"... and tell the Major he needs to get down here and take care of this!"
"Rodney," Elizabeth said, rubbing the too-tight skin between her eyes, "for the last time, Major Sheppard is not your personal exterminator."
"Elizabeth!" her radio whined. "There is a bat in my lab! Isn't it his job to take care of threats to the safety of the city?"
"I would hardly consider a bat a threat to the safety of the city."
"Hello? Rabies? Worse! Alien rabies! Do you have any idea how many diseases use bats as a vector? The average bat harbors no less than --"
"Rodney! Major Sheppard is on the mainland with Teyla. He should be back soon, but in the meantime, Sergeant Bates is in charge of citywide security. Why don't you take your concerns to him?"
"I did! He laughed in my face! Well, he didn't laugh; I don't think Bates can laugh. Or smile. Do you think it's some sort of medical condition? Anyway, he disdained my problem, and incidentally, speaking of Bates, and disdain, I'd like to file a complaint --"
"Well then, Rodney," Elizabeth said loudly, speaking over him, "you've gone through all proper channels, I am now well aware of your problem, and you will need to speak to Major Sheppard when he gets back, which should be quite soon." Please, let it be soon.
"What's taking him so long? Wasn't he just going to run over there and check on the Athosians' progress at rebuilding from the storm?"
Elizabeth opened her mouth to reply when a thunderclap, audible even from within her office, made her jump. All the lights flickered. "I presume the weather is slowing him down," she said, a bit sardonically. "Are you quite sure we aren't heading for another of those huge storms?"
"No, no, of course not, we've been over this. Haven't we? I sent you a report --"
"I'm afraid I've been busy," Elizabeth said, glancing at the blinking icon showing 347 new messages in the Rodney McKay folder of her intranet email.
"Oh. Right. Haven't we all? Anyway, to summarize, we think -- uh, would you like the long summary or the short summary?"
Elizabeth thought wistfully of the big bottle of Tylenol-3 in Carson's medical stores. "The short summary, please."
"Are you sure? Hmm. In a nutshell, we're fairly sure that the big storm kicked off this hemisphere's monsoon season. We can expect some wet weather before we're done, but luckily, the database indicates that it doesn't last very long. A few weeks at most."
"Have we recovered sufficiently from the other storm to ride out these? The grounding stations are all back online, I hope?"
"Yes -- well, all but one. We're still cleaning up the -- Omigod there it is again! Zelempa, get the broom!"
"It's Zelenka," she heard in the background, followed by low-pitched muttering. Having spent two years in Istanbul with her translator and guide an expatriot from the former Czechoslovakia, she was able to translate readily in her head: "A broom! What does he think I am, a janitor? Twelve years of schooling for this! Arrogant bastard..."
"Well, it sounds like you have your hands full down there," she said with all the cheer that she could muster, and signed off before he thought of something else.
She managed to get an entire two sentences written on the speech she was supposed to deliver at the Athosian Blessing of the Crops ceremony next week before Chuck stuck his head in the door. "Major Sheppard and Teyla are back, ma'am."
"Oh, thank God." While not about to admit it to Rodney, she'd been getting worried; they were supposed to be back from the mainland at first light, and were already nearly three hours overdue. "Is everything all right?"
"Major Sheppard says so, but apparently they did have a little trouble; they're headed down to the infirmary."
Damn it. Was it too much to hope that the entire Genii incident had burned up their bad karma for the year? Apparently so. However, there hadn't been any calls for an emergency medical team, so there was always that. "Is everyone all right?"
"I don't think anyone is seriously hurt. Major Sheppard said they got a little roughed up by the weather."
Whatever that meant. "I suppose I'll debrief them after they're done," Elizabeth said, and went back to banging her head against her speech, noting idly that the Rodney McKay email folder had incremented itself to 349.
The latest blow had been the discovery that the power interruptions to the refrigeration equipment had spoiled many of their vaccines and antivenins. He also still had an intermittent headache and blurred vision from his injuries during the big storm; all this probably explained why his first thought when Major Sheppard limped into his infirmary, supported by Teyla, was Oh bloody hell, NOW what?
"Major," he said, grabbing a stethoscope and nodding to his head nurse, Nancy, to continue with the cataloguing of the remaining samples of Pegasus Galaxy venomous species.
"Doc," Sheppard said, his lazy grin changing to a wince of pain as Teyla helped him sit down on an examination table.
"Dare I ask what the problem is now, Major?" Both Teyla and Sheppard were covered with mud, their uniforms ripped and, in the Major's case, bloody.
"Rough weather on the mainland," Sheppard said, laconic as always. He began to peel off his soggy uniform jacket.
"A tree fell on him," Teyla reported succinctly. Sheppard gave her a startled and resentful glare; she shrugged, a smile tugging at one corner of her mouth.
Carson's eyebrows went up.
"A small tree, Doc."
Carson sighed. "All right, what parts of you do I need to look at? The correct answer is not 'none'."
Sheppard rolled his eyes, but complied. "Ankle hurts; I think I might've twisted it trying to dodge away. Kinda bruised up -- right thigh, torso."
Carson raised his eyes to Teyla. "Could I get you to go over to Nancy for your post-mission check, love? I need to give the Major a bit of privacy."
Teyla nodded, smiled at Sheppard, and headed for the other side of the infirmary. Carson pulled the curtain. "Well, Major? Shall we strip?"
Sheppard shucked his T-shirt, shivering even though the air in the infirmary was not especially cool. Carson winced at the crusted scrapes and scratches, and most particularly at the sight of an impressive bruise blooming green and purple across his patient's side and chest. Sheppard, peering down at himself, appeared equally impressed. "Wow. Believe me, it didn't feel that bad -- of course, I had my face in the mud at the time."
"How long were you under the tree?" Carson laid the stethoscope to Sheppard's chest, frowned at the sound of mild congestion in the lungs.
"Oh ... a few hours, I guess."
Carson blinked and looked up from noting the Major's vitals on his tablet. "A few hours?"
"They had to get a saw! It's not that bad. I couldn't really move a whole lot, and I was bored out of my skull, but I wasn't really hurting. Well, except for my thigh."
Carson stepped back. "Trousers, Major."
Looking put-upon, Sheppard slid out of those as well, revealing an equally impressive bruise across his right thigh and his left ankle swelling up like a football. (The real sort of football, of course, not the American bastardization.)
"Why don't we take a short trip to the scanner, Major."
"What's this we, Doc?"
Nothing turned out to be broken, or even sprained -- just deep bruising. Sheppard was still shivering, though, even under a blanket; he'd obviously been badly chilled on the mainland, and was just now recovering. His temperature was just a little low, but Carson didn't like the congestion when he breathed. "How about catching some sleep here, Major?"
"What? I'm doing okay. Well, reasonably okay." Sheppard winced as he sat up, pulling the blanket around his shoulders. "What I'd really like is a hot shower, my quarters and an aspirin. Not necessarily in that order."
"Well, I'll give you a light dose of codeine and ..." Carson paused; he couldn't see any medical reason to keep Sheppard in the infirmary, but he still couldn't help feeling a slight, nagging uncertainty. "I really can't see any reason why you shouldn't rest in your quarters, but you might need something to wear."
"Yeah." Sheppard cast a wary glance at the heap of muddy clothes on the floor. "I think those are trying to crawl away on their own."
A quick radio call to Lt. Ford saw the young man dispatched to Sheppard's quarters to retrieve a fresh uniform for his CO. "Oh, sir, you ought to know that Dr. McKay has been trying to get hold of you."
Sheppard closed his eyes briefly. He was lying on his back in the infirmary bed while Carson cleaned and disinfected his scrapes. "Did he say what he wants?"
"Something about bats, sir."
"Ah. Tell him I'm dead."
There was a brief pause. Carson fought down a laugh and focused on debriding the ragged edges of tissue surrounding one of the Major's more painful-looking scrapes.
"I, uh, don't think he'd believe that, sir." A burst of static almost obscured the end of Ford's statement.
"Lieutenant, what are we paying you for? Learn to lie! Oh, and I need another radio, too."
"Mine's full of mud." Sheppard unhooked it from his ear, shook it and put it back in.
The lights flickered. Carson blinked, looked up and then went back to bandaging Sheppard's abraded chest.
"Storms?" Sheppard said, clicking off his radio.
"Guess so. Rodney claims the city can ride them out." Carson shuddered, tied the last suture in the deepest cut and pressed down a butterfly bandage, then stepped back.
"Hope he's right, Doc." Sheppard lifted a shoulder under the blanket. "I guess you'd have a better idea of that; you know him better than I do."
Carson pondered that, and decided to be honest. "He's usually right."
"Gee, that's comforting to know. Thanks, Doc."
The obviously irritated reply came back, blurred by static: "Yes?"
"I'm sorry, Rodney; is everything all right?"
"Oh, just fine! Aside from the bat infestation!"
She couldn't help herself. "One bat is an infestation?"
"Excuse me! Three! Independently confirmed by Doctors Kusanagi and Simpson! Though not that damned Czech," he added -- or at least that was what she thought he said; she could barely understand him as the radio cut in and out.
"Rodney, bat problems aside, I'm having trouble hearing you."
McKay made a frustrated sound. "I know, I know. It's interference from all the electrical activity in the thunderstorms."
Elizabeth winced as another burst of static spiked her eardrum. "We were able to use the radios during the bigger storm; what's changed?"
"Aha. Turns out there's a system of relays within the city that --" Whatever else he said was drowned out by static.
"Rodney, you're breaking up. I'm debriefing Major Sheppard and Teyla Emmagan in my office in a few minutes; could you join us?"
Her headache just did not need this. "Debriefing! My office! Now!"
As the static faded temporarily, there was a loud, put-upon sigh from McKay's end of the radio connection. "If we suffer an outbreak of rabies, don't blame me. I'll be there in ten."
Sheppard and Teyla showed up a few minutes later. The Major looked terrible -- he was pale, moving slowly and carefully, with a string of bruises showing purple above the collar of his shirt. His hair stuck up in shower-damp spikes. He lowered himself into the chair in front of her desk, trying a little too hard for his usual slouch and only making himself wince.
"Carson said you're all right to be out of the infirmary?" Elizabeth asked.
"Oh yeah. Got some drugs. I'll be fine." He displayed the small bottle, then stifled a cough against the back of his hand. "I'm just going to sack out in my room for awhile after we're done here."
"So, what exactly happened? I heard you had a run-in with a tree."
