codes have been compromised. Maintain radio silence if possible, and remember that the enemy may be able to hear any messages that you send." Carter turned her head, looking at Lorne. "Major, you're in charge. Good luck."
Jennifer's heart battered against her ribs as she followed Lorne and the rest of the strike team to one of the jumpers. Quietly she counted: herself, Rodney, Ronon, Lorne and four other Marines. Eight people and a bunch of gear were a tight fit inside the jumper, but seemed pitifully inadequate against an entire army.
I'm going into combat. A wave of shivering rolled through her.
"Ma'am?" one of the Marines said, and hands tugged on her medical pack. Turning, Jennifer found herself looking into the freckled face of a young man who barely seemed old enough to be out of high school. In the dead-black commando gear, he looked like a boy playing soldier at Halloween.
"Thank you," Jennifer murmured, relinquishing the pack into his hands and letting him stow it among their other gear. Her fear seemed suddenly petty and small; she clenched her fists and tried to remind herself that all she had to do was try not to get shot, while these people put their own bodies between herself and danger.
Lorne had taken the pilot's seat; Ronon swung into the co-pilot's without speaking, while Rodney settled behind Lorne. Swallowing, Jennifer glanced at the Marines settling themselves on the benches in the rear of the jumper, and then took the seat next to Rodney. She risked offering him a smile, but Rodney was engrossed in his tablet computer on his lap.
Even he's been in the field, been in combat, she thought, shivering again. The weight of the 9-millimeter Beretta felt cold and alien against her hip, buckled there just moments before in the armory by another young Marine, while she'd swayed against him, half asleep on her feet.
Ronon swiveled around in his seat, and tossed Jennifer a pair of gloves. He didn't exactly smile, but he gave her a brief nod and a twitch of his lips. She nodded gratefully in return, and pulled the gloves on.
Lorne said dryly over his shoulder, "You may notice, boys and girls, that we aren't exactly dressed for Arctic operations. Since we're a 'peaceful scientific operation' "-- Jennifer could hear the sardonic quotes in his voice -- "we're notably lacking in field equipment for different terrain, including Arctic camo or proper survival gear. We're going to stick out like a whole platoon of sore thumbs in the snow, and the only cold-weather gear we've got is too bulky -- can't move or fight in it. There are parkas stowed in the back, if it does come to a survival situation, but the plan is to get under cover as quickly as possible. Let's hope for a moonless night, huh?"
"Flight, this is Control," Chuck's voice came over the jumper's speakers. Even he sounded grim and subdued. "Ready to dial the gate, on your mark."
"Moving into position, Control." Lorne's hands moved across the jumper's controls; Jennifer didn't know what he did, but the jumper began to slowly rotate. "I'm taking it down manually."
"Roger that, Flight. Waiting for your mark."
Jennifer swallowed again, her throat too dry, and forcibly uncurled her fingers from the edges of her seat. As the jumper descended, darkness gave way to the gateroom in night operations mode, its corners cloaked in shadow and the gate techs' faces bathed in the light of the screens. Jennifer noticed Teyla at the top of the stairs, her arms wrapped around her pregnant body and her face blank, expressionless.
"We're cloaked," Lorne said. "Mark."
"Good luck," Chuck said, and the blue light of the gate washed over them.
Jennifer didn't mean to, but she closed her eyes as the jumper moved silently into the shimmering blue pool of the gate, and opened them onto a world painted in stark shades of gray and black. With the jumper's running lights shut off, it was almost too dark to see. Snowflakes swirled against their windshield as Lorne guided the jumper across snow-covered fields, lurching over a stand of conifers that almost scraped its belly and then sweeping across low buildings spangled with lights.
Lorne's knuckles were white on the controls. "Looks like we got lucky," he murmured. "Dark night. If the snow comes down heavier, it'll even cover our tracks--"
"Get us down, quick," Rodney hissed, studying his laptop screen. "They know something came through the gate. They're trying to lock onto us."
The jumper dropped into another stand of trees. Jennifer gasped involuntarily as a web of black branches, dotted with dull-gray clumps of snow, splintered and scraped across the windshield. Lorne spat something under his breath. The jumper bumped as it settled, and then was still.
"Inconspicuous." Rodney's voice was much too loud in the silence.
"McKay, shut up," Ronon growled.
Everyone was rising as if at an unseen signal, even Rodney. Jennifer nervously followed suit and accepted her pack from the same young Marine, along with a rubbery thing that she finally recognized, twisting it in her gloved fingers, as a Neoprene face mask.
Lorne moved past his men to the jumper's hatch, and planted his hand against it. Looking back at them, he said in a low voice that nonetheless carried, "It's damn cold out there. The plan is to get inside and out of the snow as quick as we can. The Doc, myself, and Airman Kleinberg here have remotes to unlock the jumper. If you're separated from the main group, especially if you're outside, scrub the mission and try to get back here; survival is your priority."
Wait, Jennifer thought wildly, but then the hatch lowered and Lorne jumped off into the snow. Ronon was a silent shadow on his heels, the others a tight knot behind. She was borne along with them: too late to change her mind, to turn back.
After the warm jumper, the night felt bitterly cold. The snow came up to the tops of her military-issue boots, and drifting flakes settled in her hair, on her shoulders. For a moment, the jumper's interior lights shone out across the snow, and then the hatch snapped shut and they were abandoned to the cold and the dark.
Well ... not entirely dark. A yellow-white glow reflected off the clouds above the trees, lending a soft luminescence to the snow: the lights, she guessed, of the Nolari defensive complex and the town beyond. Through the trunks of the conifers around them, Jennifer caught glimpses of those lights, probably the same ones they'd flown over.
And that, of course, was the way the soldiers went, jogging through the trees. She scrambled to keep up. At least Rodney looked as out of his element as she felt -- slipping and sliding in his boots, the tablet computer clamped under one arm and his face set in taut lines of misery. He wasn't wearing the face mask he'd been given -- she could see it clasped in one of his hands -- which reminded her that she was still holding her own, too. After fumbling with it for a moment, she resigned herself to the fact that she couldn't possibly put it on and keep up with everyone else, and stuffed it into a vest pocket instead.
Despite the cold air biting at her nose and cheeks, the combination of the heavy pack and the forced jog kept her warm enough. By the time they reached the edge of the trees, she was panting, and even her fingers and toes felt toasty.
Ronon fell back to whisper something to Rodney, whose only response was an irritated glare. Then Ronon slipped soundlessly to Jennifer, and lowered his head to murmur into her ear, "See the tree there? In case you have to find the jumper alone."
Jennifer followed his glance to a very distinctive-looking gnarled pine; it looked like a funny old man, crouching in the snow. Yoda, she thought, squinting at it, picking out the pointed ears and the squat shape. Looking back into the woods from the Yoda-tree, she tried to remember how long since they'd left the jumper. Five minutes, maybe? It seemed much longer, but she was barely winded, so either she was in better shape or they hadn't come far.
In case you have to find the jumper alone.
Ronon had already moved back up to rejoin Lorne. Jennifer shivered and moved closer to the group, trying to take comfort from having them around her. It wasn't much comfort. Even Rodney had a P90, resting across his chest next to the computer.
Ahead of them, an expanse of fresh, trackless snow stretched to a tall mesh fence -- Jennifer estimated it couldn't be less than twelve feet high -- with razor wire, or at least what appeared to be the local equivalent, running along the top. On the other side, the buildings began, low and square and utilitarian. There was a guard tower at the corner of the fence that she could see. Floodlights lit up the snow and cast inky black shadows between the buildings. The place made her think of maximum-security prisons that she'd seen on TV.
There was only one item that didn't fit -- a slender tower just visible over the tops of the blocky, concrete buildings. It was graceful and reflective, and clearly Ancient in design.
Jennifer saw that Lorne had dropped back to whisper in Rodney's ear, pointing at the tower. Rodney nodded impatiently. He'd brought out his computer again, shoving the P90 to one side, and stripped off his gloves one at a time, jamming them into a pocket. Jennifer watched as he crouched down to balance the computer on his knees, along with an Ancient scanner, stringing wires between them.
Now that she was no longer moving, the cold began to seep through her inadequate clothing -- crawling up the legs of her pants, creeping under her jacket and vest. She stood and shivered, feeling useless and left out. My part doesn't come yet, she told herself. I'll be useful later. But it didn't help much, especially since she hoped with all her heart that she wouldn't be needed. They'd find Sheppard healthy and whole, they'd make it back to the jumper intact --
The floodlights and the lights of the buildings winked out, leaving them with only the faint luminosity of the snow. "Go!" Rodney whispered loudly, but the strike team was already moving. They were shockingly silent, their passage marked only by the whisper of their boots in the snow and the occasional click of a buckle or moving part on one of the guns. Jennifer trotted along with them, thrashing through the snow in her unfamiliar combat boots, feeling clumsy and inept. Her breath came in harsh gasps, no matter how hard she tried to breathe quietly.
They stopped at the fence. Individual lights began flickering among the buildings, and Jennifer heard shouting from somewhere ahead of them. Lorne drew his combat knife as he reached the fence, but Ronon pushed him to one side, and pulled out the sword from the sheath on his back, with a soft shwing! of scraping metal. It glimmered in the reflected light off the snow, like a bar of starlight in his hands. He cut the mesh fence with three sweeps: two down, one across.
"Show-off," Rodney muttered in Ronon's direction, with no particular animosity. Jennifer saw Ronon's teeth flash in a quick grin as he put away the sword.
Several sets of gloved hands peeled back the mesh. Jennifer cast a quick look back to the comparative safety of the woods and then, setting her teeth, stepped through. The snow on the other side was churned up in stiff ridges by other people's feet; she stumbled repeatedly as she followed the Marines into the lee of the buildings. Ronon paused to bend the wire back into shape, more or less, and then brought up their rear. It seemed fairly useless to Jennifer -- their tracks stood out plainly behind them, like a big arrow pointing in their direction. The snow had begun to fall more heavily, though, softening and blurring the edges of the all-too-clear trail.
"How long will the blackout last?" Lorne was asking Rodney in a tense whisper when Jennifer caught up to them.
"I don't know! Depends on what sort of sorry excuses for scientists they've got, and how long it takes them to figure out how to get their computers online again. We can't have more than minutes, though." Rodney's idea of a whisper carried piercingly to all the dark, silent buildings around them. Jennifer winced, and shifted from foot to foot in the snow. Somewhere nearby, she could hear shouted voices, echoing between the buildings.
