The location of the local bathroom facilities had not been the first thing that Elizabeth Weir had considered when she first walked through the Stargate. It hadn't been the second, third or twenty-fifth thing, either. There had been, to say the least, no shortage of other things to worry about. It wasn't until Sumner, Sheppard and the rest of the exploratory team had departed through the gate, leaving the rest of them in a city in eminent danger of flooding, that someone had first raised the issue.
"Ma'am, some of the men have a bit of a problem," one of the soldiers -- Bates, she remembered -- had said to her.
"What's the nature of your problem?" She was simultaneously trying to pay attention to one of McKay's scientists trying to explain their latest plan for rerouting power to avoid a catastrophic shield failure.
"It's ... difficult to ... well, the thing is, ma'am..."
While she'd only worked with Bates for a few hours so far, he had not struck her as a diffident person, and she wondered wearily just what had happened now. "Try," she said.
Bates stared over her head. "We haven't been able to find the bathrooms yet, ma'am. Some of the men are getting a little ... desperate."
As if we don't have enough to deal with ... Elizabeth thought. "Can it wait?"
"Not for very much longer, ma'am."
She turned to look up towards the control room. "McKay!"
"Busy!" he hollered back down.
Elizabeth mounted the stairs two at a time. "This is important."
McKay glowered at her. "So is avoiding our impending watery demise, I'll hope you agree."
Water ... Elizabeth decided that now was a very bad time to spend too much time dwelling on water. "Rodney, I just need to ask if, in going over the Ancients' schematics of the city, you've noticed any bathrooms."
"I've been a little concerned with the state of the shield. Watery demise, ring any bells?"
Elizabeth took a deep breath and reminded herself that she had negotiated with terrorists, dictators and crazed hostage-takers. Surely she could handle one stressed-out physicist. "I realize that what you're doing is of the utmost importance right now --"
"Great! So why don't you let me get back to it!"
"Rodney." She tried to catch his eye; he'd already gone back to one of the computer consoles. "I'm not asking you to stop what you're doing immediately, but as it may be awhile before Sumner and his men come back, I would suggest that you consider the consequences of having this many people cooped up in a small space with no bathrooms."
This sunk in and Rodney raised his head to look at her with a slightly more reasonable expression. "Ah," he said.
"Ah, indeed. If you could spare one of your people for a few minutes to look over the schematics for bathroom facilities, I would really appreciate it."
Rodney gave her a sharp nod and snapped his fingers at someone working near him. "Uh, Nelenka -- Nezenka -- Zeleska -- you!"
"Zelenka," the man said with a small sigh.
"That's what I said. Give her a hand with her, er, issue, would you?" With that, he spun around and started yelling, "What are you bringing up THAT system for? Are you TRYING to kill us all? Am I the only person in the Pegasus galaxy with a brain?"
Elizabeth and Zelenka were left standing in the comparatively peaceful wake of Hurricane Rodney as he charged over to berate a cowering Japanese scientist. "Is not too late to apply for a nice, quiet post at ground zero of Chernobyl," Zelenka muttered under his breath, and smiled at her.
Elizabeth smiled back. She'd had no personal contact with Radek Zelenka aside from the pre-mission interview, but she had been impressed with his resume and references, and found herself liking him.
"What was it I can help you with, Doctor?"
"Bathrooms," Elizabeth said succinctly. "The Marines haven't found any yet. I was wondering if you could show me some maps."
Zelenka pressed some buttons. At first the screen filled with symbols -- Elizabeth recognized some Ancient words, but most of it was unfamiliar to her. Then it flashed a few times, and finally a diagram appeared, rather like a glowing blueprint. "I am sorry," Zelenka said. "We have only the barest knowledge of any of this works. I believe that this is the closest thing to a map we have found, but we are still trying to understand how to navigate it."
"Don't apologize, Dr. Zelenka. I'm impressed more than words can say at how much you've managed to decipher of these systems in only a few hours." As Zelenka blushed, Elizabeth frowned at the screen. "Where are we?"
Zelenka pointed at a cluster of glowing dots. "Us."
Elizabeth's frown deepened as she began to understand the map and the glowing lines slowly resolved to a representation of actual physical features of the city. "There's not very much detail," she said. "You can see large rooms and halls, but not much else, and I can't even tell what level of the city it's showing us, or if it's a composite of all the levels stacked on top of one another."
"You can rotate." Zelenka demonstrated. "But, no, I agree, it is very difficult to decipher. We have not yet figured out how to zoom in or out, and nothing is labeled." He spread his hands at the room around them. "Nothing is labeled anywhere. We are deciphering the database very slowly, but we have had so little time --"
"How about there?" she asked, pointing. "Is that a safe section of the city? Those small rooms look promising."
"Nobody is leaving this room, got it?" Rodney announced in passing as he rocketed past them en route to somewhere else. "I'm having a hard enough time shutting down unnecessary systems without people walking around setting off the automatic life support just when I get it turned off!"
Elizabeth nodded her thanks to Zelenka and took off after Rodney. "Dr. McKay, I'm sorry, but if we're going to be here more than another hour or two, we do need to find the bathrooms. And we have no idea how long Sumner and his team --"
"You're assuming they even had bathrooms," Rodney said, his fingers flying over keys as he spoke to her without looking up.
"The Ancients were corporeal at the time they built Atlantis. They walked, ate and slept. Of course they had bathrooms."
"How do you know?" Rodney demanded. "Maybe they had evolved beyond the need. Maybe they had something like a personal ZedPM that just shunted off bodily waste into a parallel dimension."
What a lovely mental image. Elizabeth tried to get in front of him, force him to look at her. "Rodney, that may be, but we haven't evolved beyond the need yet, and I'm starting to have that need. I'm sure a number of your people are, as well."
"Zelorka!" Rodney hollered over her head. "Didn't I tell you to help her? Go find some bathrooms for Dr. Weir! Don't go too far and for God's sake don't touch anything!"
Elizabeth heard him muttering as he left, "Why yes, your highness. Right away, O great lord and master of the gateroom. Your command is my ..." His mumbling faded as he vanished down one of the corridors.
She hoped that this wasn't a bad sign as far as the two men's working relationship was concerned. A little disagreement was to be expected, since she'd deliberately picked people who had the ability to think and act independently, but the last thing she needed was having her carefully hand-picked team continually at each other's throats. But they were all professionals. Of course they wouldn't spend all their time bickering. She hoped. She supposed that she could always assign them to different shifts if they simply couldn't work together without fighting.
"Thank you, Rodney."
"Mph," he grunted and went back to work.
Or maybe assign Rodney to one shift and the entire remainder of the scientists to another shift ... but hopefully it wouldn't come to that.
Then one of the other Marines had a question about gate protocols, and she found herself too busy to think until the increasingly uncomfortable looks on some of the faces around her, not to mention a growing regret of her last few cups of coffee, made her wonder how Zelenka's search was going. She tapped her earpiece.
"Dr. Zelenka? It's Dr. Weir. Any luck?"
There was a mutter in what she assumed was Czech, then Zelenka said, "I am uncertain. I think I am beginning to understand where they are, the bathrooms, but I cannot open the doors."
"Radek, am I hearing you correctly? The bathrooms are locked?" Elizabeth wondered if this could possibly be the Ancients' revenge on trespassers. Or was there some intergalactic equivalent of a gas station rest-room key that they didn't have?
"I do not have the gene."
The key, the ATA gene ... damn it, of course. She looked around for Rodney only to find him barrelling down the gateroom stairs towards her. The man didn't seem to do anything by halves.
"Rodney! Do you have a --"
"Not now, gotta go, bye!" He nearly slammed into the gate and dropped to his knees, studying the interface between the gate and floor for a moment before jumping up and charging back up the stairs. "Conduits are completely buried! It won't work, not the way we want it ... Dammit, where'd that woman go? Miko!"
Elizabeth pursued him. "Rodney, can one of your people with the ATA gene--"
"Not right now!"
She paused at the top of the stairs. There would definitely have to be a talk about chain-of-command later, but she could sympathize with his current situation. Gene, someone who had the gene but wasn't too busy at the moment ... she needed all of her available military at the moment for moving crates ... She activated her radio. "Dr. Beckett, are you available?"
"Anytime you need me, lass." There was a pause, then: "Er, I didn't exactly mean that the way that it..."
Elizabeth's mouth quirked. "If you're available, could you meet Dr. Zelenka on the level above this one? He needs your help."
Instantly he was all business. "Hurt? Sick?"
"No, he just needs someone with the ATA gene."
"Story of my life, women only want me for my genes..." She heard rustling and bumping. "Okay, and where is he, now?"
"Dr. Zelenka, could you tell Dr. Beckett where you are?"
She left them to it and went back to overseeing the Marines' and scientists' exploration of the gate area.
"You must be Zelenka. Carson Beckett, M.D."
The two men shook hands and Zelenka went back to his inspection of the wall. "You have the gene?" he asked.
Zelenka looked a bit surprised. For the scientists, Beckett imagined that it must be a dream come true. He just wished he could get rid of the bloody thing.
They were in one of the many, many nearly-empty Ancient rooms -- maybe someone's former living quarters, maybe something else entirely. This city reminded Beckett vaguely of the world's biggest condominium complex, only with the building directories all printed in Swahili.
"Dr. Weir sent me down here to help you activate something, but she wasn't too clear on what," Beckett added.
"We are looking for bathrooms," Zelenka said. "There are many doors that we cannot open, those of us not having the gene, and I have come to conclude that bathrooms are behind some of these doors. Makes sense, yes? Now, I have seen these sorts of doors in many of these rooms." He waved his hand at the wall. Beckett didn't see anything that looked remotely like a door to him; just different panels of wood or glass or whatever the walls were made out of. "Same kind of doors, should probably have same kind of rooms behind them, and what else would be dozens and dozens of same kinds of rooms except for bathrooms? What else would people need that many of?"
"I suppose that does make sense," Beckett conceded.
Zelenka nodded, smiling. "So, do you want to try it?"
Not without a twinge of nervousness, Beckett ran his hand across the wall. Even this close, he still could not tell what it was made of -- a substance with the deep, rich gloss of wood, yet smooth as plastic.
"You know, half the time these things dinna work for me in any case," he said. "There could be a dozen bathrooms behind this wall and -- whoa!"
With a quiet shwoosh!, what appeared (to Beckett) to be a seamless wall suddenly slid back to reveal a brightly lit alcove, about six feet deep. The far end was shielded with some sort of glistening, pearly gray material. Otherwise it appeared to be completely empty. A row of glowing panels down both sides of the room illuminated the small space with a blue-white light that shone out into the larger, darker room at their backs. The walls were decorated with a curving pattern in shades of blue and brown, at about shoulder height and running around the inside of the alcove.
The two men peered nervously into the alcove, neither one particularly eager to step a foot inside. "It could be a bathroom," Zelenka said.
"Could be a pantry," Beckett added. "Could be a room for incinerating garbage. Could be the control room for the city's weapons systems."
Zelenka reached a hand inside -- Beckett drew back and moved his arms to cover his face -- and waved his hand around. Nothing happened.
"Does not appear to incinerate," the Czech scientist said, and cautiously he tiptoed into the little room, crossing it to tap on the sheet of shiny material at the far end.
"I think this is a shower."
"Really?" Beckett approached slowly. Up close, he could see that the pearly gray substance was something like semi-opaque plastic. He could see through, dimly, into the space beyond. Zelenka was right. It did look like a shower stall. In fact, the alcove in which they were standing reminded him vaguely of a mobile-home bathroom ... granted, a very clean, tastefully decorated mobile home bathroom, in which the plumbing fixtures had been stolen.
"If that other one is a shower, then somewhere ..." Beckett said.
"Only if their bathrooms are like ours." But Zelenka sounded hopeful.
A few minutes of examination and random wall-tapping yielded nothing.
"I think we're going to have to call Rodney," Beckett said. "He might have some ideas."
Zelenka frowned. "He won't like that."
"I know, but this is getting us nowhere."
Reluctantly, Zelenka tapped his radio. "Dr. McKay?"
"Oh, NOW what," the scientist snarled over the radio.
"Do you have a minute?"
"People keep asking me that. You do realize that I'm trying to save us all from --"
"Watery doom, yes, yes, we know," Zelenka said. "Well, we are trying to save us all from a very different kind of watery doom, and for this, we need a moment of your time. We are having difficulty understanding the operation of the machinery here."
There was a silence. When Rodney's voice came back, it was oozing scorn. "You are telling me that you people can't figure out how to use a bathroom without my help?"
Beckett bristled. "It's a very odd bathroom ... look ..."
"No, you look." Even through the static on the radio, they could both hear Rodney's voice crack with fatigue and strain. "There is a city full of people, including the two of you, who are all about to die if I don't save them. Do either of you want my job? Do you want my brains? Right now you can have them both. I don't want 'em. But seeing how I'm stuck with them, I'm up here doing my damnedest to save us all. Now please deal with your bathroom problem by yourself and let me do that."
"I'm sorry," Beckett said quietly, but he wasn't sure if Rodney heard that, as the contact had already been terminated. He raised his eyes and met Zelenka's gaze. Neither of them said anything for a moment.
"I should probably be up there, helping him," Zelenka said finally.
Beckett nodded. "Maybe. But Dr. Weir's right ... we need a solution to the bathroom problem. Assuming that we're all going to live ..." his mouth quirked, "and right now I'm choosing to assume that, we're gonna have to either get the bathrooms up an' running, or close off a hallway and use that."
Zelenka winced at that suggestion. "He is right, you know," he said, tapping his foot on the floor and staring intently around the alcove. "We are intelligent men. We should be able to figure this out without having to ask Doctor I-Am-So-Much-Smarter-Than-You. This should not be a difficult puzzle."
"If it's a bathroom, it should be easy to use, wouldn't you say?" Beckett asked. "I mean, you wouldn't want to go through a five-minute intelligence test every time you needed to use the facilities, if you see what I mean."
His radio crackled. "Zelenka? Doctor? Any luck?" Dr. Weir's voice asked them.
"We've found something --" Beckett began, but broke off as the lights flickered and the floor trembled slightly underfoot. "Er, I probably don't want to know, but what was that?"
There was a pause. "Dr. McKay says that one of the sections of the city's shield just failed."
Beckett swallowed. "Flooded, you mean."
"I suggest you both get back up here," Weir said. "We simply don't have enough power to continue exploring the city, regardless of reason." She hesitated. "And, I'm preparing to evacuate. We just don't have a choice. If we stay in Atlantis, we will destroy it. I'm waiting for Sumner to check in, but I don't intend to wait until the entire city floods."
"I see," Beckett said quietly, swallowing.
"I'll see you both back in the gateroom. Weir out."
They looked at each other. "Well," Beckett said, "you heard the lady."
Zelenka frowned in frustration. "It is ... so close. I can understand this. I am sure of it." His frown deepened. "I believe I will have to understand it soon. Should not have had that third cup of coffee."
Beckett stifled a laugh, turned it into a cough.
Zelenka tapped the wall lightly, thinking out loud. "We assume we are looking for toilet, yes? But only in Western bathrooms is the toilet like a chair, something that you sit upon. Most of the rest of the Earth, it is a hole. I have seen that sort of bathroom in many places in Europe as well. Maybe the Ancients think that way."
"A hole?" Beckett looked around. "But there isn't a hole."
"Of course not. You do not want to fall in. But somewhere there must be a trigger to open it, and surely it would not be terribly well hidden." Zelenka looked around the room. "We are, perhaps, missing the obvious." He pointed at the design on the wall.
"That's wallpaper," Beckett said.
"Are you sure?"
No, he wasn't sure. He stepped forward and began touching and tapping at the curvy blue-and-brown markings on the wall.
Part of the design curved into a big spiral, the size of a human hand and located at a comfortable height for an adult to reach. When Beckett's hand settled on it, there was a soft gling! sound and the floor moved. He had to jump backwards as a section of floor slid back and a new structure rose smoothly out of it. There was absolutely no denying the function of this: it looked similar enough to an Earth toilet that it was obvious what it should be used for.
Behind him, Zelenka laughed aloud in delight. Beckett turned, grinning, and held out a hand; after staring at it for a moment, Zelenka high-fived him.