Sheppard winced. "You could say that. I was helping Halling look for some missing kids at the edge of one of their fields when -- well, I suppose I zigged when I should've zagged."
His voice was light; however, Elizabeth caught Teyla's tight-lipped expression out of the corner of her eye. Even in the warm office she felt the hairs stand up on the backs of her arms as a little shiver ran through her. There had been too much rain, too much cold, too much fear lately. They all needed a break.
"Did you find the kids?"
Sheppard quirked a slight grin. "They helped dig me out."
"I told you that it was not wise to be out in that weather, Major." There was a little more snap in Teyla's voice than Elizabeth was used to. The Athosian's small, square hands were laced together in a tight knot in her lap. My God, she must have been really worried, Elizabeth thought. She wasn't sure why it surprised her; she had seen Teyla integrating herself slowly into Atlantis, into the Major's team, but it was a little startling to realize that they were all becoming friends -- gradually, unexpectedly ...
"Ah, I see you're all here. Excellent, because I'm quite busy." McKay strode into the room, his ubiquitous laptop tucked into the crook of his arm.
... and, in some cases, almost against their will.
"What the hell happened to you?" McKay demanded as he commandeered the seat next to Sheppard. "You look like crap."
The Major started to turn his head, pulled up short with a tightening of his lips, and settled for rolling his eyes. "A tree fell on me, and I swear that is the last time I'm saying those words today."
"Oh." McKay narrowed his eyes, as if looking warily for the hidden joke.
Elizabeth cleared her throat. "If we could focus, please? Rodney, what's the current status of the city with regards to the thunderstorms we're experiencing?"
McKay waved a dismissive hand, then flinched as it tugged at the still-healing knife wound under his sleeve. "We're fine. These storms are nothing compared to that other one. The city might have some minor structural damage before it's all over; I suggest people stay out of the upper towers until the winds die down. We're certainly in no danger of sinking, though."
Elizabeth let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. As a child, she'd loved thunderstorms; now, each clap of thunder made her stomach cramp -- she was all too aware of the city's fragility, deceptive for its size. "What about the communication problems we're having?"
"Ah. Yes. Interesting, that. It seems that there are a system of relays throughout the city that facilitate radio and other wireless communications. The burst of electricity through the city's conduits damaged them. We didn't actually know about it until the latest batch of storms hit. We're fixing them, but right now, our ability to use the radios goes in and out depending on the electrical interference from the storms."
Sheppard frowned. "That doesn't sound good for security."
"Oh, please ... is that all you ever think about?"
"Saved your ass, didn't it?"
Elizabeth cleared her throat. "What about the rest of the city? Didn't you tell me earlier that one of the grounding stations was still offline?"
"Yes. Guess which one." McKay's strained attempt at a smile fell flat.
"I thought you fixed it," Elizabeth said, feeling an involuntary chill creep over her at the memory of being out on the pier in that storm, lashed by freezing rain, Kolya hovering over her.
"No ... I patched it together enough to decouple it. Getting it back together is a whole different story. On top of that, we still haven't caught the bats."
Now it was Sheppard's turn to look wary. "What's all this about bats, anyway?"
Elizabeth made urgent shushing motions at him, but it was too late: McKay was off and running. "Yes, bats. Alien bats! In my lab! Have you heard about Nipah virus? Lethal! Traced to bats! And don't get me started on rabies. I'm telling you, this city is teetering on the brink of an outbreak that'll make Ebola look like the common cold if you don't send me some grunts to get rid of --"
Whether deliberate or accidental, Sheppard picked that moment for a sudden, hacking cough. McKay was out of his chair and halfway across the room with speed that approached teleportation, slapping his radio at the same time. "Carson! It's starting!"
"Relax, Rodney." Sheppard caught his breath, one arm curled around his bruised side. "I don't have the alien bat flu."
"How do you know?" McKay demanded.
Elizabeth closed her eyes as she heard Carson say over the open channel, through intermittent bursts of static: "What's starting, Rodney?"
A moment's pause. "The what?"
Elizabeth managed to stifle the urge to laugh, or scream, and tapped her radio. "Carson, it's a misunderstanding. The situation is under control."
Sheppard glared up at McKay from his chair, apparently somewhere between humor and annoyance. "It's a cough, McKay. A mild cough. I spent most of the night trapped under a tree, and Carson says my lungs are a little congested, that's all."
"Fine." McKay edged towards the door. "Maybe it hasn't started yet, but it will, unless you send me some --"
"All right, all right; if Ford and Stackhouse aren't doing anything, I'll have them come down to the lab and chase bats. Happy?"
Now in the doorway, McKay tilted his chin up. "Quite. And if we're finished here, I ought to get out to the grounding station and make sure Zelempka hasn't electrocuted himself."
Elizabeth coughed, "Zelenka!" under her breath, which made Sheppard choke on a laugh; even Teyla's lips quirked. "Yes, Rodney," she said once her voice was steady, "I think we are. Please keep me appraised of the city's status, however. And ..." She paused and then, like a good leader, threw herself on the grenade. "And of the bat situation as well."
Sheppard was obviously trying to contain himself, but not doing a very good job. "Think I ought to have Ford and Stackhouse bring the big guns, McKay? I could have them get a 'jumper too."
"Oh, har. I can see that being flattened by a tree hasn't improved your sense of humor."
"I'd just hate to think of you being killed by a bat, Rodney; think how embarrassing the death certificate would be."
"Fine, mock away, but don't come crying to me when half the city drops dead of rabies!" McKay snapped, and vanished out the door in a cloud of indignation.
Elizabeth paused a moment to let the vein behind her eye stop throbbing before she said, "John, you do remember that discussion we had last week about proper meeting etiquette, don't you?"
Sheppard's eyes dropped, looking for all the world like a recalcitrant kid. "It rings a bell, yeah."
"And rule number one was?"
Sheppard quirked a small grin. " 'Don't poke the scientists.' "
"Thank you." The meeting in question had degenerated into a Sheppard and McKay snarkfest, and Elizabeth had had enough -- she'd been ignoring the John and Rodney Show as much as she could, but the more she ignored it, the more it escalated, and it simply could not be good for their working relationship. She hated having to crack down on it, but at the rate things were going, she was afraid that if she let it go, they'd be trying to kill each other inside a month.
Hopefully she'd managed to cut off the problem at its source, and things would only get better from here.
Turning her attention to Teyla, she asked, "How are conditions on the mainland?"
"My people's new village weathered the earlier storm without too much damage. There is much work to be done in the fields, but we are rebuilding." A faintly audible thunderclap made her blink. "I hope Dr. McKay is correct that these storms will not be so severe."
"He doesn't seem worried, and we all know Rodney -- if this was likely to become a problem, he'd be the first one to mention it. And we can ferry your people to Atlantis if we need to." Privately, she hoped that they wouldn't have to; flying in heavier weather would be difficult, and she didn't want to risk jumpers or lives.
Teyla shook her head. "I do not think that will be necessary, but I would like to continue checking in with my people regularly."
Elizabeth nodded. "I think that can be arranged." Seeing Sheppard shift surreptitiously in his chair, trying to find a comfortable position, she took pity on him. "Thank you, both of you. Teyla, I'll have the control room try the Athosians' radio base station every few hours, and contact you if there's a problem."
"Thank you." Teyla rose with a gracious smile, then looked down at Sheppard. "Major, will you join myself and Lieutenant Ford for lunch?"
Sheppard shook his head, apparently (from the pained look on his face) forgetting why it wasn't a good idea. "Nah, think I'll go catch up on the sleep that I didn't get last night. Hey, if you're seeing Ford, could you tell him about McKay's bats?"
Elizabeth was impressed by the lack of reaction on Teyla's face. "I will do so. Major. Doctor Weir." She nodded to them both and left.
Sheppard didn't move for a minute, then gritted his teeth and heaved himself out of his chair. He'd clearly stiffened up while he was sitting down; Elizabeth watched him lurch towards the door, trying to walk normally and utterly failing. "John, are you all right?"
He gave her an irritated look over his shoulder, having to swivel half his upper body to do that. "I'm fine. Really. I got pain meds, and the doc's coming by later to check on me --" a twist of his lips indicated how he felt about that "-- and otherwise, I'm just going to take a nap and then have a look around the storm-damaged parts of the city."
"If Carson tells you to take it easy, John --"
"I know, I know. I won't strain myself; I'm not an idiot." He stifled a dry cough, and then sneezed. "Crap."
Elizabeth shoved one of their last boxes of tissues across the surface of her desk. Sheppard grimaced and took one.
"My mother swears by lemon tea for a cold," Elizabeth said, fighting the twitching of her lips. "I have a box in my desk of something very similar from the Athosians. Some of the scientists tell me it helps, although, for all I know, they might just be using it for McKay repellent."
"I don't have a cold," he said stiffly, sounding a bit hoarse, and then sneezed again and let his head drop forward. "Okay, I don't think this day could really get any worse."
"Go to bed, John. And just let me know if you change your mind about the tea."
Sheppard threw her a sloppy salute and a shadow of his usual grin. His exit was marred somewhat by his pronounced limp.
Elizabeth went back to her paperwork.
Since the storm, he'd become the recipient of something bordering on hero-worship among the Atlantis population. In his head, the memories of the Genii invasion had already run together into a blur of cold and wet and fury and blood and guilt. Everyone else, however -- everyone who hadn't been there -- had told and retold their third- and fourth-hand tales until John felt like a modern-day Paul Bunyan.
It made his skin crawl. He was used to having the comradeship of a small group of men in his own squadron, while being viewed with various levels of disinterest or suspicion by everyone else. He liked that; he was comfortable with the casual anonymity. Accidentally falling into charge of Atlantis's military had certainly brought him notoriety, but it wasn't exactly friendly notoriety, and he was reasonably okay with that, too. Adoration, though -- he hadn't signed up for that, didn't like it, didn't want it.
He took small comfort from the fact that Elizabeth still seemed to view him with skepticism, Teyla with tolerant amusement, and McKay -- well, as much fun as McKay could be at times, Sheppard was pretty sure that the scientist didn't really like him all that much, and he was perfectly fine with that. It beat hero worship any day. Ford ... well, Ford thought he walked on water, but at least that wasn't new.
As for the rest of them, though .... as their commanding officer and sworn protector, he couldn't exactly tell them to go to hell, but sometimes he wanted to. Just walking through Atlantis had become an ordeal, especially at the moment -- tired, cranky and miserable, he needed all his willpower to return the nods, smiles and salutes until he could let the door slide shut on the city and slump onto his bed.