"Did you manage to get any schematics before you shut down their computers, Doc?"
Rodney aimed a withering glare at him. "Yes, in a file clearly labeled Maps of Compound for Use by Armed Invaders, with a big blinking arrow: Prisoner Located Here."
"I take it that's a no."
Rodney curled his lip and then jumped when Ronon whacked him in the arm. "Focus, McKay," Ronon murmured at him.
"I think I've lost all feeling in my hand," Rodney retorted, rubbing his arm.
The bickering, Jennifer supposed, was their way of distracting themselves. Their teammate was somewhere in the all-too-large compound, condition unknown, with a death sentence hanging over his head. She could see Lorne's impatience with it, though.
"Clock's ticking," he said. "We split up, then. Three teams, each with one person who's got the ATA gene and a remote to the jumper. Kleinberg, you think you can fly it if you have to?"
Kleinberg, a lean woman with her dark hair tucked up under a beret, hesitated and then nodded in silence.
"You're on Ronon's team, Casey along with you. Yohiro, Dussendorff, with me. Sergeant O'Hara, you get doctor-sitting duty."
"Now wait a minute," Rodney began stiffly, and then clapped his mouth shut when a stranger in a long gray coat jogged around the corner and skidded to a halt. The look of surprise on his face was almost comical. He didn't even have a chance to raise his odd, three-barrelled gun to his shoulder before two of the Marines shot him at cross angles. The P90s barked, fire sputtering from their muzzles; the man jerked and crumpled in the snow without making a sound.
Jennifer flattened herself against the side of the building and tried desperately not to do any of the stupid things that she wanted to do -- scream, throw up, run. She'd seen Teyla kill the Bola Kai on New Athos, but somehow there was something about this that felt so much more ... real. She'd spent the whole Bola Kai thing floating along in a haze, half convinced that she was on the set of some kind of weird movie or tripping on drugs. Attacked by barbarians -- it just didn't happen. But this guy was just a soldier, albeit a soldier in an unfamiliar uniform with a weird-looking gun. A person like me, said some deep-down little part of herself. Or he had been. Now he was just a dead thing, sprawled in blood-splattered snow while the Marines briskly patted down his pockets and took a large, ungainly-looking walkie-talkie off him.
"Well, that did it," Lorne said grimly. "Ronon, left; I'll go right; O'Hara, see if you can get McKay to a computer terminal and get us a damn map. Stay moving, stay alive, break radio silence only if absolutely necessary -- and don't reveal your position if you do. Signal the rest of us if you achieve mission objective. Meet at the jumper. Go!"
Jennifer saw Ronon slap Rodney lightly on the shoulder, and then he took off with his Marines. Lorne went the other way, and O'Hara -- who turned out to be the same freckle-faced kid who had taken her pack in the jumper -- hustled them down an alley between two of the blank-faced concrete buildings.
"Stop, stop," Rodney protested, trying to put his gloves on while juggling the computer and the scanner. "Quit manhandling me, you -- ow!"
O'Hara had unceremoniously slapped a hand over his mouth. "Shh." He reached his arm back across Rodney's chest to nudge Jennifer flat against the wall of the building, just before several Nolari trooped past, the light of the lanterns in their hands dancing across the snow. Pressed against the side of the building in the shadows, Jennifer held her breath, sucked in her stomach and tried to think flat, tiny, silent thoughts.
The Nolari soldiers vanished behind another building and Jennifer let out a long, slow breath.
"Get your hands off me, you ... you grunt," Rodney said in a fierce whisper, making brushing-off motions. O'Hara scowled at him and drew his arm back, releasing the two of them. Jennifer gave him an apologetic smile.
Ignoring them both, Rodney whipped out the scanner and squinted at it. "Okay. Get me to a computer. I need to find a terminal and find -- you know --" His voice faltered; he looked up and saw O'Hara still standing there, frowning at him. Drawing himself up, he snapped, "Come on, chop chop. That's your job, isn't it?"
"Any suggestions as to how we might go about that, sir?" the soldier whispered back in a tone heavy with sarcasm. "And I'd suggest you keep your voice down."
"Don't preach to me. How old are you? Can you even drink yet? I've fought Genii and Wraith, I've been tortured by better enemies than these thugs, these Ancient wannabes --"
"Rodney." Nerving herself, Jennifer grabbed his arm. He stilled, and turned to look at her; in the dim light, his face was a white mask with dark holes for eyes. Jennifer cleared her throat against the sudden lump -- her own fear seemed to fade next to what he must be feeling, with Sheppard God knows where and now, Ronon gone too. "Rodney, you need to tell us what to do," she said gently. "We're waiting for you to tell us where to go."
Rodney seemed to shake himself a little bit. Taking a deep breath, he looked around and pointed at the glassy tower rising above the buildings. "Get me to that. I'm not sure if they've built their headquarters around the ruins of an Ancient facility, or if we're standing on top of a buried one, but either way -- well, what are we waiting for? Move!"
From building to building, they made their way through the luminous snow. Occasionally enemy troops stampeded past, singly or in groups. Most were male, but Jennifer couldn't help noticing a few women among them, wearing the same shapeless gray uniforms as the men. Once, a burst of P90 fire erupted from somewhere else in the compound, along with low gutteral barks that must have been the weapons of the Nolari. It ended quickly, and Jennifer swallowed hard, told herself that they'd be radioed if any of the other teams needed her assistance. If anyone was still alive to do it...
The Ancient tower, a graceful structure of metal and glass, rose from a complex of squat gray buildings that clustered around its base like mushrooms. Jennifer, Rodney and O'Hara crouched in the shadows, looking across an expanse of trampled snow to the well-guarded door.
"Up there," O'Hara whispered, and pointed up. Jennifer looked. The buildings in the area were mostly two-story, and several of them were connected to the complex around the tower's base by slender catwalks.
I might have known, she thought miserably, as she and Rodney followed O'Hara deeper into the shadows along the building's base; it's always high places in this galaxy, isn't it? Sinkholes and rope bridges and catwalks. This galaxy hates me.
O'Hara unwound the mask from his face, wrapped it around the butt of the P90 and knocked the lock off a side door. Inside, stacks of crates loomed out of the darkness. When Jennifer pulled the door shut behind them, the darkness was almost complete; only a few thin rays of starshine gleamed dully through a window high above them.
A sudden beam of light cut through the gloom. Jennifer squinted and looked around as O'Hara and then Rodney switched on their P90-mounted flashlights. Stacks of crates leaped into stark black-and-white relief. Looking up, following her companions' gaze, Jennifer saw a high ceiling of naked girders and a catwalk circling the inside of the building.
It was marginally less cold inside the warehouse. Jennifer rubbed her half-numb arms to warm up, and followed Rodney while O'Hara came behind her, guarding their rear. They climbed a set of bare metal stairs to the second-story catwalk. A heavy door blocked their way, but it wasn't locked; Rodney cracked it open, and snow swirled around him and blew into Jennifer's face.
Jennifer peeked out over Rodney's shoulder, blinking and squinting against the snow. For no longer than they'd been out of the storm, she was surprised to see how much worse it had gotten -- or maybe it just seemed worse now that they were no longer sheltered by the buildings at ground level. The catwalk in front of her looked like a slim thread, with snow and wind sweeping over it. Below them, Jennifer caught glimpses of soldiers milling about.
This galaxy really hates me.
Rodney didn't look any happier with the situation. "Maybe we can find another way in," he whispered.
"I only saw the one door below, Doc, and it's pretty well guarded," O'Hara whispered back. "No telling what's on the other side of this, but I'd say we oughta take advantage before they figure out their back door isn't guarded. I'll take point and signal if it's clear."
Jennifer managed to squeak out a feeble "Wait!" before he was gone, jogging across the catwalk as if he wasn't twenty feet in the air with death below him. None of the soldiers looked up; he vanished through a door at the far side without a sound.
"You know what I hate most about the military?" Rodney said, very quietly, between his teeth. "It's when they do stupid, heroic, self-sacrificing, idiotic things like that."
Jennifer glanced at him, realizing that she had no idea what had happened, no clue how the Colonel had come to be in this situation. She hadn't even known their team was offworld; all she knew was that she'd been awakened after less than three hours of sleep by a Marine telling her to come with him for a rescue mission.
From the grim, set look on Rodney's face, she didn't think now was a good time to ask.
No gunfire erupted from the other end of the catwalk, and a moment later O'Hara appeared, waving them across.
Crap, Jennifer thought.
Rodney's face was as pale and terrified as she imagined hers must be, and he didn't make a move to set foot on the catwalk, either. The realization came to Jennifer slowly -- first that he was as frightened as she was, despite his brave words earlier, and second, that there was something she could do for him, something that might help.
She could go first.
Without speaking, Jennifer placed her foot on the metal grille. It was even worse than she'd feared -- not just cold metal, but icy metal, slippery under the insensitive soles of her boots. There was nothing to hang onto but a single cable strung between the two buildings.
Rodney made a little squeaky sound behind her. "Come back here!" he whispered.
She didn't dare answer, didn't trust herself to answer. I can do this. I can. One step at a time, her hand on the cable going numb even through the glove, praying that the guards didn't chance to look up at that instant and see her silhouetted against the sky. One step, and another, placing her feet one in front of the other on the slick, snowswept metal, while the wind tore at her and the heavy pack on her back made her balance even more unstable.
And then she was there, she was across, and O'Hara's hands were helping her into a room that was blessedly warm, if dark. She caught herself on the wall, gasping, trying not to sob in reaction and relief. Turning her head, she saw O'Hara catching Rodney as he'd caught her. He was right behind me, she thought in amazement; he might have even been able to catch her if she'd slipped and fallen.
Or maybe she'd just have dragged them both to the snow and the soldiers waiting below. Bad thought.
"We are not going back that way," Rodney's tense whisper came out of the darkness.
"Dr. McKay, I thoroughly concur," Jennifer whispered back, a bit shakily, and she felt his shoulder brush against hers in the dark. Then he moved around her and away; Jennifer heard a soft thump and a muttered curse as he bumped into something.
"Where are we?" Rodney asked briskly, presumably talking to O'Hara. Trying to follow him, Jennifer felt her hip bump against some kind of furniture; she touched it and found that it was a table or shelf of some sort.
"I think it's a lab --" the soldier began, but just then, with a click-hum, the lights flickered back on.