"Score one for the second-string team," Beckett said, laughing himself. He cut off in mid-chuckle when the floor trembled sharply underneath them and the lights nearly went out.
"Dr. Beckett," came Weir's impatient voice over the radio. "Where are you? Are you on your way back to the gateroom?"
"We have figured out the bathrooms," Zelenka said.
"That's wonderful, but Dr. McKay tells me that several million tons of ocean is about to come crashing down onto us, so we really need to -- what? Gate activation?" The radio cut off.
Zelenka and Beckett looked at each other. Reluctantly, Beckett reached for the spiral to return the toilet to its dormant state.
"Wait a minute," Zelenka said hastily. "I believe that after coming so far we should ... make sure it works, don't you think?"
"Excuse me? You want me to fix the what?"
Elizabeth folded her hands in front of her and forced herself to keep both a straight face, and her temper. "The bathrooms, Rodney."
"I have three PhD's and the finest mind in the Pegasus galaxy, and you want me to waste me fixing toilets?" Rodney stared at her. "That's what plumbers are for!"
"And where should I call a plumber from, Rodney? Detroit?" Elizabeth rubbed her forehead tiredly with her thumb, got herself back under control. She'd negotiated peace treaties in the Middle East, yet somehow Rodney McKay could annoy her enough to break through her facade. She'd chosen the man for this mission for dozens of very good reasons, but his people skills were not one of them. "Rodney, we have no plumbers. Strangely, when I was choosing people for this mission, it wasn't a skill I thought to include."
"Well, you should have."
She leaned forward. "Besides, it's most likely a malfunction in the Ancients' technology, not a clog. And you are, as you keep reminding us, the foremost expert on Ancient technology in the city."
Flattery, with Rodney, generally got you everywhere. He clasped his hands behind his back and puffed up a little. "Well, I'll see what I can do."
He left Elizabeth's office with his laptop in front of his face, running through schematics and doing rapid-fire calculations of fluid dynamics in his head. It had now been several days since the raising of Atlantis made it obvious to everyone that details on the bathroom facilities -- along with cooking, refrigeration and other everyday necessities -- would need to be among the first things teased from the treasure trove of Ancient wisdom at their fingertips. Luckily, Beckett and that Czech guy with the funny name had stumbled upon a bathroom, probably in search of something else, just before Atlantis had risen to the surface. (He'd heard that Zelenka had actually been in the bathroom -- as in, using it -- at the time of the raising. Never could get more details out of him about that, though, no matter how hard he tried.) Once Atlantis had stabilized on the surface, they'd tapped various team members with the gene to go around and activate the bathrooms. Fortunately for everybody (but especially for the gene wielders), the bathrooms were one of those pieces of Ancient tech that didn't need a gene to operate once they were activated, although it was impossible to hide the toilet in the manner that the designers had apparently intended without using the gene to raise and lower it.
Everything had gone fine for the first few days, once enough bathrooms had been activated to accommodate the city's burgeoning population. However it seemed that as time went on, the more systems they brought on-line, the more strange failures they seemed to be experiencing. Rodney suspected that what they were seeing weren't so much failures, per se, as the accidental activation of various failsafe features designed to prevent, say, a toilet flushing into the kitchen's cooking machinery. Unfortunately they didn't know enough about how the whole thing worked to understand how the individual problems related to the whole. All he knew was that at the moment, most of the toilets in the wing of the city that was being used for a Marine barracks were refusing to flush, and somehow it had become his problem to fix it. As if he didn't have a million other, more important things to do! The toilets in the scientists' wing were working fine, and frankly, he didn't care if the Marines had to hike a few blocks. Those military types liked exercise. It was one of the many reasons why he couldn't fathom military people and suspected he'd never feel truly comfortable around any of them.
Aside from Colonel Carter, of course. He'd love to get comfortable with her...
Where had he been going with this train of thought? Oh yes, the gene. In order to fix the plumbing, unfortunately, he needed somebody with the gene who would be able to perform the manipulations of the equipment that he couldn't. It still rankled that a genius like himself couldn't perform some of the most simple operations of the machinery in the city, while ordinary morons were able to slap their ham-hands on a piece of equipment and --
Aha. There went one of the ordinary ham-handed morons now, and one that he knew had the gene. He'd seen it in action.
"Hey, you, um --" Damn it, he could remember thousands of equations and the entire contents of certain textbooks he'd read; why could he never remember people's names? Well, most people were largely interchangeable anyway, and as an added bonus the military came conveniently labeled with their rank, so he used that instead. "Major. Come with me. Need extra hands." Hands with the ATA gene, to be specific.
The major raised his eyebrows but fell into step beside Rodney. "I'm Sheppard, by the way," he said conversationally. "You know, ranking military member of this expedition..."
"I know who you are, Major, now would you shut up for a minute?" It was hard enough to do differential calculus with alien number systems in your head without also having someone yakking at you. Just his luck he'd pick a talker.
"You know, McKay, I'm glad we got an opportunity to talk," Sheppard said as they went deeper into the city, apparently failing to notice Rodney's exasperated glower. "I'm currently putting together some teams for offworld reconnaissance, sort of like the SG teams back home."
"Good for you," Rodney said shortly, endeavoring to ignore him.
"I'd like to ask you to be on my team."
That not only stopped him in his tracks, it also made him forget the latest result of his mental calculations. "Damn it!" He turned the full force of the patented McKay glare on the major. Back on Earth, this expression had emptied laboratories. Sheppard just stared back at him, apparently unimpressed. "And why would I want to do that?" he demanded. "I am the smartest man in this galaxy, the only person who can keep this city running, and you want to me to risk my brains on alien worlds? You're out of your mind."
Sheppard appeared genuinely surprised. "Don't you want to explore other planets? Find new technology? Meet cool alien races?"
McKay waved his hand in the air. "Didn't notice the alien technology all around us, hm? There's enough here to keep me busy for, oh, about twelve lifetimes, and that's if people don't keep interrupting me every five minutes complaining about the plumbing."
He wouldn't admit to a teeny, tiny twinge at Sheppard's words. Blast the man, it would be something to walk on alien worlds. Never mind the fact that they were, technically, on an alien world at the moment. Besides, if he wasn't on one of the teams, that meant someone else would have the opportunity to discover brand-new technology and get all the credit. The first person to find a ZPM would probably be a hero in Atlantis. And it wasn't as if anyone in his department could actually be trusted to find a ZPM if it was held in front of their noses...
Sheppard had assumed a quiet, hopeful, slightly puppydoggish look. "No," said Rodney firmly, "means no," and he started walking again.
"C'mon, McKay!" Apparently "no" did not always mean no to one Major John Sheppard. "You said it yourself, you're the smartest man in the city. I need your brains. We're going to be the front lines, figuring out new alien geegaws, meeting sexy alien women --"
"-- getting our lives sucked out by Wraith," Rodney finished for him. "No thanks. I'm fond of my life and I want to keep it."
"Alien technology no one's ever seen before," Sheppard wheedled.
"I said no, you stubborn pain in the ass." He didn't mean it to come out like that. He just wanted the guy to shut up and quit derailing his train of thought. On the other hand, Rodney was quite used to the disconnect between what he meant to say and what he actually said in most cases. Not good with people. He'd never been good with people. Not that it bothered him overly much; most people weren't worth the effort of getting to know, in his experience.
Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "Hey, aren't you the guy asking for my help? And that's Major pain-in-the-ass to you."
Rodney gave him a brief sideward look, decided that he did not appear to be either drunk or high, and went back to his calculations. Yes. Yes. That just might explain a lot of what was causing the problems with the plumbing. It just might be easy enough to fix ...
"Are you thinking about my offer?"
... provided, of course, that Major Pain-in-the-ass would just shut up and let him think.
"I'm thinking about sealing you up in the nearest Ancient sewage treatment plant, if you don't let me concentrate," Rodney snapped.
He kept expecting to piss the guy off, which was the usual effect that he had on people, but instead, the major just grinned. "You'll have to take me down first," he said. "I have a black belt in whoop-ass and I'm not afraid to open a can on you."
Rodney looked up from his laptop and gave him a flat stare of disbelief. "Did your brain stop developing in grade school? That's the most juvenile insult I've heard since--"
"Dr. McKay, come in, please." It was Dr. Weir on his radio, her voice startling him into an involuntary jump. Sheppard's irritating grin got even wider. Rodney McKay decided, in that moment, that his initial impression of Major Sheppard back on Earth had been correct: the man was an insufferable jock, exactly the sort of person who used to make Rodney's life miserable when he was younger. He also decided in the same instant that he did not like this man and never would.
"McKay here," he said stiffly.
"Rodney. Sorry to bother you. I've just been informed that the toilets in the Athosians' quarters have stopped working as well, and the showers aren't draining."
Rodney snorted. "They're probably used to crapping in the woods. They'll be fine. I'll bet they haven't even realized anything's wrong yet."
Elizabeth's voice turned frosty. "Dr. McKay, this is a public channel, and the Athosians are our friends and allies. Please choose your words more carefully."
What was it with him and his mouth? He didn't know if she realized it or not, but Weir was one of the few people in the city he was actually willing to apologize to. "Sorry. It's been a long day, and it just keeps getting longer."
"I know, and I'm sorry to dump something else on you." She paused; McKay had a mental image of her mouth twisting as she regretted her unfortunate choice of words. "Please give me regular reports, Rodney. There are a lot of fairly tense people waiting for the problem to be fixed."
"There are other bathrooms in the city, you know."
"Less of them all the time," Weir said. "Zelenka tells me that less than 20 percent of the active ... facilities are currently operating correctly."
Twenty percent? Last time he'd checked, it had been 31.4 percent ... Rodney added this to his mental calculus, and didn't like it much. "I'll keep you posted. Um ... not that I can't fix this, because I'm sure I can, but you might want to start considering, er, other options just in case ..."
"We're already working on something. Just keep me posted. Weir ou--" She broke off, and said, "Rodney, while I've got you on the line, is Sheppard with you? He doesn't seem to be responding to his radio."
Rodney rolled an eyeball in Sheppard's direction, noted the radio headset dangling from his collar by its little wire, as well as the man's urgent shushing motions. Presumably Sheppard was avoiding Weir to prevent being assigned to some petty and meaningless task ... worse than fixing broken toilets in the Marines' barracks? The thought occurred to him that turning Sheppard over to Weir would be the perfect revenge for the man's general annoyingness. Unfortunately, it would also mean he'd lose Sheppard's ATA gene, and considering how busy everyone was, it would be hard to find another one. Plus, what could Weir possibly come up with that would be worse than unclogging the plumbing? He probably had his perfect revenge right here.
"Haven't seen him."
"You're sure about that? You haven't seen him at all?"
The nerve -- was she accusing him of lying? Of course, technically, he was lying ... "Elizabeth," he said, with his eyes fixed on Sheppard in a sort of dare, "the major dislikes me as much as I dislike him. Why in the world would I want to spend more time around him than I have to?"
"I know, Rodney--"
"I mean, just between you and me, he's an arrogant ass," Rodney said, and was rewarded by the dirty look Sheppard sent him. A slow grin started to spread across his face, although he fought to keep it out of his voice. Sweet revenge! The best part was that Sheppard couldn't say anything without tipping Elizabeth off to his location. "He's an idiot flyboy whose idea of interacting with Ancient technology is to poke it with a stick and then shoot it. The very epitome of everything about the military mindset that flies in the face of reason, decency and common sense. Not to mention the hair. Do you think anyone is ever going to tell the man that he looks like a hedgehog that stuck its tongue in a light socket?"
Sheppard was now giving him the finger with both hands.
"Rodney," Weir said, "public channel, remember?"
"Oh, right. Sorry. Well, if I see something that looks like an ambulatory Chia pet on a stick, I'll let you know. McKay out."
He switched off his radio, eyeing Sheppard with a combination of amusement and challenge, wondering how the man would react. Anger? But Sheppard was laughing.
"Chia pet on a stick?"
"You have no idea what you look like, do you?" Rodney inquired, returning to his laptop. Twenty percent. Damn. Gonna have to start his calculations all over again. "You probably think you've got some kind of cool, chick-magnet flyboy thing going there," he added, typing one-handed while he walked. "Well, I hate to break it to you, Major, but it just looks like you lost an argument with a lawn mower. That hair cannot be military regulation."
"You do realize that you're hardly Mr. G.Q. yourself."
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
Sheppard shrugged. "A little more time in the gym, a little less time on a lab stool, if you know what I --"
"You know what, Top Gun? I didn't bring you down here to insult me."
"Yeah?" Sheppard said, looking around at the dank corridors. They were fairly deep into the guts of the city now. "Just why exactly did you bring me along, anyway? I assume it has something to do with the gene."
"Precisely. You're going to help me fix Atlantis's plumbing problems."
He became aware of Sheppard giving him a funny look. "Okay, I'm doing what now?"
"Drains not draining. Toilets not flushing. No Port-A-Potties in the Pegasus galaxy. Very bad. Shut up, I'm working."
Sheppard, predictably, shut up for all of five seconds. "McKay, I'm a pilot, not a mechanic. I don't know anything about fixing plumbing."
McKay shut the laptop with a loud snap. He should have picked someone else with the gene. Anyone else. "Well, you're not going to be fixing it. I am. All you have to do is -- how shall I put this in terms you'll understand? -- make the glowy things glow." He twirled his hand in the air, indicating the corridors and conduits around them, and opened the laptop again, looking at a map of the city. "Aha, we're here."
Sheppard looked around at the slightly corroded walls, the ominous puddles of water on the floor. "This doesn't look like a bathroom to me, unless the plumbing problems are a lot worse than you've let on."
Rodney attempted, once again, to wither him with a glare. As usual, it didn't work. The man appeared to have the hide, and possibly the brain, of a rhinoceros; nothing got through to him. "We're under it, you Neanderthal. Several levels under. All the outflow conduits seem to run down here, and if I'm right, there's some kind of central control station behind one of these walls."
"You really are looking for an Ancient sewage treatment plant! I thought you were kidding."
"I do not 'kid'," McKay said stiffly, "about sewage." He looked at the laptop, the walls, and traced some of the glowing lines with his finger. Then he pointed. "Okay, do your mojo there."
"Which mojo is that, again?"
"Open the wall, Major, so those of us with an education can fix what's behind it."
A few minutes of wall-groping later ...
"It's not opening, McKay."
"Yes, thank you for stating the obvious so eloquently." Rodney rotated the image on the laptop, stared at it again, the blue glow of the screen bathing his face and the walls. "It's got to be back there. All the conduits lead here. I've done the calculations three times. It has to be here."
"Maybe something's wrong in your calculations."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh, please. I don't make mistakes. Not of that nature."
Sheppard laughed. "McKay, everyone makes mistakes."
"I don't," Rodney said. "Try it again."
"This is silly," Sheppard complained, touching various parts of the wall. "Why in the world would they hide their sewage treatment plant?"
"Hello? You're the military commander around here! You name it -- terrorists! Sabateurs! Wraith spies! Who knows what they had to deal with out here?"
"Bungling humans messing with their technology ..." Sheppard muttered, stretching to reach the ceiling.
"I heard that, and I assume you were talking about yourself, not me."
Sheppard just snorted. "Are you sure there's a door here? It doesn't look like it to me."
"Half the doors in this place don't look like doors to us. We assume the Ancients had some sort of coding system that we haven't worked out yet." Sheppard braced visibly for another infodump, but instead, Rodney's brain was already flying off in another direction. He spun around to regard the far wall. "Say, that panel there, open it for me."
Sheppard raised an eyebrow, but went to it. "This doesn't require the gene," he said, teasing the panel loose from its millennia of corrosion. "You could do this yourself."
"That is why you're here," Rodney retorted, propping the laptop against the wall so that he could type better. "I'm busy thinking. You, on the other hand, are not doing anything useful."
One end of the panel came loose with a tearing screech of metal, snapping back against Sheppard's knuckles. "Ow!" He sucked at the flap of loose skin and gave McKay an aggrieved look. "No, clearly not, just standing around, that's me."