Maybe there was some way to get around in the city without having to go out in public. He'd have to remember to ask McKay about air ducts. In the movies, there were always air ducts.
The tickle in his throat that he'd been fighting off during his walk down the hallway turned into a wracking cough, sending a stab of pain through his bruised chest and ribs. He shook two pills out of the bottle that he'd gotten from Carson and dry-swallowed them; walking across the room to get a glass of water seemed like too much effort.
Maybe he could sleep off the cold and wake up feeling fine. Yeah. A guy could hope. It was coming on fast; he already felt hot and achy, and when he touched the back of his hand to his forehead, it was warm and dry.
If this did turn out to be McKay's bat-borne plague, he'd never live it down.
It took all the strength he had left to unlace his boots and carefully scrape them off his feet, trying not to jar his bruises. He'd just had time to take a shower before heading up to Elizabeth's office, but hadn't had an opportunity to grab something to eat. Right now, the mess hall might as well have been somewhere on the far side of Atlantis's moon. He wondered if it would be an abuse of his CO duties to order Ford and Teyla to bring him some food. Probably. He wasn't really all that hungry, though; just exhausted, and achy, and already feeling kind of muzzy as the painkiller kicked in.
Dropping his radio on his bedside table, Sheppard burrowed under his blankets without bothering to take off the rest of his clothes, and sank into a restless sleep.
"I'm sorry, Doctor!" The infirmary staff had been evacuated during the big storm itself, but everyone had heard stories; the more the lights flickered and the city trembled underfoot as the lesser storms pounded its walls, the more nervous and jumpy they became.
Carson looked around -- they were all tense and stressed, and despite their best efforts, getting very little done. He leaned across to Becky -- forty-five, with nerves of steel, few things bothered her, but even she was looking a bit strained. "Becky, why don't you round up the rest of them and put a video on? Whoever's on the duty roster can stay on call, but there's no reason not to take the rest of the afternoon off."
The nurse's tight features relaxed into a smile, and she gave him a quick, unprofessional peck on the cheek. "You're the best boss in the city, you know that?"
"Yes, but look who the competition is," chimed in the nurse who had dropped the test tubes as she knelt to clean up the mess. "We could work for Dr. McKay!"
There were general shudders and sounds of agreement around the room.
Carson snorted as he gathered up a small bag of supplies. He wouldn't need much; if the Major was worse, the infirmary would just be a short transporter hop away. "Ahhh, Rodney's not so bad."
"The Major, now ..." One of the younger nurses giggled; the two male nurses, Paul and Ivan, rolled their eyes almost in unison. "Weren't you going to check on him this afternoon, Doctor?" the nurse added hopefully.
"Aye, that's where I'm off to -- and no, you can't come. Be good, children." Carson gave a jaunty wave as he left.
It wasn't an easy job, he mused as he made his way through the corridors to the transporter, but to his own amazement, he'd come to like it here. Aside from the occasional invading army, of course; he rubbed his head, which still twinged occasionally to remind him that even Atlantis wasn't as safe as one could hope. But still ... he had the best people in two galaxies working for him, he had a lab the likes of which he'd dreamed about through his entire career, and he felt that he might be making a real breakthrough on the retrovirus, assuming he could keep his samples away from invading --
"Bloody hell!" He ducked wildly, throwing himself against the wall as something small, dark and fast-moving swooped through the place where his head had been. It shot up a stairwell with Ford in hot pursuit.
"Sorry, Doc!" the young man shouted as he ran past, clutching a Wraith stunner, and vanished up the stairs.
Carson blinked after him. Perhaps the bats weren't a figment of McKay's imagination, after all. Shaking his head, he stepped into the transporter and tapped the Major's level.
No matter how many times he did that, he'd never get used to it. Carson stepped out into a corridor longer and narrower than the one he'd just left; the Major's quarters were just down the hall. He knocked and then activated the door chime a couple of times. There was no answer, so he tried the door and found that it wasn't locked.
The room was dim, the only light coming from the Major's bedside reading lamp with its flexible neck pointing down at the floor. Rain lashed the tall windows. The bed was mostly taken up with a long, blanket-wrapped lump that curled up a little tighter in response to Carson's voice.
Codeine probably knocked him for a loop, Carson thought, closing the door behind him. As he approached the bed, he became aware of the Major's fast, rough breathing -- it sounded like the congestion had gotten a whole lot worse. Worry niggled in the pit of his stomach. Maybe they'd be taking a trip to the infirmary after all.
"Major?" He sat down on the edge of the bed, and shook gently at the shoulder poking up under the blanket. Sheppard made a snorting sound that turned into a rough, wet cough.
Okay, that definitely did not sound good. Carson reached out to rotate the lamp so that he could get some light on his patient. The Major's face was pale, with an unnatural-looking flush across his cheekbones. Sweat plastered his hair to his forehead in dark spikes.
"Major? Are you with me now?" Carson cupped a hand under Sheppard's chin, feeling the heat radiating off him. The Major's eyelashes flickered and he coughed again, made a soft groaning sound and then came awake suddenly, focusing on Carson's face through squinted eyes.
"Carson?" he muttered hoarsely.
"From the look of you, it seems that you've had better days, Major." Carson reached down at his side, opening his bag in search of a thermometer.
"Understatement of the year." Sheppard coughed again, and curled deeper under the blankets, pressing his face into the pillow. Carson's chest ached in sympathy at the harsh, painful sound.
"Come on out of there and let me get a temperature."
Sheppard turned his head to the side and closed his eyes, submitting without a fight to the ear thermometer. 38.9 -- that had come up fast. "I need to listen to your chest, Major, if you don't mind."
"Like I have a choice?" Sheppard rasped, and rolled carefully onto his back. Carson slid a hand inside the Major's shirt with the stethoscope's bell cupped in his palm. Sheppard's pulse was rapid, his breathing fast and shallow, accompanied by the distinctive crackling of fluid-filled alveoli.
"It's just a cold," Sheppard said, pushing himself up on his hands when Carson withdrew. He paused, swallowing and obviously waiting out a head-rush, before sitting up the rest of the way. "Need a drink of water --" and he went into another coughing fit, leaning against Carson.
"You might have a cold also, Major, but you're working on a case of pneumonia. I'd say a trip to the infirmary is in order." Carson took his hands away carefully, making sure the Major could stay upright on his own, and went to the bathroom for a cup of water.
Sheppard took it and after a few sips was able to speak again. "Pneumonia? I was fine yesterday. Sure you don't have me mixed up with McKay?" he added with a lopsided grin. His pallor and the roughness in his voice entirely spoiled the rakish effect.
"From the look of you and the sound of your chest, I'm guessing that you picked up a bacterial infection on the mainland. It might even be something you've incubated for a while; a night without sleep in the mud was just the break the little beasties needed."
Sheppard cleared his throat and leaned back against the head of the bed, sipping from the cup. "There's no need to go all the way down to the infirmary, is there? You and I both know all you're going to do is give me more meds and send me back here."
"Perhaps, but I need to get you under the scanner and take a look at your lungs. This isn't something to trifle with, Major, not on an alien planet with God knows what in the soil and atmosphere."
Sheppard heaved a sigh, which triggered another coughing fit. Carson hastily took the cup of water out of his hands and set it on the bedside table before it spilled. When the spasm eased, Sheppard rested his head in his hands for a moment.
"Yes, mother." Despite his protests, Sheppard swung his legs out of bed willingly enough. Carson moved to give him a hand, when the lights flickered, dimmed, and finally died completely, plunging them into semi-darkness.
Carson blinked, his eyes adjusting to the murky gray light filtering through the rain-washed window. Sheppard's quarters were a study in shadow and shape, the familiar turning alien in the twilight.
Calmly, he tapped his radio, and very calmly said, "Rodney, what the bloody hell is happening?"
The infirmary sounded like a good idea, actually.
He'd just swung his legs off the bed when the lights went out, and it took him a minute to realize that it had actually happened and wasn't just his vision blanking out. He blinked, his quarters coming slowly into focus in the half-light of a late, heavily overcast afternoon.
Carson was saying something to McKay on the radio. Sheppard fumbled on his bedside table for his own, scattering a stack of dog-eared Gun & Ammo magazines that had been doing the rounds of the city's military contingent. He felt slow, heavy, uncoordinated; it took him two tries to hook the radio around his ear, just in time to catch a burst of static and someone yelling something he couldn't quite make out. "What's goin' on, McKay?"
The voice that answered was not McKay; it was Ford. "Sorry, sir; we've --" His voice cut out and then came back. "-- grounding station. I'm on my way there now, but the transporters are out."
Adrenaline washed most of the fog from his brain. "Situation report, Lieutenant." He steadied himself on the wall while hunting for his boots. The floor seemed to be moving; he wasn't sure whether or not to hope it was just him. "And speak up; I can barely hear you."
"Sorry, sir. Doc says --" The young man's voice cut in and out. "-- tell if the -- probably going to -- ightning strike at grounding station 3. Sir, do you copy?"
"I got some of that. Lightning strike, right?" He finally managed to find his left boot, all the way under the bed. His bruises, which he'd almost forgotten about in the all-too-familiar rush of adrenaline, made themselves known with a vengeance when he bent to retrieve the boot; he choked down a gasp of pain and caught himself on the edge of the bed. He was vaguely aware of Carson's hand on his elbow, holding him steady as he set his jaw against the pain and hooked the boot with his toe. "Anyone hurt?"
"Don't think so, sir, but --" and then there was something about McKay and someone else trapped somewhere, but he couldn't get all of it.
"You're breaking up, Lieutenant; say again?"
Lightning flashed suddenly outside the window, illuminating the room in crisp white and black, and revealing his other boot halfway across the floor. The accompanying crack of thunder drowned out the first part of Ford's answer. "-- at the grounding station, sir. Doc Zelenka says they're not hurt, but they can't --" More static; Sheppard ground his teeth in frustration. "-- and water pouring in; if we don't get them out, they'll drown."
"Grounding station 3, Lieutenant?"
"Copy that. I'll meet you there."
He straightened up and waited out a head rush. Carson's hand hadn't left his elbow; now the grip tightened, and he looked up to met the doctor's eyes, lit up by another flash of lightning. "Major, you're in no shape to run about in the rain. Aiden is a fine young officer; he can handle it."