It was indeed a lab, Jennifer thought, looking around at her startled companions and the room surrounding them -- a chemistry lab of some kind, perhaps; the glassware on the long worktables looked more appropriate to the 1800s, but she recognized distillation equipment amid the bottles and beakers.
"That was about the best-case scenario," Rodney said smugly, brushing snowflakes off his shoulders. "I didn't do much but crash their computers. If it took them this long to get them back online, then they have very little idea of what they're doing at all; they're just piggybacking on the Ancient tech with no real understanding of the underlying princi--"
"Get down!" O'Hara barked as a soldier in a gray uniform appeared in the open doorway of the too-bright lab. Lunging at Rodney, who was the nearest person to him, O'Hara knocked him to the floor; Jennifer caught a brief glimpse of this as she jumped at the shout and the sudden motion, then completely overbalanced with the weight of her pack and went crashing to the floor underneath one of the lab tables.
Thrashing around in panic, she heard gunfire but couldn't see a thing until she managed to get her hands and knees under her, and poked her head up far enough to see Rodney standing, rigid, with the P90 in his hands.
"McKay?" she whispered. "Where's --" Then she got her head up over the lab table and saw O'Hara sprawled on the floor, with the enemy soldier slumped in the doorway.
"Oh God," she said, and scrambled to O'Hara's side. She could immediately see that there was nothing she could do. His eyes were open and staring, the side of his head revealing glistening skull fragments in a sea of blood.
"He -- I thought he just got winged, but I sat up and -- you see --" Rodney babbled helplessly. Blood spattered his pale face. "He shot the other guy, and then I shot the other guy because he was still trying to shoot me, and -- uh -- is he dead?"
The other guy. Jennifer stumbled across the room to the enemy soldier, spilled on the floor in a spray of blood. He was still breathing, his chest rising and falling jerkily with blood bubbling on his lips. Jennifer knelt next to him and began to pull his uniform back from his chest.
"He's kind of the bad guy, you know," Rodney said, hovering over her and shifting the gun around as if he had no idea where to point it. "Oh my god, I shot a person."
Probable pneumothorax, Jennifer thought, need to get him into surgery -- Except there was no surgery nearby, not here, and she had no idea of the state of this planet's medical facilities. She applied a pressure bandage from her pack and slashed away more of his coarsely woven uniform shirt so that she could see the extent of the damage.
"You should be helping our guy, the kid, what's his name, O'Brian --"
"O'Hara," Jennifer said, "and he's ... he's dead, Rodney." She pressed a morphine injector to the Nolari soldier's upper arm.
"Then why are you helping him?" Rodney demanded in what Jennifer was rapidly coming to recognize as the particularly peevish tone he assumed when he was desperately terrified and trying not to show it. "He shot O'Hara --"
"Rodney, do you want him to die?" Her own terror had receded now that she had a patient to focus on.
"No," Rodney said in a small voice.
The Nolari soldier's eyelids fluttered. "Hi, there," Jennifer said in the most comforting tone she could muster under the circumstances. "I've done what I can, but you're badly hurt. You need medical attention. Is there a doctor here?"
"Never mind about that, where's the prisoner?" Rodney leaned over Jennifer's shoulder, invading her personal space. "You're keeping a prisoner here. Where is he? In this building?"
The Nolari soldier coughed weakly. "Heathens," he mumbled, "invading the sacred City, attacking us ... hope you all die ..." Then he passed out again.
"Thanks for nothing!" Rodney snapped at him. "We could've left you to bleed to death, you know --"
He fell silent, and it took Jennifer a minute to hear what he'd heard -- pounding feet and voices, not too far away.
The gunfire must have drawn more soldiers. Jennifer looked up at Rodney and saw her own fear written on his blood-splattered face. He glanced back towards O'Hara's body.
"We -- we can't --" Jennifer swallowed, and realized that she was speaking to herself as much as Rodney. "We can't carry him, and run -- we'll have to ... to leave him here."
"I know." Rodney took a few quick steps to the body and knelt beside it. He took the radio, and O'Hara's P90. Though his hands were shaking, his movements were quick; Jennifer wondered if he'd been in similar situations before. Again, she was acutely aware of the gulf of experience between them. As militarily incompetent as he could sometimes appear, Rodney had been going out in the field for four years.
And now he was thrusting the P90 into her hands. "Oh no," she protested, "I can't, I don't even know --"
"It's not hard. Just, you know, point and squeeze the trigger. This is the safety. It's ready to fire now." Rodney swallowed, and looked up at the gaping, open doorway. The sound of running feet drew closer.
Jennifer glanced across the room at the door they'd come in through, and beyond it, the catwalk. "Should we -- should we go back?"
Rodney's face was white, but set. "Sheppard's here," was all he said, and he went to the open doorway, peered out.
Jennifer snatched a dust cover off one of the tables and used it to cover the Nolari soldier. His breathing sounded worse, but there wasn't anything else she could do. With a last, miserable glance at O'Hara's body, she joined Rodney in the doorway.
Together they darted out into the corridor. After sneaking around in the dark for so long, the flickering yellow lights seemed much too bright. There was another door across the hall; by mutual consent they headed for that one, since the running feet sounded like they were about to round the corner just ahead of them. It opened easily at Rodney's touch and they found themselves in another lab, similar to the other but darkened. There were more doors set into the far wall. As the sound of running feet pounded by outside the room, they crossed to the other side, peered into the hall and let themselves quietly out.
A few more minutes of working themselves through a maze of passageways and labs found them far from the place where O'Hara had died and, in Jennifer's case at least, utterly lost. At least they hadn't run into anyone yet. The hallways were alive with soldiers -- they'd had to duck into labs several times to avoid being seen -- but there were no scientists about anywhere. Nighttime, Jennifer thought. By day, these labs would certainly be staffed. So far, they hadn't entered the Ancient tower at all; the Nolari had built a rats' nest of their square, concrete buildings all around its base. Just when Jennifer thought they must surely have reached the tower by now, they'd be diverted by a dead end, or open a door and find yet another bare concrete hallway.
"Should we call Major Lorne?" she whispered, after they barely managed to avoid another group of Nolari soldiers. "Maybe he can tell us what we should do."
Rodney shook his head. "Radio silence," he whispered back, his mouth set in a grim, crooked line.
All of the labs they'd found so far were simple chemistry or biology labs. One contained rows of cages with little lizardlike creatures that were obviously this world's equivalent of lab rats; Jennifer wished she had time to stop and look more closely. None of them, however, contained any technology that would have looked out of place in 1900. But at last they got lucky, and stumbled across a lab with a large, antique-looking computer terminal in one corner. "Aha," Rodney crowed, "keep a lookout," and sat down at the keyboard.
"Lookout -- lookout for what?" Jennifer's hand on the P90's unfamiliar trigger was slick with sweat. She had to wipe it off on her pants. "I don't think I could shoot anybody, even if I had to."
"You'd be surprised," Rodney muttered under his breath, and then made a little happy sound when the terminal lit up in front of him.
They'd left the lights off in the lab; the only light came from the glow of the terminal and the yellow light shafting into the room through a small window in each of the room's several doors. Jennifer leaned her hip on one of the worktables and tried to divide her attention between the doors, glancing at Rodney every so often.
He was singlemindedly engaged in his work, the tip of his tongue poking from the corner of his mouth. Jennifer couldn't help grinning at that. The green glow from the monitor outlined his face and those long, improbable eyelashes.
She still hadn't had a chance to talk to him about their "date". And, really, even she could recognize that while under enemy fire and searching for a missing and possibly tortured Colonel was not the time. He didn't seem to be acting too awkward with her -- at least not any more so than normal. She wondered, yet again, if he'd really been avoiding her for the last few days or if he was simply being Rodney McKay -- workaholic and socially clueless.
They'd had a nice time -- at least, she'd had a nice time. A couple of beers each from the six-pack of microbrew her dad had sent in his last care package; an unexpectedly pleasant conversation on a nice neutral balcony located halfway between their respective rooms. They had talked about her childhood, and Rodney's two PhDs, and (to her own surprise) what had happened with Ronon -- or, as the case may be, hadn't happened with Ronon. "Because if a jealous caveman comes storming out onto this balcony and throws me over the railing, I'm not going to be happy," Rodney had said.
"There's nothing going on with me and Ronon," she'd said, and she was mostly sure that was true. Was it just her imagination, or did men on this expedition have considerably less than even the usual lack of social clue? She and Ronon had shared one slightly awkward almost-kiss, and she'd waited for him to make another move for weeks, and then finally gotten forward enough to ask him about it. "Thought I was ready," he'd said. "Guess I'm not."
At least he was willing to discuss it. Jennifer wasn't sure if Rodney even realized they'd had a date -- considering his comments about his inadvertent breakup with Katie, she thought he might not. Or maybe he just didn't know you were supposed to call a girl the next day. Or maybe he did know and hadn't enjoyed himself, or maybe he wasn't ready either --
"Oh, hello there," Rodney said happily.
"What? Did you find something?" Jennifer leaned over his shoulder, discovering as she did so that he had a nice smell -- soap and shaving cream and a tangy hint of maleness. Her handful of previous boyfriends had all possessed their own flavors of that particular smell.
There was also a dark streak of O'Hara's blood on his cheek. She'd seen him try to wipe it off the last time they'd stopped to catch their breath, but mostly he'd just managed to smear it around, and now, with her face inches from his, she had an up-close and personal view. Jennifer's warm romantic feelings dropped down to her toes and trickled out, leaving behind a chill of fear and the all-too-intense awareness of their desperate situation.
"Oh yes, come to papa," Rodney murmured. "Schematics. Looks like the whole place is in here. I didn't think they'd actually be stupid enough to have a map lying around, but, well, here we are." He gave a soft, humorless laugh. "And I was joking about the big arrow, but, well, look at this." Raising one finger, he pointed at the screen.
Jennifer squinted. "Um, I can't read that."
"What? You can't? Oh, sorry. It's Ancient script. You really can't read that?"
"Guess I missed that class in medical school," Jennifer said through her teeth. She'd picked up a few Alteran medical terms, here and there, but for the most part, there were computer programmers to decipher and interpret the database for the medical staff; there simply wasn't time to learn a language she didn't need to know, not with everything else she had to do.
"Oh. Well, then. That one says 'interrogation'. I'm pretty sure we're, um, down here somewhere --" He waved a hand vaguely across part of the screen. "So we need to find this big corridor over here. Shouldn't be too hard. We won't have to enter the tower at all." He sounded regretful about that, but gave a sigh and hit some more buttons. Jennifer heard the disturbingly loud clatter of what was obviously a printer across the room. "Go get that," Rodney said, eyes trained on the screen.