"For God's sake, don't put your mouth on that! Who knows what kind of germs are down here."
"Which would be why you're standing safely over there, and I'm the one doing all the dirty work over here?" Sheppard inquired a bit nastily, hooking his fingers under the panel and prying it up.
"You bet your ass. Aha!" As a section of the wall's inner workings were revealed -- a few crystals glimmering dully, but most of them dark -- Rodney left his position against the wall and came to look over Sheppard's shoulder.
"Ah, yes, yes, I thought so," Rodney murmured. He reached around Sheppard with a barked "Move!" and began rerouting wires. "There's a failsafe. It's preventing the door from opening. This has been driving us crazy as we've been trying to power up the rest of the city, too. Every bit of technology is couched around with a thousand unnecessary and redundant measures to protect against every possible unlikely thing you can imagine. One tiny short somewhere in the system, and nothing will turn on, and you end up wasting hours with a voltmeter trying to track down the problem. The Ancients were worse than ... than ... worse than you Americans' FDC. They're like a bunch of nannies -- ah, ow. Can't get to that one. Hold this for me."
Sheppard took the lapto that Rodney passed to him, bemused. "You know, the fact that you science types are disabling failsafes right and left ... this couldn't have anything to do with the current problems, could it?"
"Of course not. We don't disable necessary systems, only the ones preventing us from -- Got it! All right!" He snatched his laptop back, and pointed at the opposite wall. "Open it!"
Sheppard reached for the wall, hesitated. "Are you quite sure this is safe?"
"Safe as a holiday on the Atlantean Riviera," Rodney reassured him, standing on his tiptoes and jittering up and down in eagerness.
"This would be the Riviera with all the Wraiths?"
Rodney clenched his teeth and attempted yet again to pin Sheppard to the wall with a glower. It worked so well on the scientists, damn it ... "Just open the freaking door so we can go somewhere dry, would you?"
Sheppard laid his hand flat against the wall. Obligingly, it slid back immediately...
... releasing a cascade of ice-cold water that deluged the corridor.
The deluge knocked Sheppard off his feet, flinging him backwards. His whole body slammed into the wall and he saw stars. For an instant, between the shock of the cold water and the shock of hitting the wall, he couldn't move, and the water continued to pour in as his head went under. He thought for a panicked instant that he'd gone blind as well, but blinking his eyes in the stinging water, he realized that the lights had gone out, leaving them in complete darkness. With nothing to aim for, there was no way to know where the surface was, or if there even was a surface anymore -- the corridor could have been filled with water all the way to its top.
This is a really stupid way to die, he thought, his lungs aching. He had no idea what to do, which way to swim. There was a definite current, he could feel it carrying him -- probably the current created by millions of gallons of water flooding into the city. Good Lord, had they just flooded the city? Elizabeth was going to kill him. She'd probably kill McKay first, though, if Sheppard didn't do it for her. And speaking of McKay, where was he? Still alive? Could he swim? Did it matter if there was nowhere to swim to?
Shut the door, he thought. But there was no way to find the door. All he could do was think at it as hard as he could -- Shut! Shut! -- as he tried to get his groping, outflung fingers on a floor or a ceiling or anything he could use to orient himself.
And then his head broke water and he surfaced, coughing and gasping. Air, sweet air! Despite his fear and desperation, he couldn't help a momentary hope that this was clean water. He licked his lips, tasted salt. Seawater. It wasn't from the plumbing; they must have accidentally opened one of the flooded sections of the city. Overriding the failsafes. Nice move, McKay. Speaking of whom...
"McKay?" he said aloud, into the darkness.
No answer. Although it was hard to tell in the dark, the water seemed to have become still, or at least stiller -- it was no longer bearing him along in a mad rush. He could tread water with ease. The cold already had his teeth chattering, though. Hypothermia, he knew, could set in quickly. He had to get out of the water. Reaching his hand up, he could just brush a slightly roughened surface -- the ceiling of the tunnel. The water was pretty high, but at least it didn't seem to be getting higher at the moment, for whatever reason.
A burst of static crackled from his radio. The radio ... it was still dangling from his collar. Sheppard shifted to keeping himself afloat with his legs while he hooked the radio over his ear.
"Major! Major, come in please. Major Sheppard, good god, answer me. Oh, hell, I've killed the ranking military officer on this station. Nice going, Rodney. Weir's gonna strangle me. Do they court-martial civilians? Major!"
There was a moment's silence, then McKay's voice rushed back: "Major, thank goodness. Are you all right? I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry. There must have been a shield breach somewhere in the area that wasn't showing up on our sensors. That's why the failsafes wouldn't let us open the door. That's probably also why the plumbing keeps shutting itself down -- it's trying to maintain a positive pressure and prevent backflow from the pressure of the --"
"--water, there must be, well, there's no way to figure it up for sure without knowing our current depth beneath the waterline and I can only guess at that, but a hell of a lot of pressure forcing its way into the city. It's a wonder that none of the seals have blown --"
The man on the other end of the radio shut up, then came back with a small, "No need to shout. I can hear you fine."
"McKay," Sheppard said, keeping his voice even with an effort. "I am currently in pitch darkness, treading water. This corridor is nearly full of water, very cold water, I might add. I have no idea where I am or whether the city is flooding at this moment. Any light that you could shed on my present situation, literally or figuratively, would be greatly appreciated."
Brief silence. "Okay, here's the situation," McKay said briskly, sounding a little more confident. "The minute that the water breached the corridor, bulkheads started slamming down all over the place. Must be some kind of defensive mechanism in the city to prevent wholesale flooding. I've been in touch with Dr. Weir and Zeronka -- Nelorka -- that Czech guy, up top. Looks like all that flooded was our corridor, and it was sealed off in about fifteen places before the rest of the city could be affected. Unfortunately, the remainder of the functional plumbing was affected. We currently have no working toilets at all."
"This may come as a shock to you, but that's pretty low on my list of priorities right now," Sheppard said, running his fingers across the ceiling in the hopes of locating some kind of manhole or maintenance access panel. If there were conduits and pipes and stuff behind the ceiling and walls, which was the impression he'd gotten from McKay, surely they must have some way to get to them, shouldn't they? It beat floating here waiting to drown, or waiting for McKay to rescue him, which was almost as bad.
"Yes, yes, I can see that. Now, it looks like I got washed farther along the hallway than you did. There's actually only about a foot or so of water where I am. You must be trapped in one of the other, sealed sections of the corridor-- hang on." Sheppard could hear staticky snatches of conversation -- he could hear McKay's side of it just fine, and inferred that he was talking to Weir, but the other side was nothing more than intermittent crackles of static. Eventually McKay said, "Major? Did you get that?"
"Damn, the bulkheads must be interfering with your radio. I can hear you just fine, and I assume you can hear me, but any farther away, it's not getting through. You know, that does make sense, considering that radio waves--"
Was there no way to keep the man on a single topic? "So fill me in on what I missed, McKay," Sheppard said, turning his investigation to the walls. It was getting harder to keep from shivering now, and he found his breath growing short. He was in good shape, and in warm water should have been able to stay afloat for hours, but he was pretty sure that he didn't have nearly that much time at the moment.
"Right, yeah. That was Weir. Near as they can tell from the city's life sign sensors, you're right on the other side of a bulkhead from me -- and there's nothing between me and the exit; all we have to do is get you through that bulkhead. Weir says they're sending some people down to cut through the bulkhead. It's going to be a little while, though. We're pretty deep under the city."
Sheppard discovered that he was starting to sink -- he had to quit feeling about the walls in order to use both arms to keep himself afloat. "I'm not convinced I can wait that long, McKay."
"Why not? You can swim, can't you?" McKay's voice took on a note of panic. "The water's not rising, is it?"
"I can swim just fine, and no, the water's not rising, but it's really freakin' cold. I think I'm going to be working on a good case of hypothermia soon."
"Oh. That's bad." McKay sounded a bit preoccupied.
"No shit, Sherlock!" Sheppard bumped lightly into something. It took him an instant to realize that it was the wall ... he didn't like how disoriented he had become. "Any chance you could get that bulkhead open from your side?"
"What do you think I'm trying to do?" The strain sounded clearly in McKay's expressive voice. The man was not one for hiding how he felt, that was for sure. "The power's out all over the corridor. I'm in pitch darkness here, and I've lost my laptop. Also, I'm a tad claustrophobic. Not a lot, mind you, just ... enough to make concentrating difficult." He laughed tinnily in Sheppard's ear. Sheppard didn't like that laugh -- there was a note of hysteria in it. The last thing he needed right now was a panicking scientist. "Not ideal working conditions," McKay added.
"Too bad for you, but I'm in six feet of water here, and I could really use a way out!"
"I said I'm working on it," McKay sniped back. Angry, Sheppard knew from experience, was a lot better than scared.
"Next time you decide to fix the plumbing," Sheppard said, drifting lazily back out into the main part of the corridor at the whim of the eddies in the gently swirling water, "you can find some other shmoe with the gene to be your guy Friday. I quit."
After a hesitation, McKay said, "I really am sorry about that, you know. I didn't do this on purpose."
Sheppard heaved a sigh. His slow rotation had brought him back around to another wall, or maybe the same one. He kicked off from it and went drifting out into the corridor again. This was actually sort of fun, in a weird way. He wondered if the cold was affecting his brain.
"I don't blame you for this, you know. Well, I mean, technically it is your fault ..."
"Oh, thanks," McKay said sarcastically.
"... but it's not as if you planned it this way. It could just as easily be you trapped in here and up to your neck in freezing water." If only.
Rodney started to say something; Sheppard shushed him. "I'm not done yet. Listen, McKay, the whole point of having military grunts like me along on this mission is to protect you science folks. We don't talk about it very much, but we know that's what we're here for." He rebounded gently from another wall and pushed off again. It was getting difficult to talk; his lips felt stiff and clumsy. Had to be some way to keep himself warm ... but treading water was getting to be more of an effort than he wanted to make. Hypothermia! Dammit!
"Major?" McKay was saying into his ear, sounding frightened. He must have stopped talking. He wondered how long he'd been quiet, was concerned that he couldn't remember.
"Where was I?"
"You were talking about being expendable." McKay sounded distracted again. He was clearly doing something out there. Sheppard hoped it was something useful.
"Expendable's not really the right word. Nobody on this mission is expendable. It's just ... protecting people, getting in danger, that's my job, not yours. We do it so you guys don't have to." Sheppard pushed off from the wall again, trying for a graceful scissor kick, but only succeeded in dunking his face. He surfaced, coughing and spluttering. At least it woke him up a little bit.
"What just happened in there? You're not drowning, are you?"
"I tried to do Swan Lake," Sheppard said, and laughed. "Didn't work."
"Elizabeth, where is that cutting torch?" McKay demanded, and then, in response to something Sheppard couldn't hear, "Twenty minutes? What are you people doing, taking the slow boat to China? He'll have drowned by then!"
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, McKay." Sheppard wondered why he hadn't contacted one of the walls yet, then realized that he'd set himself slowly spinning in the middle of the corridor -- or what he assumed must be the middle of the corridor, based on the lack of walls. Bobbing like a cork in a pond. The image was oddly amusing. He tried not to laugh, having no desire to send McKay into another "the Major is dying, Weir's gonna kill me" panic attack.
"I'm only repeating to her what you keep telling me. How's that coming along at the moment, anyway -- the drowning and hypothermia thing?"
"Working on it," Sheppard said.
"I do hope you mean you're working on not drowning."
"Generally hoping not to. But it would really help if you could get that door open."
He heard McKay heave an exasperated sigh. "I've told you, I don't think I can. I mean, I'm trying, but I can't see out here, Major. Have you ever tried to rewire Ancient technology in the dark with no tools? Didn't think so."
"I bet Zelenka could do it," Sheppard said.
There was a long and rather tense silence. "You're just trying to goad me," McKay said.
"Zelenka's the one who found the bathrooms. Even you couldn't do that."
"Because I was trying to keep the city from imploding, Major Revisionist History!" McKay snapped. "I realize it's a little detail, but it seemed kind of important at the time."
"I hear talking. I don't hear a lot of fixing."
Grumbling came over the radio. "You may be the military commander in the city, but you aren't my boss," McKay snapped. "Quit trying to order me around."
Sheppard drifted up against the wall again, and this time he just clung to it. Stupid, he berated himself; should have done this in the first place, rather than wasting his energy. Once again, he began exploring the surface of the wall and ceiling for some sort of access hatch, some way to get out. He had very little hope that McKay would manage to do anything useful. The man was smart, but had as much as admitted that he didn't think he could get the door open, and prodding his ego didn't seem to be making him work any faster.
"Now what?" Sheppard demanded, trying and failing to keep his teeth from chattering.
"You stopped talking."
"Yes, that's because I'm saving my breath for swimming."
"Why do I bother?" McKay demanded, apparently speaking to the world at large. "Weir? Where's my cutting torch?"
Sheppard tuned out another one-sided conversation between McKay and people he couldn't hear. God, he hated this. Let him go out in a firefight, not drowning in the dark while waiting for an obnoxious scientist to come up with a way to free him. He hated inaction. He hated being trapped and helpless. He hated ...
His head went underwater. Disoriented in the dark, he couldn't find the surface for a moment, and he had to use the wall to push himself up. Coughing and gasping, he finally got a breath of air.
"Major!" McKay was saying desperately into the radio. "Major Sheppard!"
"Hey," Sheppard said, laughing even though his mouth was half full of water, "you do remember my name."
"Of course I do," McKay retorted huffily. "And, cocky annoying American though you may be, I do not intend to have your death on my conscience. The paperwork, I'm sure, would be hell. Hang on, I think I've got it..."
Sheppard hung on, literally, to the wall. He could feel a sudden vibration through the metal, and then feel it in the water all around him. Over the radio, he heard a triumphant laugh from McKay, followed by a startled "Ack!" and splashing. Apparently McKay had forgotten that when Sheppard's section of the corridor emptied out, his side was going to flood.
The undertow caught him as the water flooded out of the opened bulkhead, and Sheppard realized that he didn't have the strength to fight it. His head slipped underwater; cold, salty water flooded between his teeth. Then his feet hit something solid. His legs immediately gave out and he collapsed onto his butt on the floor, catching himself on his hands. Dizzy, disoriented, and coughing, it took him a little while to notice that the water seemed to have stopped receding, leaving him sitting in cold water up to his shoulders.
"Major! Major! Answer me!"
"Here," Sheppard said between coughs.
"Good, good, good. Now, the water should have equalized between our two sides. I've only been able to get the bulkhead up a couple of feet ... hang on ..." There were some splashing and scrabbling noises, and Sheppard realized that he was hearing them not only through the radio, but faintly in the air around him as well. "More like eighteen inches or so," McKay said. "You'll have to duck under the water to get through to my side, but that shouldn't be too hard."
Sheppard tried to get up, fell immediately back onto his ass again. "Not so sure about that," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"I need a few minutes," Sheppard said. His voice sounded thick to his own ears.
"You haven't got a few minutes," Rodney said sharply. "You're hypothermic and getting more so."
"I'm not actually hypothermic, not yet, though I might be getting there soon. I remember enough of the first aid courses from basic training to know -- guh!" Between the darkness and his growing sleepiness, he was so disoriented that he hadn't noticed he was tipping over sideways until the side of his face went into the water. "The basic problem," he continued, getting himself more or less vertical again, "is that I'm sitting down right now, and I can't seem to get up."
The biting sarcasm was back in McKay's tone. "You've fallen and you can't get up? Is that what you're telling me?"
"Sitting down, and can't get up," Sheppard said. "Dizzy. Afraid if I fall down, I won't be able to find the surface again."
"Even you can't be dumb enough to drown in three feet of water."
"Can if I fall asleep," Sheppard said.
"Find the wall, you moron," McKay gritted. "Hang onto the wall, and just walk right over here, because I am not coming under there to get you." Under his breath, Sheppard heard him mutter, "Not hypothermic, my ass."
The wall. Good idea. He scooted around in the darkness, sometimes nearly tipping over, sometimes forgetting what he was searching for, goaded on by McKay's constant barrage of insults over the radio. Leaning on the wall, he managed to get himself upright and started walking.