"Maybe I'd agree if I could coordinate things from the infirmary, but not with the radios acting up. I need to be out there." He clamped down hard on the coughing fit that he could feel building in his chest.
"And if you collapse in the middle of a rescue?"
Fumbling around in the dim light, Sheppard found a flashlight and his trusty 9-mil. True, there probably wasn't anyone to shoot at, but after the Genii invasion, he wasn't going anywhere unarmed during a storm. "Look, Doc, I'll stay on the sidelines, I'll let other people do the heavy lifting, and when the crisis is over I'll head down to the infirmary like a good boy. But when the city's at stake, that's where I have to be. Okay?"
Carson stared at him for a moment and then heaved a sigh and grabbed his medical bag. "If I can't talk you out of this madness, I may as well join you."
The corridor outside was pitch-black, Sheppard's flashlight stabbing ineffectually into the darkness. The floor was definitely rocking up and down underfoot. He realized that, with Atlantis's power completely out, the stabilizers were no longer holding them against the movement of the waves. He leaned on the wall, keeping himself steady as waves of vertigo assailed him.
He tried hailing Elizabeth on the radio, but all he could get was static.
Without the transporters, it was over a mile to the grounding station -- a five-minute jog under normal circumstances, but a torturous hike in the dark, with his side and leg throbbing and his breath coming in short, fast gasps. He had to pause once, doubling over in the throes of an agonizing spasm of coughing. Vaguely he was aware of Carson's hand resting, solid and warm, in the middle of his back; he would have shrugged it off, but he was too busy trying to get some air without throwing up.
"Here," Carson said when the coughing eased, and pressed something small into his palm.
He curled his fingers around it. "What's this?" he asked hoarsely, still catching his breath.
"I swiped the bottle of codeine from your room. It's a cough suppressant as well as a painkiller. If you insist on doing this, you'll be more functional with a small dose in your system than without it. I don't want you taking much, though; unpleasant as it feels, the coughing is actually better for you." Carson cleared his throat and looked away. "You probably wouldn't've gone downhill as fast as you did if I hadn't given you a narcotic in the first place; a cough suppressant in the early stages of the illness would've kept your body from clearing your lungs naturally."
"Not your fault, Doc." Sheppard fingered the pill. "This gonna knock me out?"
"It might make you a little drowsy, but it's that or the coughing."
"Well, since you put it that way." Sheppard swallowed the pill; it seemed to scrape his sore throat all the way down.
They were only a few more minutes from the grounding station. Dejá vu assailed Sheppard as he stepped out onto the exposed platform -- the lashing wind and rain, the lightning-chased sky; before he could stop himself, he flicked a glance over his shoulder to check for Genii soldiers in the door.
No Genii, of course. Just Carson, a worried look on his face as he squinted into a spray of wind-driven rain.
The grounding station's console was still warped and blackened from Genii bullets, but underneath, the guts of the console had been dragged out and hooked up to an assortment of laptops and something Sheppard recognized as an oscilloscope. The whole mess was covered with a makeshift plastic tent to keep the rain off. Power cables snaked underfoot from the dry area.
Right now, there were no scientists under the plastic tent. All of them, along with a handful of soldiers, were clustered off to one side. As Sheppard stepped out into the full force of the wind and rain, he hardly blinked at the water that instantly soaked through his hair and uniform -- he was too busy staring at the tangled mess of girders and blackened metal that had been just out of his sight from beneath the sheltering overhang. Obviously, something in the support structure had given way, taking a hunk of Atlantis real estate into the sea. Through the sluicing rain, in the semi-darkness, he couldn't figure out exactly what had happened. If McKay or anyone else had been there when it happened, he couldn't imagine how they'd survived. Behind him, he heard Carson whisper, "Dear God above."
"Lieutenant, what happened here?" The wind wasn't screaming as it had been the last time he was out here, but he still had to speak loudly above the thunder of surf pounding against the city's walls, not too far below them. A coughing fit gathered in his lungs; for the time being, he fought it back.
"Major, thank heavens you're here," one of the scientists said in a worshipful tone. Sheppard gritted his teeth and tried to ignore her.
Ford pointed overhead, at a ragged array of girders sticking out from the side of the pier above them. "According to the scientists, sir, there was a big lightning strike--"
Zelenka jumped in, too agitated to notice Ford's annoyance at being interrupted. "It could not ground into the water as it normally would, so it jumped to the city itself. Like -- vybuch, explosion." He gestured wildly; between his frantic mannerisms and sodden state, Sheppard couldn't help being reminded of a soggy squirrel. "It blew out the city's power grid and caused a tremendous explosion in one of the main conduits in the pier above us. Superheated air, we think, or possibly gases from one of the systems we have not catalogued yet."
When he paused for breath, Ford said, "It ripped loose a chunk of the pier. Sort of a ...a metal avalanche, as I guess you can see, sir."
Sheppard peered over the edge. The movement of the deckplates underfoot was much more pronounced here, on the outskirts of the city, and his pounding head didn't need something else messing with its precarious equilibrium; he steadied himself against a wall. He could catch glimpses of whitewater through breaks in the tangled mess of wreckage where the side of the platform had been.
"Did I hear you right over the radio, Lieutenant? McKay's down there somewhere?"
Ford nodded. "Dr. McKay and Dr. Simpson were in one of the maintainance access conduits when the lightning struck. They were lucky, incredibly lucky -- they're trapped down below us, in a pocket in the wreckage. In fact --" he tapped his radio " -- you can talk to them yourself; the interference doesn't seem to be a problem at close range."
"I hope this means you're a little closer to getting us out of here, Ford," McKay snapped over the radio. "Of course, from zero, there's nowhere to go but up, is there?"
From the narrowing of Ford's eyes, it appeared that McKay was not proving to be the most cooperative rescuee in the history of search-and-rescue. "Doc, the Major's here."
"Tell me he's got a rope, Ford."
Sheppard raised his eyebrows at Ford, who clicked off his radio and said, "We've got people bringing climbing gear. It's taking forever to get anywhere without the transporters; the city's huge."
"Believe me, Lieutenant, after exploring the damn place for three months, I've noticed."
"I hope this discussion involves rescuing the drowning man," McKay said loudly.
"And woman," Dr. Simpson joined the conversation. "Please get me out of here before I kill my boss. That's not going to look good on my resume."
"You're in another galaxy; what do you need a resume for?" McKay snapped, and then, apparently realizing that he wasn't helping his own case, "Er, what I meant..."
"Rodney." Sheppard squatted down, lowering his center of gravity and making himself less likely to pitch headfirst into the churning surf below him. "What's your situation?"
"Trapped! In a small dark place! And the water's already up to our knees! Have I mentioned I'm claustrophobic?"
"I think you've mentioned it once or twice." The need to cough was growing into a fire in his lungs; he swallowed, fighting it down. "Is it just the two of you down there?"
"Regrettably," Simpson said.
"I'm docking your pay," McKay shot at her.
"You don't pay me!"
"Settle down, guys." Sheppard leaned over, trying to get a better look; in his peripheral vision he saw Carson hovering. "How fast is the water rising down there?"
"We're not really sinking," McKay said, "but we get some water in here every time the waves hit. And trust me, if we could climb out, we would. It's too damn slippery. I -- oh God, I think something just shifted. Where is that rope?"
"Either of you hurt?"
"I twisted my left pinkie and I think I might have slipped a disc in my back. Seriously, Sheppard, I foresee physical therapy in my future. And do you have any idea how hard it is to type when you can't reach the delete key?" McKay's tone might have passed off as general whining, but Sheppard was starting to know him reasonably well, and he caught the little break in the middle. It surprised Sheppard that there hadn't been a full-fledged Rodney McKay freakout yet ... but, then again, he hadn't seen McKay dealing with his subordinates under pressure very much, either. It was possible that breaking down in front of an underling was the one thing he wouldn't do.
"How 'bout you, Simpson?" He realized as he said it that he didn't know her first name.
"Oh, I'm all right. I twisted my knee when we fell, but I don't think it's hurt bad."
"Why don't you let me be the judge of that, love?" Carson spoke up for the first time.
"Carson?" McKay sounded almost cheerful.
Carson started to say something else, but just then the world dissolved in white light and noise. Ears ringing, head pounding, Sheppard found himself flat on his face, his nose inches from the rain-slick decking. Then he lost control of his rebellious lungs and doubled up in a violent coughing fit.
As he slowly uncurled, gasping, he began to register a babble of conversation around him. The air smelled sharply of ozone and scorched metal. He was too breathless to say anything, but somewhere nearby he heard Ford say, "Is everyone all right?"
"Oh crap," McKay said over the radio, in a small voice. "Was that another lightning strike?"
Sheppard finally got enough breath to say, "Guess so," with a casualness that he didn't feel. The fine hairs on his neck were standing on end. That had been way too fucking close. "Ford? We lose anybody?"
"No, sir." To his credit, Ford's voice hardly shook at all. Sheppard wasn't even sure he could say the same for his own. "I think it grounded out above us."
"Clear the area." McKay's voice over the radio was high-pitched and sharp and clear, combining terror and command all in one. "Seriously, I hadn't even thought -- Every minute you guys stand there, you're in danger. The whole city's one big lightning rod and most of it is grounding out at the other stations, but every lightning strike near here is going directly to this -- okay, look, I could explain all day but the point is, get out of here or someone's going to die."
"So, what, you expect us to just leave you two down there?" Trust McKay to develop an altruistic streak at the worst possible moment. Everyone else was still hovering; Sheppard barked over his shoulder, "Lieutenant, you heard the man. Move everyone back under the overhang. And where's that damn rope? McKay, how far away do they have to be?"
"Just get them inside. That should be safe. Look, Major, I don't want you to leave us here either --" His voice cracked again, and he steadied it, "but every minute you guys stay up there, you're in danger of being struck by lightning. Get the damn grounding station fixed and then get us out."
"He's right, Major," Simpson said, tight and breathless. "You can come back for us after the storm passes."
Sheppard looked up at the unrelenting black sky. Yeah ... right. It would be hours yet; he doubted if their fragile prison of wreckage would hold out against the pounding waves for that long. "Ford, what's our ETA on getting some ropes out here?"
"Another few minutes, sir." Ford's voice came from right next to him, and Sheppard jumped; he'd been concentrating too hard in the weather -- and the effort of breathing -- to pay attention to his 2IC's movements. "The armory's all the way across the city," the Lieutenant added, "and that's where the climbing gear is. They're moving as fast as they can."