At any other time, she'd have objected to being ordered around like one of his lab lackeys, but it seemed a petty complaint right now. Jennifer retrieved the papers from a weird, medieval-looking contraption that made her think more of an automated typewriter than a printer.
"How are we going to get past the guards?" she asked.
"Working," Rodney snapped. "Ah. How about this?" He pressed some more keys; the lights went out again, plunging them back into familiar darkness, and a moment later, a siren began to wail.
Jennifer fought the urge to cover her ears. "What did you do?"
"Told the Ancient facility to trigger a quarantine lockdown." In the darkness, Rodney sounded smug. "All their defensive capabilities are now completely offline and they're physically locked out of whatever's left of the Ancient facility -- the original core part, I mean, not where we are right now. And they're totally locked out of their computers too. Maybe they can get them back up, or find a workaround, but I think we're looking at a timeframe of weeks, not hours, especially considering the apparent skill level of what passes for programmers around here."
"Nice," Jennifer said, and meant it.
Rodney sighed, and his tone shifted to one of vague unhappiness. "I just wish I'd been able to get more information to take back with us. I mean, something must be powering this place. They might even have a ZPM -- it'd be mostly depleted, judging by the state of the lights, but we could --"
Jennifer had been groping around in the darkness until finally she found his arm and gave it a tug. "Not now," she said.
Rodney broke off in mid-ramble. "No -- no, not now -- more important things --" He trailed off, muttering to himself, and flicked on his flashlight to study the printed maps. The siren continued to wail.
"Is that thing going to shut off anytime soon?" Jennifer asked.
"What? No, probably not ... okay, we go this way. I think," he added in a small voice.
The claustrophobic darkness and the wailing of the siren created a sense of impending apocalypse as they blundered around in the corridors. From the intensely panicked sound of the voices they occasionally overheard, Jennifer could tell that the Nolari had no idea what was going on; for all they knew, some kind of self-destruct had been activated. Actually, for all she knew, a self-destruct had been activated -- and that was a bad thought, and she wasn't going there.
"Heating system's out too," Rodney said, a trace of smugness having crept back into his tone. "By the time they get things back online, they're likely to have some badly burst pipes and water damage. I'm Canadian; I know how to commit sabotage in a northern climate. Just let the weather do it for you."
Something had been bothering Jennifer more and more as they wandered about in the dark, and she finally nerved herself to bring it up. "The Ancient security system was their Wraith defense system, too, wasn't it? Is it really ethical to turn it off?"
The hesitation before he spoke let her know that she wasn't the only one having similar thoughts. "They attacked us," Rodney said at last, a bit sharply. "Not that I don't have at least a little sympathy there -- heck, after dealing with the U.S. military for the last ten years, if they want to picket I'll help them make the signs -- but this is self-defense. We're trying to survive."
"But there's a town on this planet. Kids and old people."
"Don't," Rodney snapped. The harshness in his voice, as unexpected as the way he handled the gun, left her silent.
"Self defense," Jennifer said, mostly to herself. Chippewa Falls seemed like such a terribly long way from here. The worst thing she'd feared in her old life was some junkie going nuts in the emergency room. And now, look at her. She tightened her grip on the P90 until her fingers ached.
Rodney stopped her with a hand. "Hey, hold on."
He paused and studied the maps again, cupping his hand around the flashlight to minimize the reflected light. "I think this is that big corridor -- right here, through that door."
Jennifer squinted at the pages. It was fairly obvious on the schematics -- a long, wide corridor, perhaps a remnant of an older building, running along one side of the complex surrounding the tower. At one end was the area Rodney had said was labeled "interrogation"; he'd scribbled a heavy black circle around it.
"How are we going to get in?" With the siren's racket, they no longer had to whisper -- in fact, couldn't really whisper and still be heard.
Rodney tried to smile at her; it was more of a stiff grimace. "I don't suppose you have a plan."
For a moment they just stared at each other in the flashlight's dim light. Then Rodney ducked his eyes away and snapped it off, plunging them into darkness again. As her vision adjusted, Jennifer became aware of a faint glow coming under the door in front of them.
Rodney's dark bulk moved against the light. He cracked the door open, and they both peeked out. The light was coming from a door at the end of the long, wide corridor -- a warm, flickering light, the sort that comes from a flame rather than the more impersonal light of electricity. Well, Jennifer thought, they were bound to have some candles or lanterns around.
"I have a couple of flashbangs," Rodney said, and, at Jennifer's blank look, "Small explosives, make a bright light and noise. I got them from the -- the body. From O'Hara. I know how to use them; a -- well, you might call him a friend ... showed me once, years ago. But I don't know how many people we're going to have to subdue."
"We could call Lorne. Rodney, maybe we should call Lorne." Jennifer worried at her lower lip until she tasted blood. "What if we screw this up? We don't know how to do this."
"I -- we can't." He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. "If they're listening in, then they'll know right where we are. Lorne and Ronon will walk into a trap."
"We don't know that they're listening," she argued.
"You want to gamble Ronon's life, and everyone else's, on the slim chance that you're right, Doctor Keller?"
"You want to gamble our lives, and Colonel Sheppard's?"
They were almost nose to nose, both breathing hard. In the small amount of light coming in through the door, Jennifer could see Rodney's eyes glittering; she could smell the sharp reek of fear-sweat on him. And, damn it, he was right. She backed down and ran a hand over her face, touching the slickness of her own sweat.
"I'm sorry, Rodney. I just -- I don't know if I can," she admitted. "Can't we wait? Maybe they'll evacuate, bring him out, or something. We don't even know if he's in there; we're just guessing."
"And we also don't know what they're doing to him while we wait. You -- you could stay here." He swallowed hard. "I can do this. You just wait for me to come back."
Jennifer stared at him. "And you'll take on heaven knows how many heavily-armed soldiers by yourself? Is this some kind of -- of misguided attempt at chivalry, or something? No." She shook her head vigorously, trying to quell her trembling. "If you go in there, I'm going with you."
After a moment, he said quietly, "You don't have to."
"Yes, I do," she said as firmly as she could manage, "and please don't try to talk me out of it, because you'll probably succeed and you might need me in there."
He took a deep breath, and let it out in a long, shuddering sigh. Jennifer felt something cold pressed into her hand. "This is a flashbang. This is the trigger, and this is the locking pin. Feel it?"
She nodded, running her hands over the object in the semi-darkness. "It's ... like a grenade?"
"Yeah, kinda. I'll go first, and use mine. You use this one if we need it -- but, uh, warn me first if you can, okay?" He offered her another of those small, grimacing smiles. "I've had 'em go off and blind me, and believe me, it's not fun."
Jennifer managed a small, tight nod, and tucked the object into one of her pockets, where it sat like a particularly dense and heavy can of hairspray. "Okay. Should we, um, have a code word? For when we're going to use it? I could say, I don't know, Sesame Street."
"Sesame Street?" Rodney echoed, some of the fear in his voice giving way to sarcasm.
"Don't start," she retorted. "I have many happy childhood memories of that show."
"All right, whatever makes you happy. And," he added, "don't shoot me."
"I'll try." She made the best attempt at a smile that she could manage. "Don't shoot me, either."
"I'll try," he said with a feeble attempt at a laugh, and pushed the door open.
The corridor was empty, and with the squalling emergency siren covering their noise, they could probably have marched down it with a brass band. But, all too aware of their exposed position, they crept along the wall, sharing nervous glances. At the far end of the corridor Rodney stood on tiptoe and peeked through the single small window set in the door. He ducked back down with a frown.
"No one there. Just a lantern. Maybe they evacuated already." He tried the door, found it unlocked, and pushed it very gently open.
The room inside was empty except for several shelves, one of which held a hissing gas lantern. Several more doors opened from its sides, one of which had a stripe of light underneath. Unlike the other door, it did not have a window; it was heavy and metal, with a keyhole set in a large, solid-looking lockplate. Rodney gave it a very gentle nudge with his hand, and scowled. "Locked."
"What if we --" Jennifer began, but just then the door started to open from the inside.
"Sesame Street!" Rodney yelled at her, and threw a canister through the crack that had opened up between door and frame. For one frozen instant, Jennifer had no idea what on earth he was talking about -- had stress made him snap? -- and then she made the connection and squeezed her eyes shut, ducking back against the wall with her hands pressed over her ears.
Even through closed eyelids, she could see a red flash as the room lit up, and her ears rang from the explosion. She opened her eyes to see Rodney kicking open the door in a fair approximation of Rambo, his face screwed up with rage and intense concentration.
Wow, she thought, he's actually ... kind of cool, and followed him through the door.
The room inside was filled with a haze of smoke and a reek of gunpowder, as well as several people in gray uniforms staggering or writhing with their hands over their eyes. "Against the wall!" Rodney yelled. "Over there! Now! Move!" He loosed a burst from the P90 against the ceiling, sending a shower of plaster chips and dust down onto the chaos below.
"Ow! Rodney, stop it!" Jennifer protested, taking one hand off the P90 to throw it up in front of her face as chips of plaster stung her skin and threatened her eyes. Then, through her fingers, she saw her patient and forgot everything else, running past the soldiers crawling for their guns.
Colonel Sheppard was chained to the wall with his arms outspread, and wearing nothing but a set of loose gray pants; his feet and torso were bare, and marred with ugly welts. One of his shoulders was obviously dislocated. His dark head hung down on his chest, but he raised it when Jennifer began to feel her way quickly over his arms, checking for circulation and broken bones. His face was bruised and swollen. "Oh, hi," he slurred in a cheerful-sounding voice. "Who are you? Can't see a damn thing."
"It's Dr. Keller, Colonel. We're here to get you out." Jennifer tilted his face towards the light. One of his eyes was swollen almost shut from the bruises, but both of them had pupils so dilated that the iris was nothing but a thin green rim. "No wonder you can't see," she said, wincing; with his eyes like that, she only hoped that he hadn't been looking directly towards the flashbang when it exploded. "Colonel, do you know what kind of drug they gave you?"
"Huh? Hey, are you Keller? Oh, wow! Hi!"
"Hi, Colonel," she sighed, palpitating his shoulder very gently and cringing at the awkward angle his chains were holding him. They'd probably done him a favor by drugging him; he still seemed to be feeling at least some amount of pain -- he'd flinched violently when she touched his shoulder -- but just didn't seem to care very much.