"You'd better be going the right way," McKay said.
"Your irritating voice is getting louder, so I guess I must be headed towards you." Now that most of him was out of the water and he was moving, he found that he was feeling a little better, a little more alert ...
... which lasted until he ran face-first into a bulkhead and fell backward into the water.
Sheppard splashed upright, one hand clapped to his face. He was a lot more alert now -- and hurting. "Think I broke my nose."
"Worry about that later. Right now, get under the bulkhead. I'll give you a hand."
Sheppard knelt down in the water, running his hand down the bulkhead. Sure enough, it stopped short of the floor. The idea of getting his face underwater again, especially considering the disorientation that he was barely managing to stave off, was not a comforting thought. Better get it over with before he had time to think about it. He dove, and scrabbled forward across the floor. Hands caught at him, dragged him, and then his head was breaking the surface and someone was holding him upright and Rodney's voice was saying, "You alive? Major?"
"Alive, yes, alive." It was perhaps the dumbest question the scientist could possibly have asked, a particularly strange question coming from the brilliant McKay -- clearly he was alive; he'd hardly be moving and breathing otherwise. And yet somehow, just giving the answer, the affirmation of his own survival, made something unknot inside him. McKay let go immediately, and Sheppard leaned against the bulkhead, his hands on his knees, breathing deeply. Alive.
"McKay?" It was Weir, on the radio, and Sheppard realized he could hear her now. "They're on the level right above you. We think five minutes, maybe less. The power's out up there too, and they're having some trouble finding the stairwell."
"Well, thank you very much for that," McKay's voice said out of the darkness, "but in the meantime, some of us --"
"Dr. Weir?" Sheppard said into the headset. The unseen world still teetered around him, but at least he'd gotten the coughing under control. "There's no rush. McKay got me out."
"McKay got you in," he heard Rodney mutter, but not over the radio.
"John! I'm glad to hear your voice! Nice work, Rodney," Weir said with warmth. "Beckett's with the team that's heading down to you. Are you all right?"
"Just cold," Sheppard said, speaking between clenched teeth to keep them from chattering.
"I'm having Beckett take you two straight to the infirmary. I'll look forward to a full debriefing when the doctor is through with you. Again, I'm glad you're both all right. Weir out."
"She's looking forward to it?" Sheppard said. "The woman's got a savage streak, no doubt about that." With difficulty, he straightened up; he was shaking so hard he could barely move. The water was, after all, nearly up to his waist, and still cold.
"Why are you worried?" McKay demanded. "I'm the one who --" And he broke off sharply. When he spoke again, it was in a different tone, a guarded tone. "No need to stand here waiting for them. May as well meet them halfway. I hope you can walk because I'm sure as hell not going to carry you."
Sheppard took a cautious step away from the bulkhead, discovered that this was a bad idea, but found a wall with his outflung hand and used this to keep himself upright and oriented. He started wading. Somewhere off to his right, he could hear McKay splashing along, sounding like some sort of half-beached sea creature. Sheppard smiled into the darkness at that mental image.
"Lost my laptop, dammit," McKay said pensively. "Gonna have to bring a team down here to find it. We only have so many of them. Even if it's ruined, I hope we can still retrieve the contents of the hard drive. It's got all my notes for the plumbing situation." He fell silent, except for the splashing, and then said, again, "Damn it."
"McKay," Sheppard said, trailing his hand along the damp wall. "It's not your fault."
"What's not my fault?" McKay retorted.
"Any of this. No one knows how any of this stuff works. We're all just kind of fumbling our way along."
"Fumbling" was probably the wrong choice of words. He heard McKay snort, somewhere in the dark, and when he spoke, his voice sounded half annoyed and half tired. "Why would it be my fault? The Ancients built this city. I'm just the unlucky sap who gets to fix it."
It was strange, Sheppard thought, how well he could read McKay considering how little he knew of the man. How he could hear the self-doubt under the bravado and arrogance. Oddly, it was that aspect of McKay, as much as his obvious intelligence, that had made Sheppard want him for his team. The man had an ego a mile wide, and yet Sheppard had noticed how he seemed to falter sometimes, when the chips were down ... falter, and then pick himself up and go on. There was steel under that slightly pudgy exterior; he was sure of it.
McKay still seemed to be talking; Sheppard had tuned him out. "... and clearly, this should amply demonstrate why I most certainly should not be on your offworld team, since I'm needed here. The city would fall apart without me. I mean, more so than it's already falling apart with me, that is..."
"I still want you on my team," Sheppard said.
The intake of breath was so soft he almost didn't catch it. "Really?" McKay said, in a "last kid picked for the soccer team" kind of voice.
"More than ever, now," Sheppard added.
"You'll pardon me for being ungracious, but why? Didn't I just flood a tunnel with you in it?"
"Well, yeah," Sheppard said, "and the next time we come across some Ancient technology with failsafes in it, I'd really appreciate it if you and your group of wannabe mad scientists could read the warning label before disconnecting it. But, generally speaking, I liked what I saw. You didn't panic in a stressful situation. You fixed the damn door, in the dark, underwater, after telling me you didn't think it could be done. A person who can do that is a person I want to have at my back when I go offworld."
No sound from Rodney's side of the tunnel, except for the continued splashing, indicating that he was still moving.
"I'm here. Sorry. I had an idea for fixing the plumbing ... had to run some mental calculations ... hang on. Damn, I wish I had a pencil. And a flashlight." Brief pause. "I did hear what you said, Major. I was listening. I can multitask."
"And? Got an answer for me?"
"I'll think about it."
Light flickered ahead of them, reflecting off the water. For the first time in what felt like h ours, Sheppard could see the walls around him, glistening dimly by the glow of their rescuers' flashlights.
"Cavalry's here," Sheppard said, and turning to Rodney, he flashed him a smile.
"What did they do, stop for lunch on the way?" McKay groused in his usual complaining tone. In the dim light, however, Sheppard could see him smile back, a bit uncertainly, as if camaraderie was something new to him.
The Atlantis infirmary was a hastily constructed field hospital still in the process of being slowly converted into something permanent and lasting. Beckett and his people had taken over a suite of rooms whose function was entirely unknown (lab? kitchen? conference room?), and there they'd hung up sheets to offer something vaguely resembling privacy while they unpacked, put together and installed various pieces of equipment.
In the midst of a sea of half-unpacked crates and scurrying nurses, Sheppard lay on a military-issue cot with a warm IV in his arm and a pile of blankets on top of him, glowering up at a very unsympathetic Beckett.
"You said yourself that I'm fine."
"No, I said that you're going to be fine, once we get your core temperature up, your glucose levels straightened out, and, of course, get back the results on your bloodwork and make sure you didn't pick up some kind of alien pathogen from the water."
"And what, exactly, are the odds of that happening?" Sheppard demanded, trying once again to squirm into a comfortable position on the cot. "McKay says it was just seawater, not sewage."
Beckett rolled his eyes and waved his arm at one of the makeshift privacy curtains around them, with machinery beeping behind it. "What were the odds of Corporal Bond turning out to be allergic to a compound in the paint in the room we're using for a mess hall and going into anaphylactic shock in the middle of the lunch line?" He gestured at another curtain. "How about Dr. Jameson accidentally using her gene to trigger the refrigeration equipment in the kitchen and trapping herself inside a meat locker? She's very lucky to be alive! And we just released Private MacKenzie -- I'm sure you remember, the young lad who electrocuted himself while helping some of McKay's scientists wire their new lab for the laptops."
With each new reminder of their fairly extensive (if, so far, nonfatal) casualty list, Sheppard's buoyant spirits dropped a bit further. "Look, I've been in here visiting my guys every day, haven't I? I get it, Doc. I do."
"Do you?" Beckett softened a bit. "This isn't a dangerous place, necessarily, but it's a place we don't understand yet. We don't know what anything around here does. I'd really rather not have you be the guinea pig who finds out the hard way that human beings can't tolerate Atlantean seawater. Either of you."
This last was directed at McKay, who appeared not to hear it. The scientist had been declared healthy after only a cursory examination -- unlike Sheppard, he hadn't swallowed any of the water in his initial dunking and the water on his side of the bulkhead had only been about a foot deep -- but, like Sheppard, he wasn't allowed to leave until the results of their bloodwork came back. At least they were both dressed; Sheppard had protested changing into a hospital gown with enough volume that Beckett had eventually dispatched a nurse to bring clean, dry clothes from their quarters.
After putting up with a nonstop litany of the many things that Rodney knew he was allergic to (along with several dozen things that he thought he might be) Beckett had gotten someone to loan him a laptop in the hopes it would keep him busy, and he was now hunched over it, sitting in a chair wedged between two crates, and uncharacteristically silent -- absorbed in typing and occasionally scribbling calculations on a pad of paper he'd snatched from a passing nurse.
"Integral of x over the product of -- hey, quit that." He blinked at Beckett irritably when the doctor flashed a light in his eyes. "Oh, cut it out. If I was going to have a reaction to anything in that water, I would have by now. Believe me, you'll be the first to know if I suddenly stop breathing."
"Actually, you'll be the first to know. Give me an arm."
Rodney shifted an elbow up onto one of the crates and continued typing as Beckett attempted to take his blood pressure. "I hope you realize, Dr. Do-Nothing, that you are singlehandedly setting back scientific knowledge each time you interrupt my train of thought."
"Somehow I'll live with it," Beckett retorted dryly, and still holding the blood pressure cuff, in a smooth motion he spun around and smacked Sheppard's hand away from the IV -- the major had been tugging on it, trying to get enough slack to roll over. "Stop that! Do I have to sedate you?"
"I don't really need this, do I?" Sheppard complained, one hand thrusting out from under the blankets to lift up the IV's feed line.
"Do you ever listen to me?" Beckett asked rhetorically, seizing Sheppard's hand and raising it in front of his face. "Not only is it helping warm you up, but see how you're trembling? Your body used a hell of a lot of energy keeping itself warm, Major, and where do you think it comes from? Unless you'd rather drink a quart of glucose solution laced with antibiotics ... yes, you need it." He turned to point at McKay. "I also remember telling you to eat something, unless you want a needle in your arm as well?"
Rodney waved a half-eaten powerbar at him. "Already way ahead of you, mommy dearest."
Beckett removed the blood pressure cuff from his arm and rolled it up. "Attitude notwithstanding, you're both doing fine. I'll let you know when you can leave -- which will be whenever we get the bloodwork processed so that we know neither of you will be dropping dead in your quarters." He turned to go.
"Hey!" Sheppard protested. "You're leaving me here with him?"
"Try and contain your enthusiasm," McKay muttered, his nose almost touching the laptop screen.
"Yes," Beckett said briefly, then turned back. "Oh ... if either of you need to use the ...facilities, ask one of the nurses to show you."
"I know where the infirmary bathrooms are," Sheppard said.
"I'm sure you do," Beckett retorted. "Too bad they're not working at the moment."
Rodney seemed to take this as a personal insult. "Working on it!" he snapped, nose to the laptop.
Sheppard raised his head. "Wait a minute. If the bathrooms aren't working, what are you using?"
"If you're lucky, you won't have to find out," Beckett said dryly and vanished behind one of the curtains.
Sheppard groaned and resigned himself to being stuck, for the time being. Damn it, with all the fluids they were pumping into him, he already had to go. Or maybe it was just psychological. He squirmed under the blankets, seeking a position in which the bar across the middle of the cot wasn't digging into his back. Eventually he gave up and laid an arm across his eyes to shut out the light. Too bad he couldn't shut out Rodney's muttering as the scientist conducted his train of thought out loud.
"... but why would they carry the waste products from the south wing under the -- oh, no, wait a minute, they must have routed that conduit through the fourth floor, not the fifth. Aha! Then in order to find somewhere to reroute the main southern line, all you have to do is figure up the angles between the two secondary lines and ... Crap, what if our cutting torches don't work on that weird ceramicky stuff they used for the pipes? Can't reroute 'em if you can't splice 'em. Cross that bridge when we come to it, I suppose. Where was I? Oh yes. Angles of ... hm, we're not using that floor at all, I wonder if you could actually just bypass it entirely? Ahaha! That would make it insanely easy to run an outflow pipe straight from the kitchen area to the secondary disposal unit under the --"
Sheppard finally couldn't take it anymore. "McKay, please don't make me come over there and stuff that laptop down your throat. I'll probably pull out my IV and Beckett will put restraints on me. I'd hate to have it come to that."
"Well, isn't someone testy," McKay snapped, hitting keys a little harder than necessary. "I'm only trying to fix an entire city, it's not like I'm doing anything important over here."
"Testy, huh? Call me crazy here, but almost drowning tends to put me in a bad mood, McKay."
To his surprise, there was no answering snipe from McKay. Sheppard peeked out from under his arm and saw that the scientist's attention appeared to be fixed entirely on the laptop screen. His lips were compressed to a thin line and he was hitting the keys almost hard enough to knock off the keycaps. Startled, Sheppard rewound his memory through the last couple of sentences and then winced inwardly. Dammit, he's still feeling guilty about wiring around the failsafes in the hallway.
Well, he should feel guilty; he DID almost drown me!
Yeah, but not on purpose.
Shit, I'm arguing with myself. Maybe Beckett's right about that water...
Protesting sounds from one of the nurses dragged him out of his thoughts, alerting them both to visitors in the infirmary before Weir appeared around a pile of crates. "Major," she greeted them. "Dr. McKay."
Sheppard thought about getting up, then decided that it was more comfortable to lay here with his arm over his face. "Hi," he said. "We got wet."
"I heard, yes. Apparently not all the flooded sections of the city are showing up on the sensors."
"Which is my fault how?" McKay demanded tetchily.
Raising his arm a trifle, Sheppard saw her flash McKay a critical look. "I never said it was your fault at all. Dr. Zelenka is currently getting the seawater pumped out of that section."
McKay raised his eyes briefly to her face. "If you left him in charge, this conversation is pointless, because we're all going to die horribly. Death by drowning ... it isn't pretty. Fortunately, I don't have to worry about that, because the Major has kindly penciled in 'death by Wraith' for me for next Tuesday, right after 'death by puddlejumper crash' at 2:30 and leading into a pleasant evening of avoiding hostile natives in predator-infested jungles, followed by more death."
Weir swiveled to look at Sheppard. "Care to fill me in on what he's talking about?"
Sheppard sighed, and shifted his arm back across his eyes. "I think he's talking about going through the gate. I'm choosing my teams for offworld missions. I chose Rodney here for the key team ... mine."
He peeked under his arm again to see that she was beaming at McKay. "Excellent choice, Major."
"Yes, I know, I'm indespensable here, that's what I keep telling hi--what?"
"You're the head of the science team, Rodney; what better person to entrust with our search for ZPMs?"
"Excuse me? Hello? Not field certified?"
"He hasn't said yes yet," Sheppard informed her.
"I noticed, yes."
McKay's mercurial face shifted, became very solemn. "Dr. Weir, just now I flooded a hallway and nearly killed the Major. I do not, repeat do not, believe that sending me offworld is a good idea. Besides," he added, "as useful as I might be on an offworld mission, I'm far more useful here."
Sheppard twisted his head sideways on the pillow. "What, and leave you here to flood more hallways? For the good of Atlantis, Elizabeth, I have to take him with me. He'll sink the place in days if I leave him here."
McKay glowered at him.
"Rodney," Elizabeth said, "as I told you when we spoke over the radio, I do not blame you for the accident in the corridor, and my official report will reflect that. Dr. Zelenka tells me that all of the scientists have been disabling failsafes since the beginning -- the city, however well-preserved, is still ten thousand years old and if you weren't able to bypass damaged systems, we'd still be eating cold MREs in the dark. You had no way of knowing what would happen this time."
McKay, looking gratified, opened his mouth to answer her, when Sheppard pointed at him and rode right over the top of whatever he was going to say: "See! That's just what I told you down below. Aside from the MREs bit. They have chemical heaters in 'em, Elizabeth."
"Er, what?" Weir turned to him.
"MREs. They're self-heating. You actually mean that you've spent all this time around the military without ever eating an MRE?"