"Ford, get to shelter. You too, Doc." He pushed himself upright on arms that trembled with cold and strain. This might just be a little thunderstorm compared to the 20-year storm, but McKay and Simpson couldn't possibly ride it out in their cage of debris. He briefly considered bringing a jumper around, but discarded it as too risky; trying to maneuver in this mess, so close to the city's walls, would be a disaster in the making.
His eye fell on the snakes'-nest of power cables surrounding the partially deconstructed grounding station.
"Ford, gimme a hand." His aches and pains and even the risk of lightning strike temporarily set aside, Sheppard jogged to the console and began yanking free the dead power cables. When they wouldn't come loose, he used his combat knife to whack off the plugs. Confused but responsive, Ford followed his commanding officer's lead; they were joined a moment later by Zelenka, muttering in Czech as he moved equipment out of the way of Sheppard's destructive frenzy.
Ford's eyes widened when Sheppard began knotting cables together.
"Sir, you can't possibly --"
"Got any better ideas, Lieutenant?" Sheppard tested his knots with a hard yank and then looked to the other end of the still-tethered primary cables, disappearing through the doors that led into the city. "Ford, I need you to disconnect those from their power source and find somewhere to anchor them. Something that'll support the weight of two people."
"Yes, sir." Ford dashed off through the rain, as Carson joined Sheppard and Zelenka on the lee side of the console.
"What happened to letting someone else do the work, Major?" Carson demanded.
"Situation's changed, Doc. Like hell I'm ordering anybody else out here." He knotted the cables around his body in a rough harness. "You better get under cover. We're all walking lightning rods. You too," he added to Zelenka, who had curled himself around the guts of the console and was splicing wires together.
Zelenka shook his head sharply, his wet hair sending droplets flying. "I will see if I can fix the grounding system. I do not care to have McKay shout at me for failing to repair it in his absence."
Was everyone crazy? "Just because I have to be out here doesn't mean the rest of you have to join me!" He yanked the knots on his harness to test them. Everything seemed to hold.
Carson's lips were pressed together, his face pale when the overhead flashes of lightning lit it up, but he also looked determined. "There has to be something I can do."
"What you can do is get to shelter and get ready to do your thing and fix people if anybody needs to be fixed. Can't do that if you get killed out here." Raising his voice above the roar of the surf, Sheppard bellowed, "Ford!" His voice cracked -- God, ow. He choked on a cough. He was soaked to the skin and already starting to shiver; he'd be lucky if he didn't end up flat on his back with a full-blown case of pneumonia, but there just wasn't any other choice.
"You're good to go, sir!" Ford shouted from the doorway. "I'll belay you from this end -- just give two sharp tugs when you're ready to come up."
Tapping his radio, Sheppard said in a more normal tone, "We could also use these."
In the uncertain light, he couldn't see Ford's expression, but he could hear a certain amount of abashment in the Lieutenant's voice. "Uh, yes, sir. That works, too."
"Get to shelter, Doc -- Docs," Sheppard said, and without waiting for a response, he gathered up his makeshift rope and jogged for the edge. Every minute any of them stayed out here was another minute of tempting fate and waiting for another lightning strike. Electricity laced the sky above. Despite the heaviness in his lungs and the pain stabbing his side, he felt supercharged. Alive.
Guess I really am an adrenaline junkie.
The cables sang across the wet decking as Ford took up the slack. Trusting in the Lieutenant and the strength of his own arms, Sheppard dropped off the edge. He gasped in pain when the cables dug into his ribs and groin, then braced himself and swung into space.
"What's going on?" McKay demanded through his earpiece -- and also, in a faint echo, from somewhere not too far away.
"Rodney, make noise, both of you. I need to know where you are."
"Oh! Uh. What kind of noise?"
"I don't care! Anything!" His feet touched a bent girder; he kicked off, swinging slowly around in midair. Ford was letting him down slowly, but he didn't want to go too low; already, he could feel a stinging spray of surf every time the waves crashed below him.
A sharp banging sound off to his right drew his attention. The next time his feet made contact with something in the debris, he kicked that way. It was almost completely dark down here; the only illumination came from the irregular flashes of lightning among the clouds, and he had no warning before he slammed facefirst into something. Wall? Twisting around, he heard banging from directly under his feet, and groped until he got purchase on a twisted edge of metal that sliced at his fingers.
"Thank goodness," he heard Simpson say, not through the radio but from beneath him.
There was a gap of about two feet between the girder he was standing on, and the jagged edge of a torn expanse of flooring from the pier above. Kneeling, Sheppard reached through that open space, stretching his arm as far as it would go, and was rewarded when cold, wet fingertips brushed his.
Leaning forward, he peered through the opening and caught sight of their upturned, pale faces in the next flash of lightning. "Can you guys climb up here?"
"Love to," McKay said, half-laughing in relief, "but there's nothing to grab hold of. Can you reach down any farther?"
"My arms are only so long, McKay." Laying flat on the girder, he reached through with both hands. "See if you can boost Simpson up here."
"Oh, so this is what I've been reduced to," McKay's voice grumbled from the darkness under the girder, "a human stepping stool." Two slim hands suddenly thrust their way into Sheppard's. Grabbing them tightly, he rocked his weight backwards and hauled Simpson up onto the girder with him. She scrabbled her way forward, teetered for a moment on the edge and then shifted her grip from his arms to his waist. He could feel her shaking.
"It's all right. I got ya--" A sudden, extremely inopportune coughing fit had him depending on his grip on her to keep from sliding off the girder.
"What the hell's going on up there?" McKay demanded.
For just a minute, while he caught his breath, Sheppard tried to figure out a way to take both of them at once. But he couldn't see any way to do it; he couldn't get McKay up here with Simpson in the way, and if she let go of him, she'd almost certainly slip off the girder and fall into the lethal waves lashing at the metal scant feet below them.
"I'm gonna have to take Simpson up and come back for you, Rodney. I'll be quick. Hang tight." Without giving himself, or McKay, a chance to think it through, he tapped his radio. "Ford, pull me up. I've got Simpson on here, so we're gonna be heavy."
"Copy that, sir. We've got a bunch of people on this end; we'll have you up in no time."
The cables pulled taut; Simpson gasped and tightened her arms around Sheppard's waist. As his feet left the girder, he wrapped one arm around her shoulders and twined his other hand around the twisted braid of cable that was the only thing standing between them and certain death in the waves below. He'd really torn up his hands when he'd caught himself below; blood mixed with rainwater in lacy black patterns on his skin, looking like weird tattoos in the intermittent flashes of lightning.
"You'd better come back for me." McKay's voice through the radio sounded small and fragile.
Sheppard didn't answer; he was too busy hanging onto Simpson and trying to gasp for breath with the cables constricting his chest. It felt like forever that they dangled, twisting in the wind with the ocean crashing below them; but their luck held and finally Sheppard's groping, stinging fingers caught the edge of the decking. Simpson made a small animal sound in her throat and flung her arms over the edge, scrabbling up with a burst of desperate strength. She turned, knelt, and offered a hand.
Sheppard shook his head, gasping, and waved her off. "Going back down," he managed when he had enough air to speak. He thought he could feel fluid shifting in his lungs whenever his body moved -- not a good feeling. He was going to be paying for this later. "Get inside."
Simpson nodded, started to turn away, and then stopped and crouched down again, running her fingertips over the cables. "Major, look."
"Fill me in, Doc," he panted. He knew that he needed to get back down to McKay, but right now he didn't feel as if he had the strength to rappel under his own power; if he let go, he was going to hang at the end of the cables like a sack of flour.
"They're fraying, Major. They're not meant for this."
"Crap," he ground out, pulling himself up to take a look. He was using four cables, twisted together, as his main belay line, and two of them showed flashes of copper wiring at several points where they'd taken too much weight on the rough edge of the decking. "Doesn't look too bad. I've only gotta make one more trip. Go on, get under cover."
Simpson frowned, gave the cables a final look, and then dashed off as another curtain of rain swept over them -- not for shelter, but instead, straight to Zelenka at the grounding station console. She bent her blond head down to his wet dark one; he handed her a screwdriver.
Crazy, brave idiots.
"Sir, are you ready to go?" Ford asked. "If McKay can wait another few minutes, we'll be able to do this with actual mountaineering equipment."
He wasn't anywhere near ready -- he trembled with cold and fatigue; his muscles burned and his lungs hurt with a deep, frightening ache. But he could feel the city rolling underneath him as the waves pounded it; at any moment, McKay's tenuous little safety zone could succumb to the natural forces battering at it. The violent waves would pulverize a human body to hamburger in seconds. "I'm good, Lieutenant. Let me down."
Just like that, he was falling, the cable slithering through his wet fingers. He had an instant of panic, unable to tell which girder was which in the near-total darkness between decking and sea; for an instant he was completely disoriented and thought that he might already be too late, that things might have shifted while he was above. Then the cable jerked to a halt -- Ford must have played it out to the point where Sheppard had stopped before. "McKay?" he called breathlessly as he caught himself on what he hoped was the same girder where he'd been before.
"You came back," McKay said in a small voice that sounded very unlike him.
"Of course I did, Rodney; what, did you think I'd leave you down here?"
McKay snapped back, "Of course not," but there was just enough pause beforehand that Sheppard realized, on some deep-down level, he really hadn't been convinced. A twinge went through him at that, because what kind of life did a man have to lead to believe that your squad members, your teammates, would leave you to drown, alone in the dark?
And what about YOU, John; if you were trapped in a dark place, waiting to die, would you trust your teammates to get you out? Sure, you'd like to think they'd come for you, but in that deep-down place at the bottom of your soul, do you really think they would?
He didn't want to think about the answer. Instead, he knelt on the wet girder and reached through the opening. "McKay, see if you can reach my hands."
Scrabbling and splashing sounds followed, and then McKay said in a disgusted tone, "Didn't we already establish that this doesn't work? I'm simply not that tall, Major."
"Is there anything down there you can stand on?"
"Oh, right! I must have failed to see the stepladder in the corner; my mistake!"
"Rodney," Sheppard gritted. Flushes of heat and cold raced over him; one minute he was shivering and acutely aware of his soggy clothing congealing to his body, the next he was so hot that he wanted to strip off his shirt to get some relief.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. We've established that I cope with certain death in a particular way, correct?"
"You're not going to die, McKay." Sheppard lay flat on the girder, and wormed his way carefully under the overhanging edge of shredded metal.