"How is he?" Rodney demanded. Looking over her shoulder, Jennifer was amazed to see that he'd managed to get all of the soldiers disarmed and lined up against the wall. "Did I say you could move? I said nobody move!" he barked in a drill-sergeant tone when one of the soldiers tried to take advantage of his moment of distraction by shuffling towards the pile of guns.
"I need to get him down from the wall," Jennifer said. "Does anyone have the keys?" The door gaped wide-open behind Rodney. It was only a matter of time before someone came in and found them; they were racing the clock and she was all too aware of it.
"Keys!" Rodney yelled at his prisoners, punctuating it with a spray of bullets into the wall above them. Jennifer cringed and hoped he didn't shoot anyone by accident. "I am a desperate and terrified man! My hands are shaking! See? Shaking!" This time the P90 jerked upwards and gouged another trench out of the abused ceiling. "I hardly know what I'm doing! Where are the damn keys!"
One of the soldiers grimly tossed a key ring in Rodney's direction. He kicked it towards Keller and she began to sort through the keys with trembling fingers.
Sheppard began to hum a little tune while she unlocked him. "Well, at least you're a happy drunk," she said as his arms came loose and he sagged onto her. His legs wouldn't support him, and suddenly she found herself holding quite a lot of weight; between that, and the pack, she lost her balance and went down onto her butt with a loose, half-naked Sheppard on top of her.
"Ow," he said quietly, in a small voice that almost broke her heart. His face was nestled into her neck and he didn't seem inclined to move. "I think -- I think I might've had an accident."
Jennifer brought her hands up to spread the palms across his cold, bare back, feeling more burns and bruises there. He was shivering. "Yes, Colonel," she said quietly into his hair, "you've had a very bad day, but we're going to -- oh, shit, Rodney, behind you!"
Rodney swung around at her shout and fired off a burst from the P90 by total reflex, raking it across the chest of the Nolari soldier who had appeared in the open doorway. The man dropped his gun and staggered back with a hideous gurgle, collapsing in a heap.
"Oh Jesus," Rodney said, his eyes huge.
One of their prisoners took advantage of the distraction to lunge for the pile of guns. "No! Stop!" Jennifer shouted helplessly, trying to push Sheppard off her chest. Rodney's gun barked out its staccato again -- this time totally missing his intended target (Jennifer could see him shaking even from here) but the enemy soldier froze in his tracks.
Jennifer had finally managed to regain her feet. "We're just going to walk out of here now," she told the prisoners. "Oh, oh! Radios! Throw your radios out the door." She was trembling so hard her teeth were chattering. It had to be amply evident to everyone in the room that their captors were scared out of their wits. But terrified people were desperate people, and no one wanted to push them. One by one, the big walkie-talkie-style radios clattered on the floor. Jennifer kicked the guns after them, into the outer room. Then she knelt and got an arm around Sheppard.
"Colonel, can you walk? Come on, yeah, just like that."
"Oh, look," Sheppard said in a tone of wonder, clinging to her neck with his good arm. "I have feet."
"Yes, yes you do; now please make those feet walk towards the door," Rodney snapped.
The three of them backed out of the room, and Jennifer propped Sheppard against a wall while she hunted for the key to the door. She tried very hard not to look at the crumpled, obviously dead body of the man Rodney had shot, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Rodney give the body a very wide berth as he made his way around it to take Sheppard's weight from her.
"This is where you say 'Nice rescue, Rodney, well done.' "
"I have feet," Sheppard reported cheerfully, leaning his head on Rodney's shoulder. "Two of them. Sometimes even four."
"Good for you," Rodney said, and gave Jennifer a pleading look. Despite their situation, it was all she could do not to laugh.
She found the right key and locked the door, started to turn away when her eyes fell on Sheppard's bare feet. "Oh ... damn."
"Now what?" Rodney's voice emerged as a near-whine.
"We can't take him outside like that. He'll freeze." She glanced back at the door. "I guess we should've made them take their boots off, but -- I didn't even think of it, and I don't want to open it again; we were lucky to get out of there alive."
They both looked at the dead man on the floor. No, Jennifer realized -- dead woman on the floor. Not that it made much difference, she thought -- a soldier was a soldier, and she was a fairly big woman; her boots would be better than nothing.
What's happened to me? she thought, sickened and stunned. I can't believe I'm thinking calmly about robbing the dead. But there wasn't a choice; you did what you had to do. She was starting to understand Teyla a little better now.
Rodney looked pale and sick -- and frozen, staring at the body. Jennifer tried to choke down her own nausea and fear. "Rodney," she said, "you get the boots, and I'll see what I can do for the Colonel in the meantime."
Rodney nodded without speaking and knelt at the dead woman's feet. Jennifer turned her attention to Colonel Sheppard, who was listing at an alarming angle. "Hi, Colonel," she said, catching and steadying him, and guiding him to the floor.
He gave her a lopsided smile. "Hi, Doc. What're you doing here?"
"Helping you." She gently felt his fingers, checked their color. "Colonel, I'm going to try to relocate your arm, but if it doesn't slide back into the socket easily, I'll wait until we're outside and have more leisure time to do this. All right?"
At least the drug, whatever it was, would help provide a bit of a buffer for the pain. If there was already a depressant in his system, she didn't dare give him morphine. "This will probably hurt. Please try to relax and don't fight what I'm doing, if you can."
One small favor today -- it slid back into place with less resistance than she'd expected. Previously dislocated? Not too unlikely, considering his active life -- she made a note to check when they got back to Atlantis. Aside from a small intake of breath, he didn't make any sound, just went rigid and then leaned against her.
Rodney knelt beside them. "Boots. Here. The coat's, uh, the coat's a loss." He glanced over his shoulder, and Jennifer did likewise -- swallowing hard, she could see what he meant; the soldier's heavy gray overcoat had been chewed up by the bullets and was sodden with blood. Still, she didn't expect what Rodney did next: he shrugged off his tac vest, stripped out of his jacket and handed it to her.
She forced Sheppard's feet into the ill-fitting boots while Rodney guarded the doorway, bare-armed and jittering with nervousness. "Are you done yet? Hurry up! I can't believe no one's come to check on the prisoner. At least the walls seem to be thick."
"Maybe they think he's safe, with half a dozen soldiers in the room." Jennifer couldn't help laughing as she helped Sheppard lean forward, gently working his arms into the sleeves of Rodney's jacket, still warm from Rodney's body heat. "We did it, you know that? I can't believe we did it!"
"We haven't 'done it' yet," Rodney snapped. "We're behind enemy lines, surrounded by soldiers -- are you finished yet?"
"Keep your pants on." Still riding high on a wave of elation and adrenaline, she helped Sheppard to his feet with an arm around his waist. "How are you doing, Colonel?"
"Mmm, dunno." He leaned on her heavily; she staggered under his weight. "Don't feel too good, really," he confided into her hair.
She patted him on the hip. "It's all right, Colonel; we'll have you home soon."
"Not if we don't move," Rodney said darkly.
After the warm, flickering light of the lantern, the hallways seemed all the more oppressively dark. They felt their way forward into darkness, Rodney in the lead, using the flashlight only to check their map. The Nolari soldiers, carrying lanterns, were abundantly obvious and easy to avoid. It was difficult and disorienting to navigate in the darkness, however, and by the time they emerged into the storm, Jennifer had no idea which side of the compound they were on. From Rodney's hunted, skittish-woodland-creature look, she suspected he didn't know either.
Peering through the buildings, she caught sight of the wire fence through a thick curtain of blowing snow -- probably not the same part of it they'd cut through before, but any fence would do at this point. All she wanted was to get out of the compound; even the woods looked like a safe haven right now. She wasn't even sure if Sheppard was completely conscious; he was loose and floppy against her, with most of his weight bearing down on her shoulder.
"Thank God," Rodney said fervently, shivering as the wind brushed across his bare arms. "Another few minutes and we're home fr--"
He was moving as he spoke, which was why the bullet hit him in the side rather than dead center. Blood sprayed across the snow. The look on his face was almost comically startled as his knees buckled.
And Jennifer was moving, with reflexes she didn't even know she had, pushing Sheppard to the side and bringing up the P90. Squeeze the trigger, she told herself, and it bucked in her hands, impossible to aim or control, a spray of bullets raking across the side of the building and across -- through -- the soldier who had shot Rodney. No, not just one, two soldiers -- both falling, thrashing, blood geysering into the snow.
I shot someone, she thought in disbelief. Two someones. Her mind was a gray haze; her first thought was to go help them, and she was already taking a step in that direction when Sheppard slipped completely off her shoulder, faceplanting in the snow. As she turned towards him, Rodney moaned, and the haze around her blew away like fog on the wind -- she could see clearly now, could remember her responsibilities.
I shot a man, oh god --
-- not now, Jen, people need you --
Rodney was struggling to get up, his hands pressed to his abdomen where blood was rapidly saturating his T-shirt and vest. "Don't move!" Jennifer shouted at him, and he froze, on his knees with his arms wrapped around his body.
She didn't know where to turn first, looking from Sheppard to Rodney and then, beyond, to the two soldiers in the snow -- one of whom was thrashing feebly, so maybe she hadn't killed both of them.
Those gunshots will have every soldier in this place converging on us. We have to run. There's no time for -- for anything.
Letting Rodney walk around with an injury like that was insane, especially without doing anything to bind it (punctured intestine! her mind shrieked at her; hemorrhaging spleen!) but there was no time. "Rodney, can you walk?" she gasped, struggling with Sheppard's deadweight.
"I'm shot!" His voice was breathy and high with pain.
"I know! I'm sorry! We have to run! Get up, Rodney, please!"
"You told me not to move!" But he was climbing to his feet, leaning on the wall. Jennifer fought down her panic (Spleen! hemorrhaging!) and managed to get Sheppard back on his feet again.
She couldn't believe they actually made it to the fence, but they did -- Jennifer half-carrying and half-dragging Sheppard, Rodney staggering behind. The wind was whipping up into a true blizzard, which would be good in a way -- much harder for their pursuers to find them. But Rodney's lips were blue, and Jennifer could feel the wind cutting straight through her inadequate jacket.
And she'd forgotten that she still had to get over, through or around the fence. "Oh god, no," she moaned, leaning her forehead against the wire. "Rodney, do you have a knife?"
"Pocket knife," he panted.
Ronon had made it look so easy. Wait -- Ronon -- Jennifer reached for her ear. Radio silence be damned. If this didn't count as an emergency, she couldn't imagine what would. "Major Lorne! It's Dr. Keller!"