Her lips twitched. "I'm afraid the topic never came up."
Sheppard grinned. "I'll just have to have Bates show you one later. Anyway, MREs aside, I seem to be picking up the vibe that the plumbing's totally down now. Is that true?"
"Unfortunately, it's true. We've established temporary latrines on the south pier, but I'd really appreciate if this didn't become a permanent solution."
"Luckily for all of us," McKay said after a final dirty look at Sheppard, "I have one. A solution, I mean. Now that I know what's causing the problem ... at least, what circumstantial evidence would indicate is causing the problem ... all we have to do is reroute the waste disposal conduits around the damaged area, and it'll come back online. Couldn't be easier."
"How long do you think it will take?"
McKay shrugged. "Depends on how long Doctor Happyfingers and Nurse Ratched over there keep us trapped in the infirmary. I can hardly do anything from here."
"Besides talk," Sheppard muttered. "You seem to be doing really well at that."
"Give me a ballpark figure," Weir said, endeavoring to ignore him.
"I don't know! A day? Maybe two? I have no clue how extensive the damage is, not until I get back down there. I'm just hoping to get the system up and running again before Thursday."
Sheppard raised his brows. "What happens on Thursday?"
"Squid night at the cafeteria," Rodney said in a tone of deep gloom.
"We can't be out of food already! How many supplies did we bring through the gate?"
"We're not out," Elizabeth said, "but we're not in great shape either. It'll be awhile before we truly start having problems, but we are trying to feed more twice the people that our supplies were designed for, and the Athosian kids, in particular, need more variety than we can offer them. I realize it doesn't pertain to the business at hand, but how is that search for offworld food sources coming along, Major?."
"It might be coming along faster if I had a full team," Sheppard retorted, giving McKay a pointed look.
"No thanks. I'd rather die of food poisoning here, than die of Wraith on some godforsaken desert planet."
Sheppard rolled his eyes. "We don't go to desert planets, McKay. We go to planets with humans on them. You know, inhabitable worlds with ZPMs."
"Gentlemen," Elizabeth said, but she was interrupted by the arrival of Beckett, who glanced at the nearly deflated bag of saline and antibiotic solution on Sheppard's IV stand and detached the needle.
"Well?" Sheppard said.
"Bloodwork looks good. Your color's better too. As long as you promise to go straight back to your quarters and lay down for a while, I'll let you go, but I need to get a temperature first."
Sheppard eyed him warily from his cocoon of blankets. "You'd better mean orally."
"No, rectally, you dunce." Beckett rolled his eyes at the question, but Rodney sprang to his feet.
"Well, I guess that's my cue to go! I'm free to go, right?"
"You are in a minute," Beckett said absently, reaching into the pocket of his lab coat with theatrical slowness. His eyes were on Sheppard's face, on the skeptical look warring with disbelieving disgust on Sheppard's face -- the major knew he was being jerked around but there was just that little part of him that thought Beckett might actually be serious, until Beckett came up with a perfectly ordinary thermometer. His lips twitched and he was obviously struggling to suppress a grin at Sheppard's look of relief and annoyance. "But I want to see you back here at the first sign of any sort of unexpected symptoms," he added over his shoulder to Rodney, who was jittering with impatience to be off to his labs. "Right away, you hear me?"
Elizabeth watched the byplay with some difficulty keeping the grin off her own face. As their leader, she hoped that the banter boded well for their ability to work together in the future. Stranded in a distant galaxy, hunted by hostile aliens, they did not need any more of the personality conflicts that she could sense brewing over in Rodney's wing.
Speaking of McKay, he was already on his way out the door with an irritated "Yeah, whatever."
Weir nodded a hasty farewell to Beckett and Sheppard, and followed him.
Rodney strode down the corridor with the air of a man on a mission, and it took him a few minutes to notice he was being followed. His initial reaction appeared to be annoyance, but it was with more amusement than anything else that he finally said, a bit archly, "Going my way, Dr. Weir?"
She fell into step with him. "May I walk you to your lab? I would like to discuss your plan before you put it into effect."
McKay glanced at her. She could see the effort it took him not to roll his eyes impatiently. "I thought you wanted this fixed quickly!"
"I do. But most plans, no matter how brilliant, are more effective if their strengths and weaknesses are assessed before they're implemented."
"What, exactly, do you think I'm doing right now?"
"You miss my point, Doctor," Weir said. "I mean that sometimes, the flaws in a plan only become apparent when it's discussed with another person."
"Dr. Weir, to be quite blunt, there's no one on this station who is capable of keeping up with me mentally. If I stopped to explain every thought I have to every dullard around me, I'd never get anything done! Er, no offense, and I'm clearly not including you in the 'dullard' category, but ...."
"...I'm not a scientist," Weir said, a faint grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"Has the thought occurred to you that perhaps sometimes a non-scientist could provide a needed sounding board -- an outside perspective, as it were?"
"Dr. Weir," Rodney said, "if you're suggesting that I should run my science department by committee ..."
"No, no, no." She fell silent for a moment, casting about for the best way to phrase her point. Being Rodney's boss, she was beginning to realize, was rather like trying to steer a runaway big-rig. You couldn't stop it, or really control it; but with skill and discipline, you could point it in the right direction and keep it from running over anybody. Even at the SGC, there were few people who could hold a candle to Rodney for his energy or intelligence; but she also had the sense that under the manic surface lurked a potential dark side -- ego, insecurities, an inability to work with others. As his boss, it was her job to harness his energy and keep it working for them rather than at cross purposes. The trouble was that it took an incredibly deft hand to manage someone who was so shockingly smart.
... but not always as smart as he thought, because he'd taken her silence entirely the wrong way. Being Rodney, however, he reacted with irritation rather than hurt. "You said you didn't blame me for the accident under the city," he protested, sounding petulant.
"I don't," Weir said quickly -- hopefully not too quckly; she truly didn't, but she also didn't want to give his paranoia any room for play. "And I'm sure it will be the only be the first -- this is not at all a smear on your abilities, Rodney, but I have no doubt that there will be other accidents, perhaps many of them, before we finish exploring this city, this galaxy. It's unavoidable. I don't want my people to stifle themselves from taking necessary risks in order to avoid accidents. However, what I do want to see is everyone in this city learning from their mistakes."
"What, do you think I'm not?"
Rodney bristled at what he obviously saw as a slight on his abilities, and Weir suppressed a sigh; he went on the defensive so easily! It was a constant strain just to try to work around the man's hundreds of sharp corners --
"Well, are you?" The lazy, challenging voice came from behind. Weir and Rodney both glanced back, equally surprised to see Sheppard following them.
"Am I what?" McKay demanded. "And how long have you been there?"
"My quarters are in this direction, McKay. Trust me, I'm not following either one of you. Not that it hasn't been an interesting conversation."
"Major, if you don't have something to add...?" Elizabeth inquired pointedly. The absolute last thing she needed while trying to defuse McKay was Sheppard needling the situation with his own particular lack of tact.
"Just this." Sheppard pointed at Rodney, who looked startled. "You've got a stratospheric I.Q., but where were you when they handed out the social intelligence? McKay, I've worked with all of you for exactly four days and I can see what she's getting at. Do you?"
Weir -- once again experiencing the all-too-familiar sensation of the conversation spinning out of her control -- knew that she should try to shut Sheppard up, but it all happened so fast, and to her own embarrassment she was caught up in the parade of emotions on Rodney's amazingly expressive face -- everything from hurt to anger to a kind of fleeting, irritated amusement. Annoyance kept winning, though. "Who do you think you are? I don't need to be lectured by you! Do you know how many PhD's I have? How many do you have, Major?"
Sheppard folded his arms. "Most of what I know, I learned in what you might call the school of hard knocks. I learned it from leading men in combat zones, from fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with people who survived and a good number who didn't." McKay kept trying to get a word in edgewise, but Sheppard just talked right over him. "Now, I'm the first to admit that I'm never the first in line when they hand out the medals for following orders, but what I do know is that in a war zone, the first thing you think about is the people around you."
McKay finally managed to wriggle his way into Sheppard's monologue. "Excuse me, but did I miss the part where you told me just why, exactly, you've taken it upon yourself to enlighten me about the military chain of command? Considering that I'm neither a soldier nor am I in a combat zone?"
Sheppard's eyebrows shot up. "And where exactly do you think you are? Las Vegas? This is a war, McKay, make no mistake about that. We may not be actively fighting at the moment, but every last one of us are in a hostile zone and dependent on each other to keep our backs."
Something in McKay's face shut down. "So you're saying I'm not a team player. Big whooping deal, people have been telling me that since I could--"
"McKay, for cryin' out loud, would you quit making it about you all the time? All I'm saying -- all she's saying --" and he flashed a little eyeroll in Elizabeth's direction, as if just remembering that she was there; she pressed her lips together, not sure if she was trying to stop herself from smiling or yelling at him " -- is that making plans without asking for your team's input isn't something you do when other people rely on you. McKay --" Rodney's eyes had begun drifting down to the notes and figures on the upturned screen of his laptop. "Dammit, McKay, I'm talking to you!" Sheppard barked in his best drill-sergeant tone, and Elizabeth jumped.
So did Rodney. "Jesus, Sheppard, you sound exactly like my fourth-grade teacher!"
"Just getting your attention."
"I'm perfectly capable of multi-tasking, Major. And we do have a crisis; you realize that, right?"
Sheppard aimed his finger at Rodney's face. "But you'll think about what I said. Right?"
McKay rocked back on his heels, rolled his eyes theatrically. "Major, I am not capable of not thinking, unlike certain people who are naturally talented in that area -- uh, are you okay?"
This was in response to Sheppard staggering suddenly, his legs threatening to buckle. He caught himself on the wall and waved off the concerned moves that both McKay and Weir had made in his direction.
"Should you be out of the infirmary?" Weir asked him.
"I'm peachy." Sheppard supported himself with a hand on the wall. "Beckett said I might be a little woozy for a while. Blood sugar's all wacked out and stuff."
Rodney winced sympathetically, all traces of his earlier anger vanished -- if, Weir thought, he'd ever really been angry at all. "Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt."
"You're going straight to your quarters," Weir told Sheppard. "After you get some sleep, I'd like you to check in with Beckett again -- and I intend to have him report you if you don't."
Despite Sheppard's increasingly obvious weariness, he grinned cheekily at her. "Yes, mother."
"I need you in top form, Major. Now more than ever."
He gave her an exaggerated salute, and a little finger-waggle at McKay, whose eyes followed him down the corridor -- no doubt noting, as Elizabeth did, the slight shakiness in his walk.
They were all tired, Weir realized. No wonder Sheppard had jumped at the chance to get away from the main part of the city for a few hours. Since the raising of Atlantis, they'd all been going nonstop from one crisis to another.
Rodney, for his part, watched Sheppard very nearly take a header as he went around the corner and vanished. The man really shouldn't be up and walking about. What was wrong with that quack Carson? He became aware of Weir's eyes on him and looked up at her, feeling himself slip back into defensive mode. However, she was smiling.
"He really likes you, you know."
"What? Who?" Stupid question; who in the world other than Sheppard could she mean? "Why?" Okay, that really had come out wrong. There certainly wasn't any reason why someone shouldn't like him. Still ... most people tended not to, especially at first encounter.
Weir's smile grew a little wider. "I don't know. Why don't you ask him?"
McKay shook his head. "Nothing doing. I'm not getting near him again if I can help it. That man's trying to drag me off to other planets. He's insane."
"Don't you want to go?"
"Of course," Rodney said automatically, then winced inside. Damn it, how did the woman do that? "But clearly I'm needed here. The plumbing is only the tip of the iceberg. I'm the only one who can figure out half the systems in the city and you know it."
"I do know that," Weir said.
He faltered, not having expected agreement. "Really?"
"That's why I originally wanted you here in the Pegasus galaxy, Rodney. But you're also the only person who can figure out a lot of things we're going to find offworld -- including, perhaps, the location of a new zero point module."
Aaargh, it was a conspiracy. He wondered if Sheppard had already talked to Weir, gotten her on his side. "Dr. Weir, with all due respect, I hardly think that the best interests of the city are served by me getting my brains sucked out by a Wraith on some pitiful excuse for a planet somewhere."
Weir shrugged. "I'm not going to force you to do anything, obviously. This is a volunteer mission and I intend to continue in the volunteer spirit to the extent that I am able. No one is going to be press-ganged into a potentially dangerous assignment while I'm in charge. And there is going to be danger on offworld missions, I can't deny it." She looked at him. "Having said that, I will tell you this. Major Sheppard appears to be willing to place a lot of faith in you, Rodney. How you repay that, of course, is entirely up to you. But I'd put some thought into it from that angle, as well."
He couldn't figure out if she was trying to manipulate him or not. God, he hated dealing with people. It was exhausting trying to figure out the ins and outs of interpersonal relationships -- the thousands of unsaid things lurking under the surface words. Computers were so much easier to comprehend, so much more relaxing to be around. Right now, all he wanted to do was lock himself in his lab for about a thousand years and have nothing to do with anyone on this mission ever again. Naturally, that was the one luxury in which he could not indulge at the moment.
"Are you saying you want me to go talk to him? Just say so, please. I've got a city full of broken plumbing and very little time for guessing games."
She spread her hands. "I don't 'want' you to do anything, Rodney. The only thing you should be doing right now -- aside from fixing the plumbing, of course -- is thinking this over. All of it -- the accident, the chain of events that led to it, and, of course, Sheppard's offer. Regarding the last part, rest assured that I will support you in whatever you decide, as long as you make the decision that feels right to you. And keep in mind, too, that you can always change your mind later, if you like."
Change his mind. Of course. For some reason, that thought hadn't even occurred to him. He could go on one mission, and if it didn't work out, he could simply request a different assignment, no harm done. In fact, he could probably even come up with an excuse for it that would get Sheppard off his back permanently ... like ... paralyzing agoraphobia or something. Rodney, for the smartest guy in the galaxy, you can be a real idiot sometimes, he thought to himself.
Dr. Weir must have seen his facial expression change, because she was observing him intently with one eyebrow cocked up. "Thanks," he said, meaning it.
A second eyebrow joined the first one. "You're welcome," she said. "Now get out there and fix your city, Rodney."
"God, it's worse than Russia," Rodney groaned.
The Czech engineer, whose name he still couldn't remember, raised an eyebrow at him. "How is this like Russia?"
Rodney gave him a look of exasperation. "It's not at all like Russia. It's much worse." Honestly, wouldn't the man even try to keep up? Taking a swig of coffee -- the only thing that was still keeping him going at this point -- he ducked back under the control console for the main plumbing system and started swapping crystals again. The console remained obstinately dark. "Why don't we have anyone down here with the gene? Didn't I ask an hour ago?"
"And again half an hour ago. And twenty minutes ago, I believe," the Czech said from somewhere over his head. "As I understand it, no one is available at the moment."
"How the hell is that even possible? Like there's anything more important than getting the plumbing up again! They can't all be that busy!"
"Dr. Jameson is still in the infirmary. Dr. Beckett is presently in surgery, a case of appendicitis in one of the Athosians. Dr. Halloran is offworld --"
"All right, all right, fine, you don't need to rub it in. Everyone's busy. Got it." For the thousandth time, McKay cursed the turn of fate that had left him without the ATA gene. It was like being the head surgeon in the world's most prestigious hospital and waking up one morning to find you were missing both thumbs and suffering from palsy.
"I'm not busy." Lazy drawl from farther away, probably the doorway. Rodney started to raise his head and whacked it on the underside of the console.
"Major," the Czech said.
"Zelenka," the voice returned, from slightly nearer this time.
McKay heard a rustle somewhere near his feet and tilted his head for a sideways view of Sheppard kneeling to peer under the console. The Major looked a lot better than he had earlier -- there was some color in his face, and he didn't look like he was going to fall over if you blew on him. Not that Rodney cared, of course, but it would be highly inconvenient if Sheppard did a faceplant into a piece of irreplaceable technology.
"So tell me, McKay: Do the Ancients stick gum under those things? I've always wondered."