"Wait, wait -- what are you doing? You're coming in here? Major! That's a very bad idea! Stop!" As Sheppard ignored him and continued to squirm through the opening, McKay's voice shifted up a notch or two. "You do realize the whole problem is that I can't climb out, right? What do you expect to gain by getting both of us stuck down here?"
"I'm tethered, McKay." And speaking of which, he'd reached the end of it. He tapped his radio. "Ford, I need about another ten feet."
"Oh," McKay said. "Sorry. Not thinking, right. Did I mention it's dark in here?"
"Yeah, I'd noticed -- crap!" With the sudden slack, he rolled through the opening and found himself in freefall before splashing violently into ice-cold water.
Hands clutched at him, cold and grabby and not especially helpful, but he seized hold of McKay in the darkness and struggled upright. The shock of impact had knocked all the air out of him, and when he tried to inhale he was caught in the grip of an uncontrollable coughing fit. He couldn't breathe. Sparks danced in front of his eyes, and for one terrible moment he thought he was going to pass out before he managed to suck in a desperate whoop of air.
After the coughing stopped, he just leaned on McKay for a minute, waiting for his legs to steady. Mckay's hands, never still, plucked at him anxiously. "What's the matter with you? It's that bat disease, isn't it? My God, you're hot. Either that, or I'm hypothermic, which is probably true, but I don't think I'm that cold yet. Are you dying?"
"I'm --" No sound came out; he cleared his sore throat and tried again. "I'll be doing better once we get out of here, so are you ready to blow this popsicle stand?"
"You sound like a laryngitic frog. You really are sick, aren't you?" Awkwardly, McKay tried to settle his hands on the cable harness without touching any more of Sheppard than he had to. "What -- are these electrical cables? Did you cut these? Oh my God, you did! You are aware we only have so many of these, right?"
"Pipe down and grab on, McKay."
"What's your plan? Do you even have a plan? We're going to be grated like cheddar cheese when we get up to the opening there, you know! And do you realize that cables are designed to conduct electricity?"
"I said pipe down and hang on, not one or the other. Ford, start lifting us -- slowly and gently. Be ready to stop if I say stop."
The only answer he got was a burst of static on the radio -- and then a sensation like a giant hand slamming into his spine, convulsing his limbs and flinging him forward as his vision blanked out.
This was a lot like that, only ... more. Not pain, just a massive sense of wrong and a kick that galvanized all his limbs and threw him down into the water. Kind of like being hit with a Wraith stunner, actually, except he didn't really lose consciousness; but things went gray and foggy for a minute, before water rushed between his teeth and he flailed wildly with limbs that wouldn't quite work right, thrashing his way upright by luck and effort more than design.
In baffled disbelief, he thought: I just got struck by lightning.
Or rather, Sheppard's stupid cable-vest got hit by lightning, he reasoned as he felt himself all over to make sure he still had all his parts -- maybe a rip in the insulation on the cables, maybe a plug lying in a puddle somewhere, but in any case it had transmitted the shock right to them. Or some of it; he suspected most of the charge must have grounded on the metal, but he still felt weird. His ears were ringing, his mouth had a coppery taste like he'd been sucking on a battery, and he couldn't quite make his brain work properly. Speaking of which, it felt like he was forgetting something --
"Oh crap -- Sheppard!"
McKay plunged forward, groping through the dark water. This would have been problematic at the best of times, but in pitch blackness, with his hands half-numb from cold, and tingling and uncoordinated from the lightning strike (which he still couldn't believe he'd survived), it was only through sheer chance that he managed to get a double fistful of something soft and organic, and yanked it to the surface.
The "something", he realized almost immediately, was Sheppard's hair. The Major let out a choked cry, started coughing and collapsed back into the water with a loud splash.
"Quit doing that!" McKay lunged and got his arms around Sheppard's deadweight from the back, probably getting infected with all his germs in the process. He hauled Sheppard bodily out of the water. The rib cage that his arms were wrapped around wasn't expanding -- oh shit -- so, acting more on panic than rational thought, he gave it a single hard thrust. Sheppard gave a violent, explosive cough and began hacking and gasping helplessly.
"If you throw up on me, so help me ..." McKay staggered backwards, with his arms still encircling Sheppard and holding him upright, until his back contacted something solid and cold -- a metal surface canted at a slight angle. Between the cold and the trembling and weakness from the lightning strike (seriously! struck by lightning!) he was barely able to support his own weight, let alone both of theirs.
His relief that Sheppard was breathing on his own (thus saving McKay from a CPR-related fate worse than death) was mitigated by the desperation of Sheppard's short, harsh gasps, broken by strangled-sounding coughs. His heart battered against Rodney's laced hands, through the bulk of the cables --
-- shit, the cables!
Flailing in panic, fueled by adrenaline, McKay thrust Sheppard away from him -- oh hell! -- caught him, leaned him against the wall and started scrabbling at the knotted and slippery cables. Some of them, to his horror, were actually melted together; the rest were snugged tight in a nearly impenetrable tangle. Finally he managed to yank the whole mess over Sheppard's head, only to realize a second later that the cable-ends were still dangling in the water -- a fast trip to Cardiac Arrest City if another bolt of lightning hit.
Sheppard recovered some degree of awareness as McKay was standing on tiptoe, propping the Major up with a shoulder while trying to throw the mess of cables high enough to get them out of the water. The snakes' nest kept flopping back down on top of them, wet cables slithering over their heads and shoulders. "McKay, what --" he began, his voice an almost inaudible wheeze.
"Shut up, no time, violent electrical death imminent, help me!"
Between McKay's flailing and Sheppard's uncoordinated attempts to help, they managed to get the cables hooked on a projecting girder above them. If it conducted another bolt of lightning, McKay thought gloomily, it would probably electrocute them through the water anyway, but maybe it would attenuate enough that they wouldn't actually die.
"Radio," Sheppard said hoarsely.
"Huh, what? Oh, I --" The fact that no one up top had tried to contact them finally penetrated his panic. "Oh God, what if they're all dead up there?"
"Mine's not --" Sheppard broke off in another hacking, awful-sounding cough. "Not working," he wheezed.
Relief surged over him, tempered slightly by the fact that they were still stuck in slowly rising, cold water and might not have any way to contact their potential rescuers. "The electrical surge must've fried it." McKay reached for his own, but encountered only skin. "Mine's gone."
"Well, they know where we are. I'm sure someone'll be here soon."
Sheppard's attempt to sound comforting would probably have been a lot more effective if he hadn't sounded so awful. McKay squinted at him in the semi-darkness. "How much of that water did you inhale, anyway?"
Sheppard cleared his throat. "More than I'd like."
His voice sounded alarmingly weak. McKay stared in his general direction, wishing he could see better. "Please tell me you don't have the plague."
A small, rough laugh. "Not really, but I ..."
He trailed off into silence. McKay waited a polite interval -- which, considering the circumstances (waist-deep in freezing water, suffering from incipient hypothermia and electric shock, possibly about to plunge into the sea at any moment) was measured in fractions of a second -- and then snapped, "What?"
Sheppard drew a shaky breath. "I might have pneumonia."
"Oh, God." McKay hit himself in the forehead with a wet hand. Next time Dr. Jackson asked if he wanted to go to another galaxy, the right answer was to just say NO.
No one was listening to him; everyone around him were picking themselves up, and someone gasped, "Lieutenant Ford!"
"Okay. I'm okay." Ford didn't sound okay, but he was pulling himself up shakily on the wall. "Anybody get the number of the truck that hit me?" he joked weakly, and then almost fell over. Carson caught him.
Simpson dashed across the rain-slick floor to the overhang. "My God, did you see that?"
Ford swallowed and dragged his hand across his face, shaking off Carson's attempts to take his pulse. "No. I ... what?"
"Lightning!" She mimed a drop from sky to ground. "It hit the cable. I literally felt my hair stand on end. Is everyone all right?" She squinted at Ford, as if unable to believe that he was standing up. Carson didn't blame her.
"I'm fine," Ford protested as he dodged Carson's attempts to look at his pupils. "Doc -- stop, I --" He blanched. The same thought hit most of them at the same time and several hands reached for their radios in unison.
"Bloody hell. Major! Rodney!"
Zelenka joined them under the overhang. "We have the grounding station back online, I believe, if not in time to catch that last --" His triumphant smile dropped away. "What? What is wrong?"
"Where's that climbing gear?" Ford yelled to the group at large.
"Right here, sir." Stackhouse and Markham forged through, hauling bags and coils of rope. "Sorry about the delay; the city's not only dark, but there's a bunch of doors shut that we couldn't get open. Had to go around."
Simpson and one of the other scientists had managed to get Ford to sit down, despite his protests. "You don't understand, I need to be out there. The Major --"
Carson knelt and gripped him by the shoulders. "Son, I've already had my medical judgment overruled by one fool today, but I'm telling you as your doctor to stay put. You can barely stand up, and it won't help the Major or Rodney if you keel over from an arrhythmia."
Ford sucked in a frustrated breath through his teeth, and then gave a short nod. One thing Carson liked about the lad -- he knew when to defer to the experts, unlike some people. Ford's eyes went to Markham. "Sergeant, I guess you're up. You've done some rock climbing, right?"
"Used to go out every weekend, sir."
Carson patted Ford's shoulder. "That's the thing. You just sit tight and let these people take care of you. I'll be back in a few minutes." He straightened up and started to follow the sergeant out into the storm, pausing to ask Zelenka, "So it should be ... safe to go out there now?"
"Oh, perfectly safe," Zelenka said, just as the sky lit up again and thunder cracked against the towers of Atlantis. His instinctive flinch didn't do much for his case.
"Lovely," Carson murmured, following Markham out into the lashing rain.
"What ... like 'Hurricane Andrew' and whatnot?" McKay's sarcastic voice echoed across their little enclosure. "Did you turn into Ford when I wasn't looking?"
The water was up to Sheppard's waist. McKay had left him propped against the wall while he went off to look for a way out. "I was thinking 'Hurricane John'."
"Oh, no you don't. At the very least, could you name them after -- after ex-girlfriends or something that doesn't sound completely idiotic."
"We could call the big one 'Hurricane Rodney'."
There was a brief silence, punctuated only by the sounds of scrabbling. "I can't figure out if I'm flattered and tempted, or horribly insulted. A little of both, I think -- aargh!"
Water showered down over both of them -- another high wave, breaking into their small zone of safety -- and it was accompanied by McKay hitting the water with a tremendous splash.