All she got was bursts of static, and then Lorne saying something about staying off the radio.
"Major, I know, but we've got Colonel Sheppard. I repeat, we've retrieved the, uh, target. Can you hear me?"
Something something puddlejumper.
"We're trying to get back to the jumper! Major?" She heard more static and then, through the radio as well as faintly from somewhere in the compound, a clatter of P90 fire.
Great. Looked like they were on their own. She only hoped everyone else was all right. Somewhere not too far away, she heard shouting voices and knew that pretty soon she and her patients wouldn't be.
"Screw this," she muttered, and lowered Sheppard into the snow. Stepping back from the fence, she unleashed a burst of P90 fire against it. Sparks flew wildly. She swept the gun back and forth, and was gratified to see the fence peeling apart.
The deafening stutter of the assault rifle gave way to a series of impotent clicks. Jennifer let the gun fall, warm against her chest, and ran to the fence, kicking at the damaged section. It had peeled away at the top and one side. It would have to be good enough.
"Rodney, go, go! Help me with the Colonel!" Drawn by the gunfire, the Nolari would be on them in moments.
Jennifer had no idea who was supporting whom, but leaning on each other, the three of them struggled through the gap in the fence. She felt jagged ends of wire tear at her skin and clothes, gouging bleeding trails, and then they were through, with nothing between them and the blessed freedom of the forest but an expanse of empty snow. The wind was whipping so hard that she couldn't even see the trees, but she did the best she could, steering the three of them in an away-from-fence direction.
People were yelling behind them. A gun went off, but no one stumbled and she didn't know if it had been aimed at them or not, so she just kept running, dragging the other two with her.
In the relative shelter of the trees, they fell apart, collapsing in the snow. The wind wasn't so brutal here, but it was still achingly cold. Jennifer lay on her back in the snow, shaking from cold and reaction, and squinted her eyes against the blizzard as she stared up into the branches of the trees. She just wanted to lay here for a minute -- but she realized now that they weren't much safer in the woods than in the compound. They had to keep moving. Find the jumper. Hope that Lorne and Ronon and the rest of the Marines had gotten enough of her message to rendezvous there.
She was so tired. So cold.
Which was exactly why she shouldn't be lying here in the snow. Jennifer sat up. Rodney, she saw, had crumpled against a tree, and he was shivering violently, goosebumps standing out on his bare arms. Nothing like a little hypothermia combined with shock, Jennifer thought, and before she could really let herself think about what she was doing, she slid out of her pack straps and her vest so that she could take off her jacket. "Rodney," she said, "here," and wrapped it around his shoulders; it was far too small for him to wear, but at least it would help slow down the hypothermia that threatened them all.
With shaking fingers she opened her medical pack and bound Rodney's side as quickly as she could. She didn't dare stay here for long, but she intended to get both of her patients back to the jumper alive, and this meant that she wasn't about to allow one of them to bleed to death.
"Am I d-dying?" Rodney managed to say through chattering teeth.
"No, of course not," she retorted with more confidence than she felt. She used handfuls of snow to scrub away enough blood from his skin that she could find the entry and exit wounds under his sodden shirt; the bullet had gone through, at least. There was no way to determine the extent of the internal damage until she could get him under a scanner, no point in beating herself up in the attempt. Disinfecting the wound properly would have to wait until they were back at the jumper; she splashed iodine over his stomach and bound it as tightly as she could.
"Sh-Sheppard," Rodney said, trying to sit up. "Where's Sheppard?"
"Oh," Jennifer whispered, and floundered through the snow to the still, slumped figure. She slipped her arm under his shoulders. "Colonel?"
He blinked at her, and mumbled, "Hi, Doc. What are you doing here?"
"Wondering how long whatever they gave you will take to metabolize," she sighed. "Can you get up, Colonel?"
With her assistance, he regained his feet, swaying and leaning on her. "I think I'd rather sit down, really," he said softly, slumping against her. "I'm not feeling so good."
"I'm sorry, Colonel, but we can't. You'll be able to sit down soon." The cold was appalling without her jacket; the skin of her arms burned, and she tried desperately not to calculate frostbite rates. Then her head snapped up, as voices carried to her through the snow -- unfamiliar voices. Time to go. "Rodney? Rodney, can you stand?"
"I ... I don't know." His voice was soft and weak; he tried to rise, and slumped back to the snow.
"Oh, crap," she whispered. "Oh, crap." She cast a quick, helpless look at Sheppard, his long body slumped in a bow so that his dark head rested against her shoulder. Towing him along, she stumbled through the snow to Rodney's side. With her free hand she tugged at his arm. "Rodney, we have to go."
"Can't," he mumbled, thrashing and sinking back down. "Can't -- Jennifer, I can't!" he snapped, with a faint flare of his characteristic irritation, as she kept tugging on his arm. "Just -- just go, take Sheppard, get him back to the jumper, you can come back for me --"
"You're a coward," she cried, hoarse with desperation, because she couldn't carry two of them, and they had to move, had to get out of there, one step ahead of the Nolari. Back in the sinkhole, days ago, she'd goaded him, and it had worked; gentle words got you nowhere with Rodney McKay, and she didn't care if he hated her as long as he got up. "What are you going to do, lay there and die? Bleed out in the snow? Is that what you want me to send back in a report to your sister?"
He blinked, staring at the ground, his lashes silvered with frost. "That's not fair, bringing Jeannie into this. Playing dirty." He groped at the pseudo-conifer behind him, bloody fingers skating over the rough bark.
"I killed a man for you!" Anger rose in her throat like bile. "You haven't got the right to lay down and die now. Get up!"
Using the tree, and what support she was able to give him, he staggered to his feet. "Whoa," he mumbled, "headrush ..." and clung to the tree, leaning his forehead against it.
Jennifer staggered closer, until she could lean her shoulder against his. "Rodney, come on." Her teeth were chattering so hard she could barely talk.
His eyes were closed, his chest heaving as he breathed. "Seriously, I don't think -- I can't -- I'm going to fall, take one step and fall down. Too dizzy. Just go, come back for me."
What did she have in the medical pack that might help? Painkillers would just make things worse; the last thing he needed right now was a depressant. She didn't have time to hunt through it for a stimulant --
"Just go," Rodney said, his voice cracking desperately.
And then Sheppard moved. Jennifer hadn't realized that he was cognizant of his surroundings at all, but he reached across her and seized a handful of Rodney's jacket. Well, technically Jennifer's jacket, wrapped around Rodney's shoulders -- but that was all he did, just seized it in a fist and hung on.
"Not without you," Jennifer said, speaking, she assumed, for both of them.
Afterwards, she never remembered how long they stumbled through the snow. At some point, she lost the P90 -- just unclipped it and put it down, because she had to lighten her load any way she could. She couldn't feel her feet or arms or ears. Sheppard seemed to rally a little along the way, helping her almost as much as she was helping him, but Rodney relaxed into deadweight against her side. Only momentum kept him going, staggering along, one foot in front of the other.
It took a while to find the jumper, but she managed to locate the Yoda tree and then struck back into the woods. The jumper turned out to be unexpectedly visible -- a weird, eldritch shape in the woods, with the piled snow from the storm describing an empty space beneath. She wondered, dully, what the Nolari would think if they saw that.
Thinking. It was getting very hard to think. They had to get inside, get warm.
"Rodney," she said, jostling his arm -- or tried to say; her tongue was thick in her mouth. "Rodney. The remote. We need it."
He didn't seem to understand her. She had to lean Sheppard against the side of the jumper and fumble through Rodney's pockets herself until she found it. No gene activation seemed to be necessary, and she had never seen a sweeter sight than the interior of the jumper, blessedly warm and bright. She staggered and fell on the ramp, dragging the two men down with her, and pushed the button to raise the ramp without bothering to get up. They all tumbled forward, dumped into a wet, snowy heap on the floor.
"Thank God, thank God," she sobbed into the jumper's floor mat, and then, aloud, to remind herself, "Warm, warm, got to get warm. Got to get everyone warm."
She pushed herself upright on shaking limbs and staggered to the front of the jumper, then stopped and stared at the dark controls. "Oh, crap crap crap." No ATA gene. No pilot. She looked behind her at the miserable crumpled pile of her companions. No help from that quarter anytime soon.
Don't get killed, she thought frantically at Major Lorne, because if you do, we are so screwed.
She tapped her radio again, but received only static.
Taking a deep breath, she made her way to the back of the jumper by hanging onto things. Her legs were starting to work a little better, and so was her brain -- she suddenly realized that she was still wearing the heavy medical pack, which felt like it had grown into her shoulders, and gratefully shrugged it off. Be glad for that pack, Jennifer. It helped insulate you. Probably saved your life.
At the start of this eternal mission from hell, someone had mentioned Arctic survival gear stowed in the back of the jumper -- Had it been O'Hara, poor O'Hara, who'd said that? Unbuckling cargo straps, she dragged down a pile of big, fluffy parkas and sleeping bags, wrapping them around her two semi-conscious charges. Neither one of them seemed to be badly hypothermic, as far as she could tell. But Rodney was white and trembling and definitely going into shock, and Sheppard was still out of it, unconscious, slumped against one of the benches. Jennifer wondered if the Nolari had misjudged the dosage of their drug for his physiology. Her staff had discovered on several occasions that Earth and Pegasus people reacted differently to several of the common drugs from both galaxies.
The work, and a parka snugged around her shoulders, helped warm her up a little. Her hands were still a bit clumsy, but if she slowed down and concentrated, she could do her job. She got a saline IV and some painkillers into Rodney, and spread him out on the floor in a nest of parkas and sleeping bags so that she could examine and clean the gunshot wound. A little palpitation didn't show any obvious signs of internal bleeding, but she didn't like his color and wished she could get him under a proper scanner. The portable Ancient medical scanner wasn't much help; without an ATA gene, she could use it for basic vital signs but couldn't access most of its advanced functions.
Sheppard woke up while she was in the middle of this process, rolled over and threw up on the floor. "Sorry, sorry," he mumbled, flailing helplessly with a near-total lack of coordination.
"It's all right, Colonel; please just sit still. I'll be there in a minute." Jennifer tightened Rodney's bandages, checked the IV and flipped one of the parkas over him. The rehydration seemed to be helping a little with his terrible gray pallor, but he was still unconscious, and she didn't like it. Gently she ran a hand over his face, checking skin temperature -- and maybe indulging herself just a tiny bit. There was something very sweet and vulnerable about a sleeping Rodney. Probably because his mouth was shut, Jennifer thought.