Assuming that he didn't hit him over the head with a piece of irreplaceable technology just to shut him up. "Make yourself useful and see if you can turn this on. I thought it already had been, but I can't get it to work, and I don't have a clue if it's because some moron with the gene turned it off for some reason, or because -- shit!"
The dark space around him had suddenly lit up with a thousand watts of blue light, some of which arced from the crystal he was holding into the hand that was holding it. The feeling was not unlike having his fingers struck with a hammer, added to a tingling sensation that went straight up his arm and, from the feel of things, all the way to his heart.
"You okay under there?" Sheppard sounded apologetic.
McKay squirmed his way out, holding his numb hand protectively against his chest. "No, I'm not, you troglodyte! What did you think you were doing, turning it on with me under there?"
"You told me to."
"I -- but -- well, that's no excuse," McKay snapped, sitting on the floor and shaking feeling back into his hand. With his other hand, he took his own pulse. Fast. Couldn't heart attacks start out that way? How much electricity did it take to damage the heart's internal pacemaker, anyway?
Sheppard squatted down to bring himself to McKay's current eye level. "Need me to call Beckett?" The words might be solicitous, but the tone itself was gently mocking, as was Sheppard's ironic gaze on McKay's faintly reddened fingers.
"No, no, I'm fine, I only need my hands to save us all from the Wraith. Any incidental brain damage will probably take years to show up."
Sheppard opened his mouth to respond to this, just as McKay noticed the giant opening that he'd left with his last comment. "If this is about brain damage, don't think it, don't say it," he snapped irritably. "Too damn easy. If you're going to insult me, at least be creative about it."
The Major grinned as he straightened back up. "Okay, count on it."
Somehow feeling that he'd once again gotten the worst of the conversation, McKay glowered up at him, as Sheppard extended a hand down. Reluctantly, Rodney took it and allowed himself to be helped to his feet. The sensation did seem to have mostly returned to his hand; he flexed it to be sure.
"How's it coming, anyway?" Sheppard asked as Rodney bent over the console and started pulling up readouts.
"It's coming much faster when people don't ask me stupid questions all the time. By the way, what are you doing down here? Not that I don't appreciate the presence of your gene."
"I'm still allowed to answer questions, right?" At McKay's death-glare, Sheppard grinned and shrugged. "Weir said you guys had found an auxiliary control system for the plumbing. After using the facilities on the south pier, I figured I'd come down here and see how close you were to getting the regular ones up and running. She wanted a report anyway."
"Closer than expected, actually," McKay admitted with a little glow of pride. "We thought we were going to have to reroute everything manually, but it looks like we can do it from here -- if we could just get the subroutines working properly."
"Which would be easy if someone would admit that pipe output should be routed under third division of west sector, not over it," Zelenka said from where he was typing away industriously at his laptop.
McKay threw his hands up in the air. "We've been over this! There's a huge conduit going through that area. It's obviously designed to carry a heavy load of effluent -- what the hell do you think it's for, otherwise? Ancients running indoor marathons? Stock car racing, maybe?"
"I am simply pointing out that the re-routing for your golden conduit is ten times more difficult than simply to connect up the smaller pipes under the sector. Maybe it is not preferred way of Ancients, but it may perhaps mean we could be getting to bed sometime tonight."
"Oh, that's excellent, we should do it wrong so that we can finish in a hurry. That's just great. I can see why Elizabeth picked you for this mission, all right. And when those pipes burst under the strain of a load they were never meant to handle, you'll be the one with a mop and bucket cleaning up the mess, right? Wrong!" McKay gestured wildly with his half-empty coffee cup; Sheppard had to duck. "It'll be me! Because anytime anything goes wrong around here, I'm the one they call! Where's McKay? Oh, is he sleeping? No problem -- we'll just wake him up! Because rearranging the duty rosters is an emergency of such magnitude that it requires the presence of his giant brain, never mind the fact that those brain cells are dying by the hundreds due to lack of sleep!"
Sheppard leaned in close to McKay. "See, this is why you should come offworld with me."
"It was the middle of the afternoon; how were we to know you were asleep?" Zelenka protested defensively.
"How about because I hadn't slept the night before and had about two hours of sleep the previous night due to some gene-bearing idiot activating the Ancient equivalent of Muzak which then could not be turned off until -- er, what?" Belatedly, McKay realized that Sheppard had spoken to him.
"Offworld. Unless the city is actively melting down, no one will contact you; they won't even be able to find you. And if we find a nice grassy hillside, you can sleep on it." Sheppard wore such a self-satisfied expression that McKay just wanted to smack it right off his face. The worst part was that his argument was actually working.
"And labs will be peaceful," Zelenka put in loudly. "Work can actually be accomplished."
It was a goddamn conspiracy. Even his own people were in on it now. McKay threw up his hands. "All right! Fine! I'll go through the damn gate with you and your fellow suicide victims, if it'll get you to shut up! All of you!"
Sheppard grinned like a kid. "Knew you'd come around."
McKay held up a finger. "One time. Once. Test run. If things go bad, I'm never stepping foot in that blue puddle of light again ... at least not until someone around here, namely me, figures out how to get it to open to Earth again."
"I take as much gear as I want, and nobody complains about it."
"Sure, we've got a whole puddlejumper to carry it."
McKay winced anew at the name, and Sheppard waited with bated breath, no doubt to see if he'd demand that changing the name back to "Gateship" would be one of the requirements. He wondered if it actually might work ... but, no, everyone in the city was calling the damn things by Sheppard's idiot name for them now. He'd have to remember this, the next time that it came to naming some newly discovered alien artifact: get your pick in early, and spread the name around the city as quick as you can. And don't let Sheppard anywhere near it until the name has stuck like glue.
"Fine," McKay said venomously, aware that it was a really lousy comeback for an argument he'd most assuredly lost. He leaned over the console and brought up the schematics for the plumbing system. "Hey ... you, got the subroutine finished yet?"
"No, because I am routing conduits around fifteen different vital systems in attempt to follow twists and turns of your giant brain." Zelenka's accent appeared to grow stronger the more tired and annoyed he got.
"Fine!" McKay half-yelled. It seemed that he was losing every argument tonight. But, damn, he was so tired his hands were shaking. "Take the damned system under the big conduit, I don't care. Later we can re-write the routine and take the plumbing offline for a half-hour or so while we switch it over and do it the way we should have done it in the first place."
Zelenka swiveled around, pushing his glasses up on his nose with an owlish look of astonishment. "Really? Do you seriously want me to--"
"I don't hear typing!"
"Right, right." Hastily he bent over his keyboard. "Okay, I am uploading ... now."
McKay spun to stare at him. "That was fast. Are you capable of psychic programming now?"
Zelenka cast a sideways glance at him, somewhat sheepishly. "I had ... already written it that way. Before you came up with main plan. Program was being rewritten from scratch to accommodate large conduit."
McKay stared at him. "Damn it, do you mean you already had the blasted thing written? We could have gone home hours ago? And you were redoing it ... why?"
"Because you wanted it done that way." Zelenka seemed genuinely confused. Sheppard backed up against the wall and watched them quietly, arms folded. "And you are right, it would have been better way to do it."
McKay opened and closed his mouth, fishlike. Then he marched over to the Ancient tabletop that Zelenka was currently using as a desk, and smacked his fist down on it. The Czech scientist jumped.
"Tell me your name again," McKay said, "so I can yell at you properly."
Zelenka stared up at him with an expression vaguely like that of a trapped squirrel. "Radek Zelenka."
"Right, right. Zelenka, don't ever do that again?"
"Do what?" The Czech blinked at him. "Follow orders?"
"Yes! If it conflicts with common sense, then yes, dammit! Mine or anyone else's! For God's sake, tell me if I'm doing something stupid! What am I going to do, fire you? The worst I can do is yell at you, and I'll probably do that anyway."
"I do not understand. You are my boss--"
"Zelenka, every single one of you is here on this station because of your brains. If I wanted mindless yes-men, I'd join the military." He shot a pointed look at Sheppard, who just smirked from his position against the wall.
"You want us to tell you when you are wrong."
McKay flung his hands in the air. "Finally! Some show of intelligence! Yes, that is exactly what I want!"
The trapped, frightened look on Zelenka's face slowly changed to one of glee. "Yes, I will tell you, then. I will take great joy in telling you, as often as possible."
"Oh God," Rodney groaned, "I've created a monster." He stomped back over to the console. "You done uploading?"
Zelenka swung around to look at the laptop. "Yes."
Rodney keyed his radio. "Control room, this is McKay."
"Grodin here," came the lightly accented voice, and McKay closed his eyes thankfully. Finally, something was going right for a change: there was someone on duty tonight with a brain.
"Grodin, we're about to try firing up the sewage systems. Keep a close eye on the boards for anything out of the ordinary. If this goes smoothly, then nothing should change. If anything does change, I want to know about it. Let me know when you're ready."
A brief pause, then: "Ready. Go ahead."
McKay nodded to Zelenka, who hit a few keys on his laptop as Rodney threw a switch on the console. There was a moment of silence.
"It isn't working," Zelenka said.
"I can see that." Rodney's hands were already in motion, flickering across the console, re-routing manually. Once again, the system tried to activate and failed.
Zelenka groaned, and cursed briefly in Czech. "See that? There is a failsafe in the east sector, overriding our subroutine and shutting it down."
At the same moment, Grodin's voice spoke in Rodney's ear. "Hey, I'm still learning to read this thing, but I'm getting what I'd say would be red lights if we were on Earth. They aren't red, but you get the idea. They weren't there a minute ago."
"Yeah." Grodin rattled off coordinates.
Zelenka had been listening on his own radio. "That's where I'm getting the failsafe problems."
"Well, just overri-- ride ..." McKay trailed off, aware of Sheppard watching him. "As I was going to say, I'll head over and check it out." With a combative glare at Sheppard, he inquired nastily, "Feel like a walk, Major?"
"Why, I'd love one." Sheppard pushed himself away from the wall.
Rodney tucked his borrowed laptop under his arm and hit his radio. "Grodin, we're going to go take a look. How much longer are you on this shift?"
A soft laugh. "I'm working all night."
Despite himself, Rodney snorted a laugh as well. "Welcome to the club. Well, keep an eye on things and let me know if anything else starts to fail."
"Will do. Grodin out."
"What should I do?" Zelenka asked.
Rodney turned back, halfway out the door. "Get started on a bypass subroutine in case we can't fix it and have to go around that section. It would help to already --" He paused, took in the man's slumped posture, the dark circles under his eyes. His entire staff was stretched to the breaking point right now. "On second thought, get some sleep. Any code you write right now would probably be more useless than usual."
"When do you want me to come back?"
McKay waved his hand in the air. "Go. Sleep. Eat. I'll call you if I need you."
And he was out the door, but not before he heard Zelenka say, in a surprised tone, "Thanks."
Halfway down the hall, Sheppard caught up with him and waved something shiny in front of his face. He grabbed at it in annoyance to get it out of his way. "What's this?"
"Beckett wanted me to make sure you ate something. Yes, I did check in with Beckett, and you can tell Weir so if she asks."
Rodney turned it over in his hand. Powerbar. Raspberry chocolate. "Hmph." He tore off the foil and ate as they trotted up a flight of stairs.
"How far is it?"
"Pretty far. Probably take us about an hour to get there." McKay licked the inside of the foil wrapper. "I think I've lost ten pounds in the last few days, running around this blasted city. They should market it back home as the Atlantis Diet. Nonstop stress and a city the size of Manhattan without so much as escalators. I'm guessing we now know why there don't seem to have been any fat Ancients."
"Guess we should've packed bicycles," Sheppard said thoughtfully as they hiked down yet another interminable corridor.
"It defies belief that they wouldn't have had some way of getting around. How can you build Stargates while the basic principles of the internal combustion engine elude you?"
"Have you looked?" Sheppard asked.
Rodney glowered at the smirk. "What do you think? No, Sheppard, we just walked right by the giant subway depot on the second level. Of course we've looked. Unless they have a pocket teleporter in the closet, they must have shut down their transportation system or taken it with them."
Sheppard shrugged. "Maybe they do. Have a teleporter in some closet somewhere." At McKay's disbelieving stare, he shrugged again. "It's the Ancients; who knows what they could have built?"
"Well, not me, obviously." Rodney's shoulders slumped a little. "Everyone thinks I do, but I don't."
He became aware of Sheppard looking at him in some surprise. Defensively he snapped, "Yes, even the great Rodney McKay doesn't know everything. Try not to let the shock go to your head."
"No, no, it's not that." Sheppard shook his head. "I just didn't think I'd ever hear you admit it." He smiled a little. "You must be tired."
There was what appeared to be genuine concern in the green eyes. McKay distrusted it instinctively. People didn't act that way unless they wanted something from you. "Well, I hope you enjoyed the moment, because it won't happen again."
Silence descended. Rodney realized that he'd actually gotten tired enough that his mental wheels were spinning aimlessly -- he wasn't pursuing any particular train of thought at the moment. Normally he would have been compelled to start talking, a sure-fire way to get himself past mental roadblocks. But he was strangely reluctant. Too damn tired, perhaps. Rodney wasn't used to being around other people and just being ... quiet. Yet in this case, it seemed companionable, somehow. He didn't feel as if he had to talk to fill the gap. Sheppard seemed to feel the same, because he didn't say anything either. They just hiked -- past pillars festooned with glowing lights like Christmas trees, past stained-glass doors to as-yet-unexplored rooms, past stairways leading up into blackness and galleries of windows looking out across the dark ocean. Sheppard paused at one of these; McKay kept walking for another few steps before he realized he was alone and turned back to see what had become of his companion.
They had penetrated quite far into the east wing of the city, and looking back on Atlantis's core, Rodney saw that the towers were lit up like office buildings at night, silhouetted against the stars and casting shimmering reflections into the dark water. Somehow, he'd never really thought about what the place looked like from the outside. And it had been a long, long time since he'd stopped to look at something just because it was beautiful. Maybe it was only because he was so tired that he couldn't take his eyes away.
Sheppard spoke beside him, softly. "Have you ever flown over a city at night?"
Trust Sheppard to make everything about flying. The man was obsessed. But he sounded so ... reverent, or something, that it made Rodney want to say yes. He'd done so much jet travel in his life that he imagined he'd flown over pretty much every city in North America and Europe. But he couldn't remember ever once looking down.
"I don't remember," he said.
"When we figure out how to get the jumpers out of the hangar bay -- and I know there's a way ..." Rodney turned to see the boyish grin flashing at him, the city lights reflected in Sheppard's eyes. "Whenever we figure it out, I owe you a ride over the city at night. A dark night without a moon, just like this one. Hey ... does this planet have moons?"
"I have no idea." It was embarrassing to admit that he'd never even checked. "I had more important things to worry about, like making sure the toilets flushed."
Sheppard laughed. "Point taken. Still, I owe you that ride. There are advantages to being on Team Sheppard, McKay, no matter what people say about me," and he shot Rodney a sly grin. "At the very least it beats fixing the plumbing."
"Well, this is just a whole barrel of stupid."
"McKay ... you do know you're talking about the Ancients, right?"
"I realize that, Major. And what everyone here seems to forget is that the Ancients were, on a fundamental level, people, just like us. Well, smarter than us, better educated than us, and able to tippytoe around the laws of physics when they felt like it. But still people. They made mistakes, and I've no doubt that sometimes they would make a silly design decision just because 'it's always been done this way and why change now?' I doubt if people have changed that much in ten thousand years, aside from the occasional glowy ... floatiness."
The two of them were currently standing at the bottom of a shaft. Sheppard couldn't guess at its height; the top was shrouded in shadows far, far above them. He thought several hundred feet, at least -- they were, according to Rodney, at the bottom of one of Atlantis's towers, and the shaft seemed to go all the way up to its top. Occasional glowing light strips, dotted at random intervals along the sides, provided uncertain illumination. Pipes and wires ran up its sides, soaring into darkness; others criss-crossed the shaft high above their heads.
Most ominously of all, a metal ladder, of the exact sort that might be found down a manhole cover back on Earth, ran up the shaft as high as the eye could see. It appeared to be the only means of accessing it.
"So where exactly is this ... red light Grodin's talking about?"