"You okay?" Sheppard started to reach out a hand to help him up, but doubled over in a coughing fit that left him breathless and gasping.
"The climbing is not going well," McKay said flatly, after scrambling back to his feet with hippo-like splashing noises.
"I noticed," Sheppard wheezed. He felt hot and cold in waves, and the world seemed to be revolving slowly around him.
"Where's Ford? Where's Carson? Have we been abandoned down here?" McKay was pacing now, from the sound of things -- or, rather, sloshing back and forth, half-swimming through the ever-deepening water.
Sheppard didn't answer, just leaned on the wall. His teeth chattered as another wave of cold swept over him, accompanied by another shower of water from above. There had to be some way out, if he could just get his brain to work.
"We're going to drown."
"You're just -- just a ray of sunshine, McKay." Sheppard stared up at the faintly brighter stripe that was visible a few feet above their heads. It was so close ...
A flash of lightning made them both jump, and for an instant Sheppard thought that the dark shape that appeared a second later, silhouetted against the slightly less dark sky, was just an afterimage, until it spoke. "Major? Doc? You guys okay?"
Sheppard rested his forehead briefly against the wall. "Sergeant, it's great to hear your voice."
"You too, sir."
McKay broke in with, "What the hell took you so long!"
"Ignore him, Sergeant." Sheppard managed to swallow back a coughing fit, but the effort left him shaking and only his grip on the wall kept him upright. "McKay, get over here; let's see if I can boost you high enough for the Sergeant to pull you up."
McKay made faint spluttering noises that might have been some sort of protest.
"No need, sir." There was some scrabbling above them. "I've got a lot of rope here. Okay if I come in there and harness you two up?"
"Be my guest, Sergeant. I ought to warn you that it's a bit wet down here."
"And be careful. Be careful!" McKay snapped. Wavelets rippled around Sheppard as the scientist forged over to join him, unseen in the darkness. "We don't know how much weight we can add without all of us falling to watery doom, you understand?"
A moment later, Markham splashed down in their little prison and snapped on a light. The beam illuminated a cramped space between two girders, even smaller than it had seemed in the dark. A fresh wave of shivering passed through Sheppard; he wasn't claustrophobic, normally, but somehow it was easier to handle being trapped when it wasn't possible to see the space that could easily have become a waterlogged tomb.
Cold hands cupped Sheppard's face, and he jumped. McKay's face was a pale blur in the wavering, reflected light of the flashlight, hovering far too close as the scientist studied him like a piece of malfunctioning Ancient tech. "You look worse than you sound, and I didn't think that was possible. God! You're burning up."
"I'm ..." He wasn't sure if he was going to say "fine" or something else, but it dissolved in the coughing fit that he'd managed to suppress earlier. He ended up leaning against McKay, struggling to breath, while scientist and soldier laced a climbing harness around him.
"The Major's good to go," Markham said into his radio, and turned to McKay. "Okay, your turn, Doc."
Sheppard felt the climbing harness tighten, but what followed was mostly a blur. He couldn't breathe; things around him were a haze of wet and cold, and at one point he whacked his bruised leg -- he distinctly remembered thinking that it should hurt, but he was so numb from the cold that it didn't really. Then there were hands on him, and faces blurring and running together in the rain. Someone who sounded vaguely familiar said, "Watch it, catch his head --!" but he slipped anyway, smacking the deckplates with a jarring impact. This loosed another cough fit; bolts of agony stabbed his head and chest with every spasm.
Rain was pattering on his face now, icy needles against his hot skin. Carson's face appeared over him, blocking the rain, and someone was wrapping a blanket around him. He struggled weakly against it -- he wasn't cold, he was hot, too hot, and there was something he needed to do; he couldn't remember, and then finally it came to him. "McKay," he rasped. "He get out okay?"
"He's fine." Carson's hands, gentle but implacable, pushed him back down. "Why don't you worry about yourself. Someone help me get him under cover?"
More hands on him; everything spun around him, and he couldn't hold back another agonizing spasm of coughing. Somewhere between the pain and the struggle for air, the world slipped away.
"What's wrong?" McKay demanded, hovering at Carson's shoulder, shivering and hunched into a blanket with his wet hair sticking up in hedgehog-like prickles. "Carson?"
"Rodney, please, not now." Out of the rain, Markham and Stackhouse helped him lower the Major to the comparatively dry floor. Sheppard's face was white, his lips drawn back in a rictus as he struggled to breathe. Carson didn't need instruments to see that he was in bad shape.
Ford staggered over to see how his CO was doing. He let out a low whistle. "He doesn't look good, does he?"
"Neither do you, son." Carson peeled back Sheppard's eyelid, producing an incoherent mumble and feeble, half-conscious attempts to shove him away.
Everyone else was clustered around in a wet, worried group; they made Carson nervous, and he was one step away from shouting, "Stand back and give him air!" He'd never had an opportunity to say that ...
"How are we going to get him back to the infirmary?" Stackhouse asked. "We'll need a stretcher, and that's going to take extra time -- should I go, sir?"
"Jumper," Ford said.
Carson glanced at him. The young man had slid down the wall and was sitting with his arms over his knees, looking tired and ill.
"The weather's rough out there, son; do you think anyone can safely land in that mess?"
"Do we have a choice?" Ford waved a hand at his commanding officer. Under Carson's palm, Sheppard's chest rattled with his efforts to breathe. "He can't walk, and Stackhouse is right -- we'll have to go get a stretcher, unless we improvise something, and that'll slow us down even more." He looked up at Markham and Stackhouse. "I'm not going to order either one of you to fly in this weather. Volunteers only --"
Wordlessly, both hands went up.
Ford grinned a little, and rubbed his temple with the heel of his hand. "All right. One of you flies the jumper. The other one can pick up some medical supplies and come back here, just in case the wind gets worse and the jumper can't land." He looked at Carson, a little bit of the uncertain kid showing through the officer's facade. "Does that sound all right to you, Doc? I mean, for the Major --"
Carson gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile and a brief thumbs-up before bending over his patient.
"I'll get the jumper, sir?" At Ford's nod, Stackhouse took off running.
"I suggest all of you go back with the Sergeant," Carson said, resting two fingers on Sheppard's weak, rapid pulse. "Rodney and the Lieutenant ought to be in the infirmary anyway, and there's no point whatsoever in having a crowd of you out here catching your own death in this rain."
The predictable protests erupted at this, the loudest being from McKay. "Rodney," Carson said, fixing him with a look, "what are you better at, nursing or fixing the city?"
"Well, that's a stupid question, Carson --"
"Obviously not, or you'd be doing the one thing you can do to help the Major, which is getting the transporters back up ... aye?" He raised his brows and smiled to soften the sharp words.
"Aye," McKay muttered sullenly, snugging the blanket around his shoulders, and submitted with poor grace to Markham giving him a hand up.
In moments, the only people remaining were Carson and Sheppard. The doctor set a torch on the floor so that he had light with both hands free, and then got the Major settled against the wall as best he could, propped up to improve his breathing. His color was terrible. Carson hoped that the blue tinge to his lips was only an illusion in the washed-out light.
He wiped his wet hands on his trousers -- not very effective, since his clothing was sodden too -- and opened his medical bag. Since he planned to have the Major in the infirmary shortly, he hated to give him anything now that would complicate further treatment, unless he absolutely had to. At least he could make sure the man didn't drop dead on his watch, though.
Sheppard didn't move as his temperature was taken, but cracked open an eye when Carson slipped a stethoscope under his shirt. "Taking advantage, Doc?" His voice was barely audible above the noise of the storm outside.
Carson startled into a brief laugh. "My intentions are pure, Major." Sheppard gave a lilttle hiss of pain, and Carson probed gently around a few new electrical burns to go with the bruises. Probably best to leave those alone until they got him into the infirmary. He withdrew the stethoscope, frowning, and dropped his eyes as he folded it back into its bag.
"That bad, huh?" Sheppard's chest bucked in a short, aborted cough.
Carson sighed and carefully set aside the bag. "Major, if you'd gone straight to the infirmary, had a little supplemental oxygen and a course of antibiotics, you'd be on the mend and back on light duty in a day or two. Right now, you're looking at a few days' infirmary stay at the very least." And that's if this thing even responds to our antibiotics, he thought, but didn't say aloud. So far, Pegasus Galaxy microbes had responded adequately to the drugs they'd brought with them, but he lived in fear of the day they'd discover something deadly that they couldn't fight.
Sheppard inclined his head in a little nod, and Carson supposed that the Major probably guessed at some of his unspoken thoughts. But rather than mentioning it, he turned his head to the side, blinking blearily around in the wan light. "So, where -- where'd everybody go? How long was I out?"
"Not long. They've gone to get a puddlejumper so we can get you down to the infirmary." While you can still breathe on your own.
Sheppard frowned, rousing himself a little. "Weather's too rough. Not safe."
Of course, as a pilot, he would be all too aware of flight conditions. "I think it's settled down a wee bit," Carson lied shamelessly. "Zelenka has the grounding station back up -- smart lad, he is -- and we ought to have you tucked into a warm dry bed before you know it."
"Don't ... bullshit a bullshitter, Doc." Sheppard grimaced as he squirmed feebly against the wall, trying fruitlessly to find a comfortable position. His breathing was much too loud, a wet rasp broken by occasional, stifled attempts to cough.
"Have it your way then, but quit talking; your body needs that oxygen." When his patient seemed to be obeying, Carson let out a sigh, and rested his back against the wall. He was soaked to the skin, and starting to shiver now that the exertion was over; his inner voice (which sounded very much like his mum) told him that he ought to get up and get a blanket, but all the ones that Markham and Stackhouse had brought were damp, too. Everything was damp.
At least hypothermia was one problem Sheppard didn't have at the moment. Carson could feel the heat radiating off him, even without touching him. He closed his eyes and pressed his palm against his forehead, as if by doing so he could keep a little of his own body heat from escaping -- and stave off the growing headache from his lingering concussion, exacerbated at the moment by cold and worry and guilt.
After a moment, he reluctantly opened his eyes and turned to look at his patient. Sheppard's respirations were fast and shallow, and his eyelashes cast a stark shadow in the torch's harsh beam -- unconscious again, or maybe just waiting out the discomfort.
It was hard, sometimes, to reconcile the man next to him, the laid-back jokester he saw in the mess every day, with the black-ops soldier who had killed sixty Genii only a few days ago without getting a scratch on him. That sort of thing was an unpleasant reminder of how much he wasn't suited to this lifestyle, and how much he didn't know about the people around him.