"What happened to him?" Sheppard asked in a weak, rasping voice, propping himself up on his good arm.
"He was shot. I think he'll be all right," Jennifer said with an optimism she didn't quite feel. Picking up her medical kit, she stepped over Rodney and limped to Sheppard. Every part of her body hurt, including all the parts that had just stopped hurting from their adventure on the sinkhole planet. The cold-traumatized skin on her arms had taken forever to regain sensation, and now it burned and stung and was beginning to blister as the damaged dermis separated in layers. Just what I need, she thought wearily. She threw a towel over the mess on the floor and handed Sheppard a wetwipe to clean his face while she laid out her tools and a clean pair of gloves. "How are you feeling, Colonel?"
"Sick. Dizzy. Weird." He lay back and blinked up at her as she started an IV. "I, uh, don't really remember how I got here. We're in a jumper, right?"
"That's right. We're waiting for Major Lorne and Ronon." Jennifer dabbed at his cuts and burns with disinfectant, trying to divorce her mind from the all-too-acute awareness that these injuries had been caused by deliberate human action. They were superficial and would heal cleanly; she focused on that. "Do you know what kind of drug they gave you, Colonel?"
He shook his head, and swallowed hard at the resulting dizziness. His eyes kept sliding closed; he had to fight to keep them open. "No idea. Guess they got tired of trying to persuade me the old-fashioned way."
Torture. Jennifer tried not to think about it; she rummaged through her supplies instead. "Well, see if you can keep some Tylenol down. I have heavier painkillers, but I'd like to get more of whatever they gave you cleared out of your system before I give you anything else."
After giving him the pills and a paper cup of water, with admonishments to sip slowly, she sat back against the bench seat with her leg resting against Rodney's side. She carefully wrapped her own frostbitten arms in loose rounds of gauze and knocked back a few painkillers herself. Sheppard appeared to have slipped back into unconsciousness or maybe just ordinary sleep, his hand curled loosely around the empty paper cup. His breathing was slow and even. She tucked the sleeping bag more tightly around him and slid over to check on her other patient.
"Oh, hello," she said when blue eyes blinked sleepily at her. "Back with me, McKay?"
"Gah," he said intelligently, and blinked at the roof of the jumper while she checked his bandages. The bleeding seemed to have slowed considerably; she still needed to get him into surgery, but it didn't look like he was going to drop dead in the immediate future. "I'm, um, alive?"
She tried not to laugh at him; his voice was small and vulnerable, and made her heart do an odd little loop-de-loop. "Yeah, Rodney. You are. How do you feel?"
"Doesn't hurt a bit," he said, soft and surprised.
Her heart did that little loopy thing again. "That's because I've given you some fairly heavy-duty painkillers," she said, and thought at herself sternly, Okay, this is ridiculous. This is Rodney McKay here, Jennifer. The scourge of the science division, remember? He's not some kind of -- little wounded bird, for crying out loud --
"Sheppard," he said suddenly, and lurched in an apparent attempt to sit up, which, since he was bound from neck to toes in sleeping bags and parkas, only resulted in slumping back down with a sad little, "Ow."
"He's all right, Rodney. See? Right next to you." She tilted him gently so that he could see Sheppard, asleep in a nest of fluffy parkas.
"He looks pale," Rodney said anxiously. "What am I saying, of course he's pale; he's been tortured and drugged. Which makes this not altogether different from one of our standard missions. Oh God, I'm babbling. Am I babbling?"
This time she wasn't quite as successful at controlling her laugh. Jennifer decided she could blame it on exhaustion. "Not in an annoying way," she started to say, when a sudden pounding on the side of the jumper made her jerk upright.
"Ronon?" Rodney mumbled, thrashing weakly in his cocoon of blankets.
Jennifer tapped her radio. "Major Lorne? Ronon?" Only static answered her. Clambering painfully to her feet by clutching at the jumper seats, she made her way to the cockpit and halted with a dismayed gasp.
"That's not a good noise," Rodney's voice came from the back of the jumper.
"It's the Nolari. They've found us." Trying not to panic, she watched the Nolari soldiers on the screen, groping their way around the outside of the jumper and tapping it with the butts of their guns as they tried to guess at its size. These people had been living in and around an Ancient outpost for most of their history, she reminded herself. Coming upon the outline of an invisible ship frosted with snow wasn't likely to make them flee in terror.
She wasn't sure if anyone outside could hear inside the jumper, but dropped her voice anyway. "Can this thing deflect a oh!" She broke off as a hellishly loud rattling sound, like flung rocks, clattered across the skin of the jumper. Gunfire.
"No," Rodney said. His slurred speech had sharpened and he was trying to struggle upright, wincing. "Oh, the hull can take quite a bit of gunfire, that's not a problem, but if they damage a drive pod, we're totally screwed. Ow, ow!"
"Don't get up! You shouldn't be moving around." Jennifer stared helplessly at the jumper's dark controls. "Okay, on second thought ..." Against her better medical judgment, she hurried to the back of the jumper -- stepping carefully over Sheppard, who was huddled in a ball -- and picked up the bag of saline hooked to Rodney's IV.
"Please tell me you're not planning on flying in your condition," she begged, sliding her shoulder under his and helping him limp slowly to the front. The rattle of gunfire continued, trailing around the side of the little ship. She had to struggle with a constant, instinctive urge to duck.
"What, in this weather? Do I look like Sheppard? Who can wake up anytime, by the way." But Rodney made no move to rouse the Colonel. Instead he let her ease him into the pilot's seat and ran his hands across the controls. Gauges and readouts lit up under his touch.
"Oh," Jennifer said, and her jaw dropped as a Nolari soldier leveled his gun at the jumper's forward viewing port -- straight at them.
"It can take it," Rodney said, but he flinched as violently as Jennifer when the shots spangled the window only a few feet in front of them. "Okay, this is ridiculous. I think it's time to show them who they're messing with, don't you?"
There was a soft whine from the jumper's engines. Jennifer couldn't tell what he was doing, but the Nolari backed away from the suddenly humming jumper. Without warning, a golden streak arced over their heads and exploded somewhere in the woods, lighting up the trees in a brilliant flash. Jennifer realized that she'd fallen into a crouch with her hands over her head, and straightened up slowly. The Nolari were falling over themselves in their haste to flee.
"What was that?"
"I fired a drone." Rodney looked pleased with himself, but it didn't last. "And I'm sure they'll be back with the local equivalent of C4 in no time. Where are Lorne and Ronon?"
"I don't know." Jennifer took a seat in the co-pilot chair, and looked at the displays she couldn't read. "All I can get on the radio is static. Too much interference from the storm, I guess."
Rodney smacked himself in the forehead with his palm, and then winced, curling a hand around his side. "Ow. Okay, your painkillers must be screwing with my genius brain, because that might have been a problem out in the storm, but we have a very sophisticated filtering and augmentation system right here. Basically, we use the jumper to boost the radio signal." He began to type on the jumper's crystalline keypad, looking a little less crumpled and gray with something constructive to do.
Jennifer looked out at the trees. The Nolari appeared to have vanished, for the moment, and there was nothing she could do up here to help, so she went in the back to check on Sheppard. Respiration shallow and even, pulse fluttery and weak, shivering -- she tucked the parkas more firmly around him and wished for a nice well-stocked infirmary.
"Lorne," Rodney said loudly. "Major Lorne. Ronon. Anybody?"
Lorne's voice came back, immediate and clear. Jennifer could hear intermittent bursts of gunfire in the background. "McKay. I'm guessing that explosion just now was you?"
"Drone," Rodney said. "The jum -- uh, the you-know-what's been found by the enemy, and we could really, really use you guys back here, seeing how nobody in this ju -- this machine is in any shape to fly it."
"The Colonel?" Lorne's voice was sharp.
"He's alive, but let's just say everyone in here could use a trip to the infirmary. Where are you people?"
"We're slightly tied up right now, Doc," Lorne drawled. "When you fired off the drone, it gave us a bit of a reprieve. A distraction would be really nice."
"Distraction, distraction," Rodney muttered. "Okay, get ready, or whatever the correct military terminology is."
A moment later, the sky lit up. Crouched with Sheppard in the back, Jennifer stared in awe, wishing that she had a better view without all of the seats in the way. Light from the exploding drones reflected from the clouds, the falling snowflakes, the snow-draped trees -- it was a gorgeous, apocalyptic effect.
"Nice one, McKay," Ronon's voice growled over the radio. So he was all right, too. Jennifer felt a little something inside her relax, and she saw Rodney's rigid shoulders slump just a bit before he reached for the radio control again.
"Get your ass back here then, wookie."
"Watch it, McKay." From the sound of Ronon's voice, Jennifer could tell that he was running. "I've seen those movies now. Sheppard can get away with that, but you're not Sheppard." The words were harsh; the tone was light.
"I consider that a selling point," Rodney retorted.
Lorne's voice cut across theirs. "Radio silence, people!"
Jennifer gave Sheppard's shoulder a little comforting rub, though he wasn't awake to notice, and came up to the cockpit to make sure that her other patient hadn't faceplanted on the controls. He was still upright, but barely, from the look of things. In the reflected light of the jumper's displays, his face was white, and smudged with blue shadows under the eyes. He'd curled an arm around his side again.
"You should lay down," Jennifer said gently.
Rodney shook his head stubbornly. "Our trigger-happy little friends might come back. Looks like the last drone volley scared most of them away, but a few are still hanging around in the trees. Oh, look at that." One of the displays came up, enlarging itself on the screen. Rodney raised a finger to point at it, and Jennifer tried not to notice how much it was shaking. "Six life signs, moving fast. Lorne and Ronon and their teams. Looks like everyone's alive."
The only person who'd died was O'Hara -- and the Nolari that she and Rodney had killed, but Jennifer was very steadfastly not thinking about that, and she suspected Rodney of doing likewise. She glanced at him -- his profile bottom-lit from the glowing controls, trembling slightly with the effort of staying upright.
When they got back -- and when she'd tapered off his pain medication so that she'd be able to clear him for alcohol in good conscience -- there would have to be more beers in their future. Maybe a whole drunken little self-pity-fest. Jennifer realized that she was looking forward to it; well, not the drunken self-pity exactly, but the whole idea of spending more time with Rodney. She was staring at him again, she realized -- not really looking at him, but just gazing in an exhausted reverie. Eventually, he noticed that he was being watched, and looked a bit shyly in her direction.
