Under a pitiless sun, heat wavered from a barren and cracked landscape of stone. It reminded Sheppard a lot of the American Southwest, right down to the wind-sculpted arches of rock, but on an even more massive scale. There was hardly a horizontal surface anywhere in sight -- just canyons and spires, cliffsides and jumbles of boulders.
He would have had more time to admire it if he hadn't been half-carrying, half-dragging a semiconscious Teyla by one arm hooked under her shoulders. He wished he didn't even have to touch her to that extent; the glancing blow from Ronon's gun on its kill setting had turned her side into hamburger. She needed medical attention and she needed it fast. What she didn't need was to be hauled all over creation in a hundred-and-ten-degree sun, but the alternative was worse.
Wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, he slipped and clattered down an overhang of rock into the mouth of a narrow cave. It wasn't much, more of a crevice really, but it was out of the sun and hidden from sight, and he had to stop and catch his breath for a second.
When he eased Teyla down, her eyelids fluttered and she moaned softly.
"Shh. 'salright." Sheppard leaned wearily against the wall opposite her. His throat ached with thirst. They weren't going to last long in this heat if they couldn't find water.
Teyla sucked in a breath and tried to get her hands under her, discovering too late that they were tied loosely in front of her stomach. She thrashed for a moment before sliding back down to lie on her back with a soft whimper. When she spoke, her voice was a croak.
"You will not succeed, and whatever you have planned for me, know that I will die before I submit to you."
"Yeah, so you keep telling me." He kept his voice low, knowing how sound could carry in the twisting canyons. The avalanche that he'd triggered a couple of canyons back had given them a small head start on the implacable killer pursuing them, but he had no idea how much that lead might have closed by now.
"If you do not release me, by the name of my father I will kill you," Teyla rasped at him from the floor of the cave.
"C'mon, lay off it already." He peeked around the corner of the cave mouth, his body thrumming with nervous tension. God, he wished he had the life-signs detector, but Rodney needed it more; he'd made it clear that its energy-scanning function was vital to his work.
Speaking of Rodney ... Sheppard tapped his radio. "McKay, how's it going?"
"How do you think it's going?" Rodney's voice cracked with fatigue and frustration.
"I have no idea. That's why I asked. Any luck?"
There was a soft hiss of frustration. "This might be going faster if someone would quit talking to me all the time! And you'd better be doing your job out there."
"Oh gee, that's comforting. You know what makes it even more difficult for me to work here? Worrying about getting shot through the head at any given moment!"
"Look, I'm doing my damnedest to keep them away from you without getting killed myself. I had to get a little carried away shaking Ronon off my tail awhile back --"
"That explosion was you, wasn't it? I hoped it was you..."
Sheppard continued, ignoring him. "I assume he's still behind me, but I don't have any way to check. At the very least, I can guarantee that Teyla's not after you at the moment."
Rodney's voice was a sharp crackle in his ear. "Oh God, you didn't kill her, did you? Please tell me you didn't kill her!"
Sheppard sighed and looked down at his teammate, bound at his feet and glaring up at him with deadly promise in her pain-glazed eyes. "No, I've got her tied up and I'm hauling her all over creation while she promises to kill me."
"For God's sake, Sheppard, why? You can move a lot faster without her, and we've both seen that neither one of them is particularly susceptible to your charms at the moment."
"Because Ronon shot her, and if I leave her alone she'll be a sitting duck, or more accurately, a walking target."
There was silence on the other end of the radio. "Oh," Rodney said at last, in a small voice. "Um, is she all right?"
"No. One side's crispy, and I had to tie her up anyway because she's still trying to kill me."
Rodney sighed over the radio. "You know, I'm less impressed with the Ancients every day."
"You and me both. I'd --" Sheppard broke off with a jerk as a small rock clattered down in front of the cave, and then relaxed, seeing a yellow-striped lizard skitter quickly between patches of sun.
"Sheppard? What? What is it?"
"Probably better not to stay too long in one place. Call me if you figure out anything."
Rodney snorted. "You'll know if I figure it out, Colonel, because they'll stop trying to kill you and each other, and if I don't figure it out then there's hardly any point in calling and telling you so, hmm?"
"Watch your back, McKay." Sheppard signed off and looked down to meet Teyla's hate-filled glare. Kneeling, he tightened her bonds. "I'm gonna scout around a little. It's probably in your best interests to stay quiet, seeing how you can't defend yourself right now."
She tried to spit at him, but was unable to muster enough saliva.
"Yeah," Sheppard said, because this was all really freakin' difficult to deal with, and at least if it was Rodney or Ronon tied up at his feet he'd be able to bitch at them for getting themselves in that situation. Teyla ... he just couldn't quite bring himself to say those things to her, especially on the off chance that she'd remember.
Instead, he left the cave and mounted stealthily to the top of an outcropping of stone, his 9-mil at the ready. In a way he wished he was better armed, but he was also glad he wasn't. Memories of M1B-129 were still all too fresh, and the last thing he wanted to do was to shoot Ronon again, to shoot any of his teammates again -- even in self-defense.
If it really came to that -- if he ended up looking down the wrong end of Ronon's gun, if it was kill or be killed -- he honestly didn't know what he'd do. Hope to hell that Rodney figured out that damn machine in time, probably.