McKay was studying schematics on his laptop. He heaved a sigh. "According to the coordinates he gave me, about halfway up, give or take a bit. That's where the main sewer line crosses the shaft. And before you ask, no, there is no other way into the shaft that I can find. Of course, we haven't downloaded half the maps, and for all I know there could be a convenient corridor marked Sewer Access on some level above us. And we could wander around in here for the next week before we find it."
Sheppard tilted his head back and peered up at the slim, shadowy lines of pipes high above him. "So what are the odds that the pipe is about to break and shower us in a million tons of sh--"
Rodney closed the laptop with a snap and let out a long, pained sigh. "Fortunately for both of us, Major, not very likely. And fortunately for you, it really isn't your problem, considering that I'm the only one who would have any idea what I was looking at up there." With another sigh, he stared mournfully up the shaft, and reached for the lower rung of the ladder. "This is really not my day."
"Hold on, McKay. We can go get rappelling gear. It'll be a snap getting up and down this shaft with belay lines."
Rodney paused, and held up a finger. "So you are suggesting walking all the way back to the city proper, obtaining equipment, and walking back? I'm sorry, but I'm dead on my feet as it is. Another forced march is going to kill me."
"So would falling down the shaft."
"Touche. But you're also ignoring the vital point that I have no idea how to rappel. Nor do I have any intention of spending several hours troubleshooting a problem that is most likely a cracked crystal or frayed wire that won't cause us any problems at all if we recalibrate the system to ignore it."
And he reached for the ladder again. This time, Sheppard stopped him with a hand on his wrist.
"Okay, now what?" the scientist demanded as Sheppard looked him up and down, taking in the physique that had clearly seen more of a chair seat than a gym.
"McKay, have you ever done any rock climbing? Rope climbing? Even ladder climbing?"
Rodney retrieved his wrist, looking aggrieved. "Well, no, but I assume it can't be that hard, if you grunts can do it."
"The point is not technique, McKay, it's the effort that you have to expend to do it. The first rung is easy. The two hundredth is going to be hell. By the five hundredth, your arms may not be capable of supporting you anymore. At that point, you fall and die."
"I sincerely doubt if I'll have to go that high. Have a little faith here, Major."
Sheppard rolled his eyes, wondering how to get the seriousness of the situation through the man's thick skull. "It's not a matter of faith. It's a matter of accurately knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Can you look me in the eye and tell me you think you can climb that shaft without falling off?"
The blue eyes darted everywhere but his face. "So what do you suggest?" McKay finally asked in a small voice.
"Simple." Sheppard gripped a rung. "I''m in much better shape; I'll climb it. You tell me what to do through the radio."
McKay's jaw dropped. "What? You don't exactly bounce when you fall either, you know! This all goes back to that 'expendable military' thing, doesn't it?"
Sheppard made little effort to suppress his exasperation. "No, McKay, this goes back to that 'I climb a hell of a lot better than you' thing."
"You have no evidence of that," Rodney protested, folding his arms. "You've never seen me climb."
"And how many hours a day do you spend going through obstacle courses, lifting weights and jogging, McKay? You want to know how much time I spend doing those things?"
Rodney glowered, but was forced to relent in the face of the fact that Sheppard was, well, right. "Fine, fine, you have a point."
"I'll be up and back down while you're still huffing on the fourth rung, McKay."
"I said you were correct! Must you be a complete asshole about it?"
"Plus I have the gene, so I'm probably going to have to climb this ladder eventually, one way or another. May as well get it over with now."
McKay threw his hands up in the air. "You keep this up and I'm going to be hoping you fall, you do realize that?"
Sheppard just laughed. "Keep your radio open," he said, and started climbing.
"You won't have any idea what you're looking at when you get up there!" McKay hollered up the shaft after him. Sheppard looked back over his shoulder to see that the scientist had placed his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder.
"McKay, dammit, I am not going to be able to catch you if you fall, and you know this is something you can't do. It's either this or go back to the city for climbing gear."
The scientist groaned and smacked the wall with his fist, but he took his foot off the ladder. "If you touch anything, Sheppard, so help me, without being told --"
"I may be a jock, but I'm not a complete idiot, McKay." Sheppard grinned to himself as he continued climbing. He had no idea why Elizabeth seemed to have trouble managing Rodney. He found it perfectly easy himself. Not to mention fun as hell.
The Ancients turned out to have had at least a little foresight; Sheppard found occasional catwalks circling the shaft, which, though narrow, made good places to stop for a minute to rest and stretch his arms. And he needed it; even though he was in good shape, his shoulders were soon burning and aching. McKay would never have managed it.
Of course, if McKay was up here, it might have been easier to get him to shut up. Or possibly, if all else failed, push him down the shaft. He hadn't stopped talking once since Sheppard had been climbing.
"... or it might look like a flat panel with two small indentations on the bottom edge. Those are finger holes; press two fingers to them and it should pop up. At least most of them seem to do that. We found one yesterday -- actually, since it's the middle of the night, I guess it would be day before yesterday now -- that we couldn't even open with a blowtorch, and don't ask me why, because there was no visible signs of corrosion ... in fact, nothing around here is nearly as corroded as you'd expect, which is pretty weird if you think about it. I set one of the chemists to analyzing that material that they make everything out of here -- it's not really a plastic, but not a metal either, and in ten thousand years it doesn't seem to have decayed at all, it's amazing. Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, Ancient access panels --"
"McKay," Sheppard said as he stretched and resumed climbing.
"How close am I?"
A snort came through the radio. "Since I have no idea how high up you are, that's a difficult one to answer, Major."
Sheppard paused. "Well, I'm not just going to keep climbing 'till I hit the ceiling! I'm not doing this for my health, McKay." Casting a glance over his shoulder, he saw that the bottom of the shaft had retreated to a very tiny circle of light, very far below him. Sheppard wasn't even remotely bothered by heights, but he had to admit that it would be a long fall with an unpleasant end.
"All right, all right ..." He heard typing through the radio. "Tell me what you see around you."
"I see a shaft, McKay. Um, there's some pipes right below me."
He could visualize Rodney's look of exasperation and grinned to himself as he climbed. "Could you be a little more specific, please, Major!"
"Well ... two straight pipes, side by side, about as big around as my leg, and another one about twice that big crossing above them at right angles." He tilted his head back. "Um, there's another one above me that makes a sort of U-bend in the middle."
"I think I've got you located," McKay's voice echoed tinnily in his ear. "Can you se a really big pipe above you? About six feet in diameter or so? Probably about fifty feet farther up?"
"Could be. It's dark up here." He thought he could make something out, but it was hard to tell.
McKay seemed to take that for a yes. "Well, when you get there, that's it." A fractional pause, then, "Are you there yet? Tell me when you get there."
"Just exactly how fast do you think I climb?" In addition to the ache in his shoulders, his fingers were starting to feel as if they'd been pummeled with a meat tenderizer. Gloves would have been a good idea.
"I have no idea, Major, because I'm down here and you're up there." He could hear the frustration in the scientist's voice. It clearly chafed McKay to no end that he was dependent upon Sheppard to relay information to him. "Tell me when you get there, would you just do that?"
Sheppard decided to save his breath for climbing, since he had no real hope that responding would make McKay talk any less.
"Major? Major? Is your radio working? Did you get that last part? I said --"
On second thought ... "Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on. I'm almost there. Shut up and let me climb."
The giant conduit that McKay had described was located right above another of those catwalks. Sheppard stepped off the ladder with a sigh of relief. Like most of the other catwalks, it didn't have a railing -- he was getting the impression that the Ancients weren't really all that big on safety -- and was only a couple of feet wide. Sheppard glanced down the shaft and decided that, even with his good head for heights, he probably didn't want to do that again.
McKay, incredibly, had shut up. Sheppard tapped his radio just to make sure it hadn't cut out. "Okay, I'm here. Now what?"
"Tell me what you see." Eagerness quivered in McKay's voice.
"Anything specific? Or everything?"
"Everything. If I want more detail on something, I'll tell you."
Sheppard stabilized himself with a hand against the wall so that he could look around more safely. "Um, okay. That big pipe is right over my head. It comes out of the wall in a sort of metal collar, or something ... I can't see any seams. I'm standing on a catwalk sort of thing. There's a row of lights down near my feet ... little round lights, kinda blue."
"Do you see anything that might be an access panel?" Though McKay's impatience could be clearly heard in his voice, he seemed to be keeping it in check at the moment. "Do you remember the different kinds I described --"
"Hang on, I'm checking," Sheppard said hastily, hoping to cut off a fresh flood of information about Ancient wiring. Somewhat to his surprise, he found that he'd actually been listening to at least some of McKay's rambling. "Yeah, here we go. It's the kind with a place for your hand and -- aha!"
"What? Aha what?" From the sound of things, McKay was practically bouncing in place.
"I touched it and it slid back into the wall. Now there's glowing crystals all over the place. And a little flat screen, and some lights."
He did, and McKay instructed him to touch the screen in certain places, bringing up more schematics. Sheppard began to feel like an elaborate remote control device as McKay directed him through checking the integrity of the different crystals. When he pulled out one of them, there was a faint flash at its base, which hadn't happened with any of the others, and he halted with an exclamation of surprise.
"It sparked." Sheppard peered at the base of the crystal. There was a tiny, hairline crack. He described it to McKay.
"Aha!" The loud voice in his ear made him wince. "That's what's doing it, then. Maybe it was damaged when we rose, or maybe something just shifted or settled over the years, or, hell, maybe the Ancients hired a substandard contractor. But it must be grounding out and causing a short. That's why the failsafes are kicking on."
"Well, what do we do about it? I don't have another crystal on me."
"You don't need one. The systems are full of redundancies. Just bypass it."
Sheppard frowned, forgetting that McKay couldn't see him. "Er, McKay, I don't know how to do that."
"Well, that's what I'm for, isn't it? Now pay attention and try not to break anything."
A few minutes later, following McKay's instructions, Sheppard had crossed over two crystals and, pulling out a few more, shifted some wires from one nexus point to another. He had his hand deep in the bowels of the thing, tugging on a particularly stubborn crystal.
"Are you sure I have to take this one out? Can't it be one of the others? It doesn't want to let go."
"Kindly be a man about this, Major." McKay was now pacing down below. He claimed it helped him think. The rhythmic tapping of his footsteps came faintly through the radio. "Yes, it has to be that one; do you see any other crystals that are wired directly into the main flow control relay? I don't think so! Just pull on it."
"That's what I'm doing," Sheppard gritted, and getting a better purchase with his fingers, he gave a powerful yank. The last effort must have loosened it, though, because it slipped out with hardly any resistance. Not expecting the sudden give, Sheppard windmilled his free arm as he involuntarily stepped backwards.
The brain goes into slow motion at times like this. For an instant, Sheppard seemed to hang on the edge of the catwalk, and he had all the time in the world, it seemed, to contemplate what had just happened to him and what was about to happen to him. Unfortunately his body wasn't similarly enhanced, and he was still reaching for a purchase as his overbalanced center of mass carried his other foot off the edge as well.
"Oh fuck," he said quietly, as gravity took him.
Vaguely aware of McKay's shout of "Major!" echoing inside and outside his radio earpiece, he plunged headfirst towards the floor hundreds of feet below.
Sheppard's plummet towards the bottom of the shaft halted, but not with the abrupt and messy end that he was expecting. Instead, it was more like sinking into honey -- a sudden sensation of something dragging at his body, slowing him until he came to a complete stop. He opened his eyes and wished he hadn't -- he was still in midair, head down, staring at the bottom of the shaft and McKay's tiny, frantic figure several hundred feet below him.
McKay's voice was babbling in his earpiece. "Major, I'll catch you -- no, no, 9.8 meters per second, very bad idea, uh, can you catch hold of anything, maybe grab the side of the shaft -- good God, how high up are you, from down here it doesn't look like you're moving at all --"
Very cautiously, afraid of breaking whatever tenuous spell was keeping him from his death, Sheppard reached around to his radio. "I'm not."
"--find a trampoline or something, as if they're just going to have a door that says 'In case of fatal fall, break glass' -- uh, did you just say something?"
"I'm not falling, McKay. I'm floating."
Rodney shut up. Then there came a small voice, "Floating?"
"Yeah, in midair, head down. It's kind of uncomfortable, but you'll excuse me if I'm a little nervous about moving right now, since I don't know what's holding me up. Any ideas?"
After a pause, Rodney's loud finger-snap came through the earpiece. "The gene! Major, I think you just found their elevator. Concentrate on having it turn you rightside up."
"I'm a little leery of doing anything that might cause me to start falling again, McKay."
"Oh for -- don't be a child. If it doesn't respond to your mental commands, then you haven't lost anything, and if it does, you should be fine as long as you don't think about falling."
"Which is harder at the moment than you might think," Sheppard remarked, staring down the shaft.
"Major, if you'd rather hang up there until we call Elizabeth and have her send some Marines with ropes --"
"All right, fine, I'm concentrating." He closed his eyes -- it was easier without having to stare at the drop underneath him -- and thought, Turn me the right way up, and put me on one of those catwalks. Any one will do.
The strange sensation of hanging in midair without falling became even stranger when he started moving, because there was nothing moving him -- nothing pushing, nothing pressing against him, not even wind or any other sensation that he was moving at all. The blood rushed out of his head and he opened his eyes to find himself rightside up and gliding smoothly across the shaft to a catwalk -- in fact, the very one he'd just fallen from. With a gasp of relief, he caught hold of the edge and hoisted himself onto it.
"Major? It worked?"
Sheppard took a few deep breaths, pressed against the wall, before answering. "Yeah. It worked. And I think I even know how it works."
"Oh, sure you do," came back the scientist's voice, laden with scorn. "Why don't you leave the thinking to the people with advanced science degrees, Major."
"I think it's like the intertial dampeners on the puddlejumpers," Sheppard continued, unperturbed. "I couldn't even tell I was moving. And if they can stop you from getting squashed by a hundred gees, then I don't see why they can't stop somebody from falling down an elevator shaft."
There was a long silence. Finally McKay said, "It's possible."
Sheppard grinned against the wall. "You mean I'm right."
"I said it's possible. How in the world am I supposed to know? I'm stuck down here. Maybe if I was up there I could figure out what just happened to -- GAH!"
"McKay? What?" The only answer through the radio was small whimpering noises of terror. Sheppard turned around, keeping one white-knuckled hand clamped to the wall, to try to figure out just what exactly had happened -- and nearly collided with McKay, who crumpled against him and seized hold of the front of Sheppard's uniform in a death grip.
"McKay? Rodney?" Sheppard pried the scientist off him, trying to do so without sending them both off the catwalk. McKay's face was white. "How did you get up ..." He trailed off; there was only one possible answer.
McKay opened and closed his mouth a few times before he managed to say, in something resembling a normal tone of voice, "Flew. I flew. Just sort of ... flew up here."
"It must've heard you say, or think, that you wanted to be up here." Sheppard cast a glance over the edge, and this time he really wished he hadn't done that. It was too easy to remember how it felt to be suspended over that lethal drop. "Why didn't it do that before, I wonder?"
Rodney drew some shaky breaths, the color starting to come back to his face. "Because you have the gene, Major, I'd guess. It must be one of those systems that works for anybody once it's active. Or maybe falling was the trigger and it kicked in automatically, so now it's on for good."
"Getting down's gonna be fun," Sheppard remarked with another look at the edge of the precipice.
"I'd really rather not think about that right now. I'd rather look at the -- Oh God ..." In looking around for the access panel, he'd accidentally looked over the edge; the returning color vanished from his face, and Sheppard moved a hasty hand close to his chest in case he pitched over the side. Whether or not the "elevator" would work for an unconscious scientist without the gene was not something that he wanted to find out the hard way. Rodney, however, swallowed hard and managed to recover on his own. "Right," he mumbled, and began to shuffle sideways towards the access panel, keeping as much as possible of his body in contact with the wall. Sheppard shuffled along after him, keeping a hand ready to catch him in case he slipped. After a moment, Rodney noticed this and raised his head to deliver an exasperated look.
"I don't need you holding my hand, Major. We both know ..." He swallowed convulsively and managed, barely, to keep his eyes from going to the edge. "We both know I'll be perfectly fine if I do slip off."