"Are you ..." he began, and fumbled around a little. "Are you okay? This is all, um, I mean, we just got done with the whole cave-in thing."
"I'm okay," Jennifer said, which was a total lie, because she was exhausted and aching and shivering and still trying very, very hard not to think about bullets slamming into a human body, the way it had tumbled like a rag doll ... But if Rodney McKay wasn't complaining about being shot, she couldn't exactly whine about some sore muscles.
Rodney blinked at her. "I'm glad. I'm -- that's good. Really."
She was leaning on the console, leaning forward out of her chair, so close to Rodney that she could trace the lines of exhaustion and pain in his face. So very close. He was still staring at her as if he'd never seen her before, eyes wide and blue.
Jennifer's hand slid forward across the console -- stupid willful hand! -- and curled around Rodney's cold, trembling fingers. His nails were crusted with dried blood -- his blood. "You did really good," she said, fumbling her way over and around each word. "I mean, really good. You were amazing."
She could have cringed. Did that sound as stupid to him as it did to her? But he'd lit up from the inside, a little bit of energy seeping into his crumpled form and perking him up. "Yeah," he said, wonderingly, "I was kind of amazing, wasn't I?"
And he flashed her a grin, a bright grin so very different from his smug little smiles that it took her breath away. She'd never seen him smile like that before, especially not at her. It was sincere and brilliant and -- and beautiful, Jennifer thought.
Rodney's hand moved in hers, one thumb lightly and gently tracing the contours of her knuckles, as if it was a new piece of technology that he was exploring. Jennifer realized that she was holding her breath.
A loud thump from the back of the jumper jolted them both. Rodney's hand slipped quickly away from hers, as Jennifer recoiled guiltily. Rodney looked up at the displays -- "That's them," he muttered, and hit a control on the dashboard.
Jennifer tucked her hands in her lap. What just happened? she asked herself. Her hand still tingled where he'd touched it. She looked at the side of Rodney's face, but he was focused on the controls again.
The ramp came down with a muffled thump. Jennifer shivered as cold air flowed through the jumper. She twisted around to see the rest of the Marines (and one extremely tall Satedan) troop up the ramp, shaking snow off their hair and stamping their boots.
Lorne spared a glance for his CO and stepped across him very carefully before coming up to relieve Rodney at the controls. "Let's blow this popsicle stand, eh Doc?"
"Very glad to," Rodney muttered, slumping into Lorne and Jennifer as they manhandled him out of the seat. Lorne handed him off to Jennifer and then sat down in the seat he'd just vacated.
"Now you'll lay down?" Jennifer asked as she led him into the back of the jumper. He didn't answer; his body was big and warm and heavy, slumped against her. Jennifer picked her way through the cluster of snowy men and women to find a place for him. Ronon, she was not surprised to see, had settled down next to Sheppard, one big hand spread out across Sheppard's chest as if Ronon just wanted to feel him breathing. Jennifer let Rodney slide down on Ronon's other side.
"I see you're alive," Rodney said, oozing down against Ronon's arm in a puddle, and closing his eyes.
"You too," Ronon said, and reached up with his free hand, the one not anchoring Sheppard, to ruffle Rodney's hair.
"Stop that," Rodney said without opening his eyes.
Jennifer forced herself to stop grinning at them, and wrenched her attention away from Rodney. "Who needs my professional attention first?" she asked, sweeping her eyes across the cluster of Marines. Several of them were bruised and bloodied.
The jumper rocked underfoot. "I suggest you all sit down back there, boys and girls," Lorne said over his shoulder. "This might get rough. Is their intruder-detection system still offline, Doc?"
"He's asleep," Ronon said, looking down at Rodney, who was drooling on his arm.
"And don't you dare wake him up," Jennifer said tartly, cutting away Airman Kleinberg's bloody sleeve. She wracked her fatigue-numb brain, trying to remember what Rodney had said while he'd been working on the Nolari computer terminal; it seemed as if they'd been on the planet for days, not hours. "He took the whole system offline. He said that he thought it would take them weeks to get it up and running again."
"Guess we better hope he's right," Lorne said. The jumper shuddered, and Jennifer realized they were in the air. She concentrated on cleaning Airman Kleinberg's bullet wound, and barely flinched when the icy chill of the wormhole washed across them.
"You guys weren't exactly the cavalry I was expecting," Sheppard said in a sleepy voice.
Jennifer looked over at him. She was curled up under a warm blanket, pleasantly muzzy with a light dose of codeine to take the edge off her aching muscles and the burn of the healing frostbite. Just a little less than twenty hours ago, they'd come back through the gate to a bright Atlantis morning. She had desperately wanted to assist with Rodney's surgery, but Dr. Cole managed to convince her otherwise, pointing out her shaking hands, mild hypothermia and general exhaustion. She'd taken herself off duty, had a hot bath and then returned to the infirmary and sacked out on a bed for eighteen hours straight. She vaguely remembered waking up briefly to eat, while her staff quietly and efficiently went about their business around her, and then falling asleep again.
Right now, Rodney was fast asleep -- apparently he'd been awake intermittently, while she still slept, but, unfairly, had drifted back under again, now that she was awake. Teyla and Ronon had been in and out of the infirmary all night; at the moment, Ronon was snoring on a bed on the far side of Rodney, and Teyla was nowhere to be seen. It must be shortly before dawn Atlantis-time, but Jennifer's internal clock was thoroughly muddled. She had to keep glancing at the clock on the wall to remind herself of the time.
"Sorry to disappoint you," she said, curling a fist under her cheek to prop her head up.
"Not disappointed." Sheppard sounded a bit surprised. "Just ... like I said, not expecting you. Thought I was hallucinating when the two of you came through the door."
"You probably were hallucinating," Jennifer said dryly. "We're still trying to analyze that chemical--"
She saw a shudder run through him, and clapped her mouth shut, thinking, Great, Jen, stick your foot in it again. Way to remind the guy who just got tortured of his ordeal.
But Sheppard gave her a small, twisted grin. "It was a good surprise," he said. "Thanks for coming to get me."
Cautiously, Jennifer returned the smile. "It was sort of an accident, me and Rodney rescuing you by ourselves like that. The whole point was to go in with a team of heavily armed Marines at our back. It just ... didn't quite work out that way."
"Lorne's apologized to me about twelve times for letting the two of you go off on your own."
Jennifer frowned. "It wasn't his fault. I hope you told him that."
"I did. And it wasn't. He made the best call that he could, under the circumstances." Sheppard lifted his good shoulder in a small shrug.
"Good," Jennifer said. "And, uh, the guy who was guarding us, O'Hara --" She swallowed hard. "We weren't able to, um, his body was --"
Sheppard's eyes went distant, dark. "You had to leave him there. I know. Not your fault. It happens."
It happens. For some reason, those words chilled her. It happens. We're in the Pegasus Galaxy. People die here.
Rodney and I could have died.
Colonel Sheppard could have died.
But we didn't, she thought, snuggling down under her warm blanket. We didn't.
Rodney and I ...
Sheppard was still watching her, sleepily, his eyes half-lidded. "Are you all right, Colonel?" she asked him. "I mean -- painkillers, a drink of water, do you need anything?"
The words she wanted to say wouldn't come. Jennifer sat up, wincing as her muscles protested, and peeled open her warm nest of blankets to the outside world. In bare feet and pajamas, she padded around to Sheppard's other side. He turned his head to follow her.
"Hey, Doc. I said I'm good. You don't have to get up."
"I know," she said.
Rodney slept with a childlike abandon, pressed into his pillows, mouth open and drooling. Jennifer checked his monitors and IVs, and then the Colonel's. On Rodney's far side, Ronon cracked open an eye, smiled at her, and went back to sleep.
You all protect each other against the outside world, she wanted to say. If I risked the heart of one of your own, would you consider me one of you, or an enemy to be subdued? Their closeness scared her, the unrelenting intensity of the bond that she had witnessed during nearly a year as Atlantis's head of medicine. She was afraid that it wouldn't open up to admit her ... and equally afraid that it would.
It was like being a teenager again, admiring a boy from afar but needing her father's permission to approach him. Only here, it was Sheppard's permission that she wanted to ask -- Sheppard's permission, Ronon's forgiveness, Teyla's indulgence. And she didn't know how.
She brushed Rodney's thinning hair lightly back from his high forehead. She wanted to touch his lips, slack in sleep, but didn't have the right to do that yet. And I don't even know if he's interested too. But he'd stroked her hand in the jumper. She could still feel the ball of his thumb, slightly callused, caressing the back of her hand with infinite gentleness.
I don't know if you want to try, and I don't know if your strange and loyal family will let me in, but I think we should try it, Rodney. I want to try.
Sheppard was still watching her. She could read nothing in his hooded eyes. "Well," she said, a little too brightly, "I ought to get back to my quarters, get some clothes on -- I can't sleep the day away --"
Sheppard stirred a little on his bed, shifting so that his eyes slid away from her. "You should stay for breakfast, at least."
"Breakfast?" Her stomach rumbled.
"Yeah. Teyla went to -- oh, there she is."
Teyla wobbled into the infirmary, off-balance anyway with pregnancy altering her center of gravity, and now she was exacerbating the problem by trying to balance two heaping trays from the mess.
"Teyla!" Jennifer ran to help her. "You carried those all the way back by yourself? Didn't anyone offer to help you?"
Teyla smiled, showing a bit of tooth. "They offered." But she let Jennifer take one of the loaded trays with an obvious look of relief. The smell of eggs, bacon and fresh muffins wafted through the infirmary, and Ronon's head popped off his pillow like a wind-up toy.
Jennifer settled the tray on the bedside table between Sheppard and Rodney's beds, and looked down at Sheppard with a small frown. "So ... I can stick around for breakfast? It's okay?"
"It's okay," he confirmed, and maybe, just maybe, from the little smile lines crinkling around the corners of his eyes -- maybe he knew what she was really asking.
The most overprotective, doting father had nothing on Sheppard's team. Jennifer wasn't sure just what, exactly, she might be getting herself into, but life in the Pegasus Galaxy was all about taking risks. She'd slowly begun coming to terms with that, and why stop now? Sitting down on the edge of Rodney's bed, she poked him gently, teasingly, in the arm. "Wake up, sleepyhead. Come and get it," she said, and when his eyes opened, she smiled at him.
This simply awesome illustration is by the very talented AstridV. See all her art at her Livejournal.