A burst of static in his radio made him jump. Eventually it resolved into words he could barely understand. "... arkham. Major, do you read?"
Carson raised his hand to his radio, cupping his palm around his ear in the hopes that shutting out the noise of the storm would help. "This is Beckett. The Major's takin' a wee nap."
The response was so distorted that he couldn't understand it. "Say again, son. You're breakin' up."
Static crackled in his ear again, then cut out suddenly and he could hear the sergeant say, "-- can't get the jumper bay doors open without electricity. Stackhouse is on his way back with a stretcher."
Would nothing ever go right? "Thanks," Carson said, and, belatedly remembering proper radio etiquette, "Uh, that is, Beckett out."
He sat back with a little sigh. His hands felt like chunks of ice, and he tried to warm them by tucking them in the crook of his neck -- a habit left over from cold mornings as a schoolboy in Scotland. It didn't do much, since his neck was cold too. He stared without much interest at the pile of clammy blankets not too far away. Well, it wouldn't help the Major if his doctor keeled over from hypothermia ...
Why in the world did he listen to Sheppard and let him go running off on a rescue mission like a madman? On the other hand, he mused as he retrieved the blankets and shook them out, the Major's insane ideas had saved them on more than one occasion. He'd got Simpson out, she'd helped Zelenka fix the grounding station, and without that, perhaps they'd all have been killed by the next lightning strike.
Maybe when you were in another galaxy with space vampires trying to kill you, a madman was exactly what you needed, he thought wryly.
But, no, that wasn't really fair. Everything the Major had done, even the things that were hard for Carson to accept, had been done in the defense of Atlantis and its people. Besides, it wasn't as if his own hands were entirely clean, come to that ...
Still pondering, he tucked another blanket under Sheppard's neck and around his back, propping him more securely. The Major's breathing remained shallow and labored, and a temperature check showed a worrisome 39.9. He needed to be in the infirmary yesterday, and where was that stretcher?
Wrapping a damp blanket around his own shoulders, he sat down next to Sheppard. The Major flinched, flashes of his eyes showing; his lips moved in the throes of vivid fever-dreams, shaping pleas perhaps best left unheard.
"It's all right, Major." Carson rested a hand on the hot, damp forehead. "John," he added softly, and the Major subsided back into an uneasy sleep.
The lights came on with a sudden bright flash. Carson sat bolt upright, blinking and squinting as his eyes adjusted. After a moment he reached over to snap off the torch; then he settled back with his hand on the Major's arm. He was still sitting like that when Stackhouse's team came through the doors with a stretcher piled high with dry blankets.
When he finally opened his eyes onto a world that made sense, he was thirsty and exhausted and aching, as well as plagued with a guilty feeling that he'd probably been acting like a raving lunatic. He had vague recollections of conversations with Carson that didn't make any sense, of struggling against an oxygen mask over his mouth.
The mask was gone now, though. He blinked at a room filled with shadows and softly beeping equipment. His mouth tasted like something had died in it, and he had the aching throat and cotton-stuffed congested feeling that usually came with a bad cold. Other than that, he didn't feel too bad. He could still breathe, although his lungs ached and he could feel a tickle in the back of his throat building into a world-class coughing fit. He fumbled for the nurse call button with hands that felt three sizes too large and completely disconnected from the rest of him. After getting the button pushed, he held up a hand and discovered that they were wrapped in gauze bandages. Oh, right; he'd cut up his hands on the edges of the torn metal. With everything else going on, he'd completely forgotten about it.
To his surprise, it was Carson who answered the call button. He looked tired and scruffy, but his smile was genuine. "Well, how are you feeling, Major?"
"Been better, I guess." His voice was a dry whisper, and it dislodged the coughing fit that he'd felt coming. He doubled forward, only vaguely aware of Carson catching and holding him. Eventually, the spike of pain in his skull eased along with the spasms, and he drew a shaky breath. "Sorry."
"It may not feel like it to you, but you're actually sounding a lot better." Carson helped him curl his bandaged hands around a cup of ice water. "Small sips, now," he admonished, and Sheppard obediently sipped while the doctor took his vital signs.
"How long, Doc?" His throat ached less than before, soothed or possibly just numbed by the cold water, but his lungs still felt like they'd been flame-broiled and then beaten with a broom handle.
"Three days, give or take a bit. Lean forward so I can listen to your back."
Startled, Sheppard leaned as requested. "I've been out of it for three days?"
"More like in and out of it, though I doubt if you remember some of the conversations we've had."
Sheppard groaned as the cool surface of the stethoscope skittered across his back. "More than I'd like."
Carson laughed. "Well, you sound much more coherent tonight. Your fever's broken and your lungs are clearing. Another day of bed rest in the infirmary, and I think we can safely release you to your quarters. Do you think you could eat something, or would you rather sleep for a while?"
Sheppard sank back into his pillows. The ache in his stomach blended into the general background ache of everything else, but now that he thought about it ... "Soup or something might be good."
"I believe the cafeteria had a sort of squash soup tonight. Sounds a bit odd, but it was quite good, actually." Carson rested a hand on his shoulder. Sheppard's instinctive reaction was to flinch away. These people are on your side, John, he reminded himself; it was hard to break a lifetime's defensive habits. "I could have Marie bring you a bowl," Carson added.
His hand continued to rest on Sheppard's shoulder. It might just be his imagination, in fact Sheppard knew it was his imagination, but he fancied that he could feel warmth seeping down from Carson's palm into his body. "Yeah," he said, and grinned up at the doctor. "That'd be nice."
"I'll go see about that. Oh! You got a visitor while you were sleeping ... a couple of them, actually." Carson picked up a book off the bedside table. "Elizabeth stopped by and left this."
Sheppard took it. "The Years of Rice and Salt," he read off the cover.
Carson gave a soft laugh. "She said she hasn't read it yet, so it hasn't been in the general Atlantis book circulation and she wants it back when you're done."
Sheppard raised an eyebrow, and set the book carefully back on the bedside table. "A couple of visitors, you said?"
"Yes," Carson said with a roll of his eyes that didn't manage to conceal the warmth in them. "In point of fact, it's been Grand Central Station in here, as you Americans say. I believe every person in this city has stopped by at least once. Teyla's spent a bit of time sitting with you, in fact, although at the moment she's on the mainland helping her people get their crops in."
"Oh," Sheppard said softly.
"And other than that, it's been pretty much non-stop -- soldiers wanting to know 'how's the Major doing, Doc', scientists who 'just happen' to stop by on the way to the labs ... Rodney's 'just happened' by so many times I threatened to put him to work, at which point he vanished and hasn't been seen for hours, thankfully. Ford brought a handful of chocolate bars -- I understand the Marines took up a collection." A smile touched the corner of his mouth. "I locked them up with the heavy drugs, in the cabinet that only I have the key to."
Sheppard really didn't know what to say. That no one had been sitting at his bedside when he woke up didn't surprise him at all; he liked the people here, but he really didn't know them that well, and life had taught him that bedside-hovering was something that happened only in the movies. It was just how things were. He wasn't the bedside-hovering type himself. But this ... this floored him.
Carson patted him lightly on the shoulder, and took his hand away. "A lot of people like you here, Major," he said, and went in search of the nurse.
Sheppard watched him go, blinking in shock. Hearing it like that ... it was -- strange, was the best word for it. Strange ... but kind of nice, too.
He heard soft voices on the other side of the privacy curtain -- Carson's brogue and a woman's voice, joined then by a third voice. Male. The cadence was familiar, although he couldn't pick out the words. McKay?
It was indeed McKay -- he appeared a moment later around the privacy curtain, laptop in hand, looking harried and annoyed, as usual. "Ah, Major," he said in a perfectly normal tone, as if Sheppard hadn't been unconscious or delirious for the last three days. "I'll only be a minute -- very busy -- but I needed to show you a few things. Also, we caught the so-called bat," he added with a smug look, plopping down in the chair at the side of Sheppard's bed. "Er, bats."
"Bats?" Sheppard repeated blankly.
"Bats, yes, you are coherent, aren't you? Carson said your fever had broken ..." McKay looked up from his laptop; his eyes were wide, reflecting the glow of the screen, along with a mix of emotions that Sheppard couldn't even begin to sort out. Worry was definitely in there, though. Another surprise.
"No, I'm ... well, not fine, exactly" -- he was actually one step from falling asleep -- "but ... oh, the bats in your lab?"
"Not just in my lab," McKay corrected testily. "And it turns out they're a form of, er, flying fish. Sort of. I honestly wasn't paying too much attention to the full explanation, but the biologists are practically dancing in the halls. So far we've caught six of the slippery little things, including one that had taken up residence in Elizabeth's desk."
Sheppard wished he could have seen that. "Are they dangerous?"
"Not particularly. They eat insects, or something." He raised the computer screen and swung it around with a victorious look. "But this is what I really wanted to show you!"
The cheerful, slightly manic tone reminded Sheppard of the first actual conversation he'd had with McKay, a couple of days after they'd arrived on Atlantis. Major, you have to come help me test this personal shield ...
He hadn't known McKay at all then. Months later, he still wasn't sure how well he knew him.
... Rodney's 'just happened' by so many times I threatened to put him to work...
But he was pretty sure he was getting the basics down. Seeing McKay quivering with impatience, he grinned, drew a deeper breath into his aching lungs and settled more comfortably in his pillows. "C'mon, spill it. What'd you find?"
"Ah! Well, it seems the Ancients built a weapons satellite at the edge of the solar system ..."
The prompt was as follows:
John comes back from an off-world mission with relatively minor injuries and convinces Beckett to let him rest in his quarters. Later on, Beckett makes a house call to check on Sheppard and finds that he's come down with a cold/flu-type illness on top of his injuries. Unable to access the infirmary for several hours due to an accident in one of the labs, and therefore with limited supplies and personnel at his disposal, Beckett has to get creative when John's condition worsens.
Meanwhile, severe thunderstorms are causing problems with the city's systems (among other things), and Rodney is convinced that alien bats have invaded his lab and are working on spreading throughout the rest of Atlantis.
It can be a Christmas themed if you want, but it certainly doesn't have to be.
Please don't make Shep's illness (whatever it is) into an epidemic.
No slash or character deaths, but lots of John/Rodney/Carson friendship would be a good thing.
I think I got it all in there ... I hope!