"No, McKay, we don't know that. For one thing, I have the gene and you don't, and for all we know, the safety mechanism that caught me will just completely ignore you."
"It worked for me just fine a minute ago, and when will you quit bringing up the gene thing!" McKay resumed his slow forward progress towards the access panel. "Did you know," he inquired in an almost-normal conversational tone, "that Beckett has been developing an injectable form of the gene? And guess who's volunteered for a human trial once the thing is safe? You're about to be a lot less special than you once were."
"An injectable gene?" Sheppard considered this as they shuffled around the side of the shaft. "Is that even possible?"
"Ha, feeling threatened, Major?"
Sheppard snorted a laugh. "Yeah, because I love these midnight expeditions to the bowels of the city. I'll miss them so."
Rodney started to give a sarcastic reply, but just then he reached the access panel and was distracted in mid-snark. "Dammit, Major! Did a nice number on this thing, didn't you? Could you possibly be any more clumsy?"
"You mean while I was flailing for a handhold while plummeting to my death, McKay?"
"There's nothing in the access panel that could possibly support your weight, Major."
"Well, I'm sorry if I had other things on my mind than a logical analysis of the situation, Rodney, such as my own impending death!"
McKay reached out an impatient hand and snapped his fingers. "Well, give me the crystal."
The scientist spared a look in Sheppard's direction and rolled his eyes. "The one you were taking out when you fell, Major. Am I being unclear?"
Sheppard stared at him in disbelief. "You think I still have it?"
"You mean you don't?"
"McKay! I was falling!"
"Well, it certainly didn't fall; I was under it! I think I would have noticed."
The same thought occurred to them both at once, and they looked over the edge, Sheppard steadying McKay with a hand on his chest. The crystal, being mostly transparent, was difficult to see in the dim light of the shaft, but now that they were looking for it, Sheppard eventually picked it out -- hanging in midair, a couple feet down from their present location. It was actually within reach. He knelt cautiously on the catwalk, leaned out and got it by a corner. He experienced no resistance as he brought it back to him, and held it up triumphantly in front of McKay's stunned face.
The scientist managed to close his gaping mouth, and took the crystal from Sheppard's hand without saying a word.
"That," Sheppard said, "is cool." He looked over the edge; as he adjusted to the idea that the fall couldn't hurt him, he was starting to really enjoy being up here. "Imagine -- no dropped nails or sandwiches, just kick back on the air anytime you need a break ..."
"If only I shared your idiot confidence," McKay muttered from above him. He heard small clicking sounds and McKay cursed softly, then said, "There. Luckily the damage from your thrashing about was worse than it looked. I think I've got it bypassed nicely."
Sheppard straightened up and looked at the glowing crystals. Couldn't prove it by him. "So it should work now?"
"Well, that's the sixty-thousand-dollar question, isn't it?" McKay switched his radio to the standard, public Atlantis channel. "Zelen-- Oh, damn. I sent him home." He smacked his forehead with his palm. "There's nobody in the waste control facility to test this."
Sheppard shrugged. "We could walk back."
"And then come back down here again if it doesn't work? I'd really rather not." With a sigh, he keyed the radio. "Grodin, are you there?"
Listening in on the open channel, Sheppard heard the reply come immediately. "Here. How's it going down there?"
"We're ready to test. Problem is, there's nobody available to turn it on." McKay started, automatically, to pace on the narrow catwalk, took a look down, and stopped with a swallow.
Into the silence, Grodin said, "I can't go myself, but you want me to send somebody?"
"That would be great, Peter, thanks. It's very simple; I can walk anybody through it. All you have to do is hit a button."
"I'll keep you posted, then. Grodin out."
"Now what?" Sheppard wanted to know.
"Now we wait."
The pilot sat down on the edge of the catwalk, dangling his long legs over the edge. He looked up to see McKay staring at him in disbelief.
"That can't be safe," McKay said flatly.
"Of course it's safe. You've already seen what happens if I fall off."
"And you trust that it'll happen every time, do you? What if there's a power failure? What if it only catches you the first time because they figure that nobody would be dumb enough to fall off twice?"
Sheppard laughed. "Ever heard of tempting fate, McKay?"
"Ever heard of foresight and planning, Major?"
Sheppard just shrugged and leaned back against the wall, arms folded behind his head. "Well, you can stand there if you like, but I intend to be comfortable." He smirked up at McKay, who looked highly peeved.
"Fine, don't expect me to catch you when you fall." Carefully and keeping a hand on the wall at all times, McKay turned around to look into the glowing circuitry in the access panel. "I'll simply use the time to expand my mind and gain much-needed knowledge about Ancient wiring systems, while you goof off."
Sheppard's smirk faded somewhat as he noticed that Rodney's hands on the access panel were trembling slightly. "If you feel anything like I do, you're probably so tired that you won't remember half of what you're seeing anyway. Sit down, McKay. The more tired you get, the more likely that you will fall."
"I don't need to be lectured by you," was the peevish reply.
Sheppard wiggled into a more comfortable position on the ledge. "Your loss."
There were a few moments of silence. Sheppard was actually starting to drowse; he could feel his body relaxing. Suddenly something jostled him and he turned his head to discover Rodney very nervously settling himself on the edge of the catwalk.
"Learned all you can about Ancient technology already?"
"Believe me, if I had any choice I'd be sitting as far away from you as possible, but it's too difficult to move on this thing." He waved a hand at the narrow catwalk. "Given the choice between you and a fatal fall, I guess I'll take you. But by a very narrow margin."
"You wouldn't die if you fell. You know that. You're just choosing to disbelieve it."
"Aren't you the one who tried to convince me that it might kill me earlier?"
"If it caught the crystal, I can't imagine that it wouldn't catch you. Like I said, you're choosing not to trust it."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I'm choosing not to blindly trust my life to ten-thousand-year-old technology. That makes me what ... oh yeah, SANE!"
"Isn't that what we're doing every time we go through the Stargate?"
"Speak for yourself. I've only been through it once."
Sheppard raised a finger. "Ah, yes, but all that is about to change, remember?"
"At the moment, I'm trying to forget." Rodney tried to settle himself on the ledge, clinging to the edge of it with both hands. Sheppard noticed a light sheen of sweat on his skin. Their precarious position was clearly still bothering him badly.
"C'mon, McKay, relax. You're not going to fall and you're not going to die. Think about something else."
"Something else, huh?" McKay waved his hand at the drop-off beneath them. "Like what, pray tell?"
"I spy, with my little eye ..."
"Shoot me now," Rodney groaned.
"... something that starts with the letter S."
"Damn. Okay, your turn."
Rodney heaved a long-suffering sigh. "This is ridiculous, I can't believe I'm actually having this conversation. I spy, et cetera, something that starts with ..." His expression turned gleeful. "Something that starts with C."
"Catwalk. Come on, Rodney, pick a hard one."
McKay was grinning cheerfully. "It's not catwalk."
"Good one, but no."
"Oh. Um. What else in here starts with C? Ceiling?"
Rodney pointed upwards, into the darkness. "We don't even know if there is one."
"Okay, fine, so it's not ceiling. I give up, what?"
"Carbon? As in copies?"
"As in one of the elements composing your body and mine. Not to mention carbon dioxide in the air. There's a ton of carbon in this shaft."
"That's a molecule. That's cheating."
"Carbon is an atom, Major. Are you seriously telling me you don't know the difference?" McKay pointed at him. "Your turn."
"I still say you cheated." Sheppard looked around. "Okay, um, I spy, with my little eye ... something that starts with the letter W."
"You could at least try to make it challenging, Major."
"There's nothing in here, McKay. It's a shaft."
"Yet somehow I'm having no trouble," McKay replied cheekily.
"Yeah ... because you're cheating."
"What are you complaining about? This stupid game was your idea. I spy something starting with G."
Sheppard grinned. "Geek."
"Oh har. No."
"Um ... guardrail? Except there isn't one."
"I give up. I'm really not going to like the answer to this one, am I?"
"Gravity," McKay said triumphantly.
"You can't see gravity!"
"I don't have to see it to know it's there. The fact that we're not floating off this catwalk is proof of that."
Sheppard tried to squirm into a more comfortable position on the ledge. "I think you're having trouble getting into the spirit of this game."
McKay crossed his arms and grinned smugly. "You're just jealous because I keep winning."
Sheppard seriously contemplated pushing McKay off the ledge -- on the assumption that it wouldn't hurt him and might shut him up for a while -- when the radio crackled. "Dr. McKay? This is Grodin. Are you there?"
Sheppard mouthed "Grodin starts with G" at Rodney, who tried to ignore him. "This is McKay. Go ahead."
"We're ready to start. Carol is down in the waste disposal facility, and she's ready to follow your instructions."
Carol. Sheppard tried to put a face to the name, could not. He was still learning all his own people, let alone the civilians. He listened as McKay impatiently instructed the woman in which buttons to push -- it was more complicated than just pushing one button, but not much more so. And then there was a silence.
"Well?" McKay pressed.
"I'm not seeing red lights anywhere," Grodin said. "Carol?"
"Everything looks good down here."
McKay looked over at Sheppard with slowly dawning relief and joy. "Carol, Peter, go flush a toilet. Doesn't matter where or which one."
Sheppard leaned forward eagerly, seeing McKay also quivering with impatience. Swinging aside the mouthpiece of his radio for a moment, he said with a grin, "You think we're getting a little too worked up about this?"
"Is that even possible? Major, you can go three days without water, and weeks without food, but without a bathroom --" He broke off at Grodin's cry.
McKay's body sagged in visible relief. "Thank God. Thank God. Peter, it's going to be an hour or so before I can get back to the main part of the city. Do you have anyone available who can spot-test the plumbing in various areas before we make a city-wide announcement?"
"Carol can do it on her way back up to the gate room."
"Great. Wonderful. McKay out."
He turned off his radio and closed his eyes, leaning back against the wall with a long sigh. All the exhaustion that he'd been holding at bay was suddenly clearly visible in the lines of his face and body.
"Nice work," Sheppard said quietly, and meant it.
For a moment, he didn't know if McKay had heard him, but then one of the eyes cracked upen to reveal a weary hint of blue. The corners of McKay's mouth curved up. And that was all; words didn't need to be spoken. Again silence settled on them, a silence borne partly of exhaustion and partly of unexpected comfort in each other's company.
They both looked up when Grodin's lightly accented voice echoed from the citywide PA. "Attention, residents of Atlantis. The plumbing is cleared for use. Please resume your normal activities. Thank you."
"... and the ensuing rush will probably shut down the system again," Rodney sighed.
Sheppard grinned, stretched and climbed to his feet. "Well, McKay, it's been fun, but I'm taking a detachment of Marines through the gate at seven hundred hours and I'd like to catch at least a couple hours' sleep before then." He offered a hand and helped the scientist to his feet.
"Where are you going? Tomorrow, I mean."
Sheppard lifted a shoulder. "We're spending a couple of hours on a planet Teyla knows about, to talk about trading for food. Have you met Teyla, by the way? Athosian? Swings a mean club?"
"That's the redhead you were hitting on at the party the other night?"
"We're friends," Sheppard snapped.
"Yes, I always stare down my friends' cleavage. Of course I can't blame you, considering that her cleavage is so ..." Rodney gestured in front of himself, wordlessly demonstrating what he was talking about.
Sheppard stifled a laugh. "Better watch it, McKay. She hits people with sticks. Hard. I have the bruises to prove it." At Rodney's amused look, he hastily qualified: "Training. We were training. She was showing me some tricks with those sticks of hers."
"Whose stick, again?"
"You have a surprisingly dirty mind, McKay."
"So says the guy who spends, what, six hours in the Pegasus Galaxy before showing up with a hot alien babe?" McKay's look turned faintly hopeful. "This planet where you're going tomorrow ... does it have any hot alien women on it?"
Sheppard smirked at him. "Well ... Teyla will be, obviously. And what do you mean, 'where you're going'? Don't you mean WE?"
There was an odd mix of nervousness, annoyance and hope on Rodney's face. "When you said -- I mean, I thought you meant someday, obviously, but --"
"Too busy tomorrow?"
"Well, insanely busy, obviously, Major." The grin that tugged at the corners of McKay's mouth was shy and eager, a little kid's grin. "But I think I could make some time. For just a couple of hours. Seven hundred hours, you said?"
"Seven hundred," Sheppard confirmed, and then glanced down over the edge of the catwalk. "And in order to have any time at all to sleep, I guess we'd better get out of here."
McKay looked over the edge, and paled. "Suppose I'd better start climbing, then."
"You can't climb down all that way, Rodney. I don't even think I can do it right now. My arms feel like rubber. Come on, you floated up -- you can float back down. I'll hold onto you, just in case it only reacts to me." He reached out a hand.
McKay attempted to back away from the edge, and from Sheppard, but the ledge was so narrow that all he managed to do was flatten himself against the wall. "No. No way. I am not stepping off this thing in the hopes that an invisible energy field will catch me. My brains are too important to end up splattered all over an Atlantean floor."
Sheppard struggled to suppress his amusement -- it clearly wasn't a laughing matter to Rodney. The scientist was obviously terrified. "It's a leap of faith, McKay."
Rodney snorted. The sarcasm did not manage to hide his fear. "Well, if you knew me at all, Major -- which, I might add, the last couple of days notwithstanding, you do not -- you'd know that I'm not prone to those."
"I'm not -- not so good at that, either, Major."
"Maybe it's time to try." And Sheppard just stood there, holding out his hand.
McKay took a long, shuddering breath, and inched a step closer, allowing Sheppard to take hold of his arm. "Are you sure you have a grip on me?" he demanded. "Is that going to hold if I fall? It feels like you're just holding my jacket. My arm could slip out. I'm heavy, you know --"
"McKay. Rodney. Relax. Just step forward when I do, and think about going down, slowly, sinking to the floor like ... like ..." Sheppard's metaphor deserted him. He couldn't think, off the top of his head, of anything that sank slowly and delicately. All the flying things he was familiar with were forceful, fast and loud.
"Dandelion fluff?" McKay inquired, the fear in his voice now overlaid with a heavy veneer of scorn. "Butterflies? Kitten whiskers?"
"A skydiver in a parachute," Sheppard finished, pleased to have actually thought of something that drifted in the air without being hopelessly feminine. "Okay, on three. One, two ..."
"Wait, I'm not ready!" Rodney squeaked. But despite his protests, he stepped forward when Sheppard did -- and the air held them. When their other feet left the catwalk in tandem, they began to sink slowly.
It wasn't like dandelion fluff or even skydivers -- more, Sheppard thought, like two men sinking into mud. Again, there was no sensation at all, either from the movement or from wind on their skin. But smoothly, gradually, they sank down the shaft, and he felt Rodney's stiff arm beginning to relax under his hand.
"See?" he said, turning to grin at the scientist. "Isn't this cool?"
McKay hesitantly returned a smile that was at once exhilarated, and unexpectedly shy. "Yeah," he said, looking around him in wonder at the walls of the shaft with their glittering lights. "It's cool as all hell, Major."
They touched down on the floor of the shaft as lightly as ... some light thing other than dandelion fluff, thought Sheppard. He released Rodney's arm -- he hadn't even realized he was still holding it -- and tipped his head back to look up the shaft one final time. He couldn't pick out the catwalk where they had been sitting just a few moments ago. All was lost to distance.
"I'm going to have to come back here and figure out how this works," Rodney said thoughtfully.
"I told you -- inertial dampeners."
The scientist gave him a sharp look, then stared back up the shaft again, and rather than the antagonistic response that Sheppard was expecting, he just said, "Could be." Which probably meant "you're right" in McKay-ese -- a language, Sheppard realized, in which he was rapidly becoming fluent.
Grinning to himself, Sheppard started walking; after a moment, Rodney followed him.
"So," Rodney said after walking in silence for a little while. He sounded diffident, uncertain. "If we're leaving at seven, then we should eat something first, like maybe ... six?"
"Sounds good. See you in the cafeteria at six, McKay."
Out of the corner of his eye, Sheppard caught Rodney's grin.
"I'll be there, Major."