Would they ever have a simple, easy mission that stayed simple and easy? This should have been completely straightforward. It was an uninhabited wasteland of a world with very little life of any kind. The MALP had detected low-level energy readings, so they'd taken a puddlejumper to check it out.
That had been what, four hours ago? Now the jumper was a smoking crater, thanks to Ronon's hitherto unexpected skill as a demolitions expert, taking most of their weapons and supplies with it. Even if they all managed to survive the next couple of hours, they faced a damn long walk back to the gate, over incredibly rough terrain, with no food or water and at least one seriously injured team member.
John sighed and crouched low to the rock, attempting to disguise his outline against the sky. With a small pair of field binoculars he scanned the inhospitable landscape. Heat shimmers occasionally made him flinch, only to realize that it hadn't been the movement of death coming for him in size fourteen boots.
He had no illusions about his ability to survive against Ronon for any length of time. The only hope he had was that Rodney could figure out how to undo whatever that machine had done to Ronon and Teyla before John ended up as a smear on the landscape.
Rodney's best guess for the function of the machine was that it was part of an Ancient experiment in enhancing or controlling aggressive impulses, possibly part of some sort of abandoned anti-Wraith device they'd been working on. It hadn't had the slightest effect on either of the ATA gene carriers.
Ronon and Teyla were a different story.
John just wished they'd been able to get off a message to Atlantis, at the very least, before the jumper had been destroyed and with it their ability to remotely dial the gate. If Elizabeth sent another team through, as she no doubt would once they missed their check-in, he didn't want a homicidal Ronon tearing a bloody path through his Marines -- or, God forbid, getting through to Atlantis.
He gave the horizon one final sweep. No sign of Ronon, but then, Ronon was far too savvy to allow himself to be spotted unless he wanted it. John could only hope that it didn't mean Ronon had figured out what Rodney was up to, and doubled back around to the Ancient facility. Rodney hadn't called for help ... that was hopeful.
Trying to distract Ronon and Teyla while Rodney worked on the machine was an absolutely crappy plan -- but right now, it was the only thing they had.
He slid and clattered back down to the cave, where he discovered that Teyla had passed out again. Kneeling quickly, he held a hand above her cracked lips, relaxing when a light breath of air puffed against his knuckles.
"Damn," he whispered, looking down at her. He considered looking for a place to stash her -- maybe walling her up in a small cave like this one, where she couldn't escape and Ronon couldn't find her.
Then he thought of Ronon's incredible tracking skills. He thought of Ronon crawling into the cave where Teyla lay unconscious, and slitting her throat while she slept. He thought of hiding her so well he couldn't find her again -- of Teyla dying of blood loss and exposure, while he hunted desperately for the cave where he'd left her.
With a sigh, he crouched and heaved her up over his shoulders. Hopefully she'd stay unconscious, because this would be virtually impossible if she started trying to fight him. Also, the position would surely have caused her great pain if she'd been awake.
He staggered out of the cave, adjusting to his new center of gravity. The sun hit him with the force of a hammer as he left the shade, and he ran his tongue over his painfully dry lips. Just to make the whole situation even better, the days on this world were -- according to Rodney -- about twice as long as those on Earth. That meant they had another ten or twelve hours until dusk.
He couldn't last that long without water, even if he could avoid Ronon. Finding water had to be his number-one priority.
In desert country on Earth, the way to find water was usually to follow animals. Circling birds or animal tracks generally pointed the way to water holes. He'd looked for birds from the clifftop, but had seen none; perhaps there were none here. However, water -- if any existed -- would have to be in a low place, so he would need to go down.
Supporting Teyla with one hand, and using the other for his 9-mil, he began a careful descent into the canyon. Progress was agonizingly slow. Without a free hand to steady himself, he had to feel out each footstep before trusting his weight to it. Several times he slipped, Teyla's loose weight lolling on his shoulders and sending him crashing to his knees or banging his elbow against the cliffside before he managed to catch himself, heart pounding, while the lethal drop to the canyon floor taunted him.
At the bottom of the cliff, he sank down to rest in a stand of low, dry brush. Sweat rolled into his eyes; impatiently, he wiped it away with the back of his hand. Teyla's skin was hot and dry. She didn't stir when he let her down to the sand. Sheppard brushed his fingers lightly against her cheek, and looked up at the jagged shapes of the cliff walls framing a pale sky.
His radio crackled. "Sheppard!"
"Not so loud, Rodney," Sheppard hissed, looking around him at the still rocks.
"Crap. Sorry. Is Ronon there?"
"Not at the moment, I hope. You got something?"
If it was possible to sound smug and worried at the same time, Rodney managed to achieve it. "Sort of. I've got good news and bad news."
Sheppard closed his eyes briefly. He didn't think he could take more bad news right now. "How about good news and good news?"
"How about you come up here and do the impossible with 10,000-year-old equipment?" Rodney snipped at him. "Huh? Didn't think so. But I have."
Sheppard's head snapped up. "Does that mean you've figured out how to undo whatever that machine did to Ronon and Teyla?"
"Hello? Genius here! Of course I've figured it out."
He closed his eyes, slumping against the canyon wall. Then, opening his eyes again: "So what's the bad news? This can be undone, right?"
"Oh yes, yes; it's actually fairly simple. You need to inject a counteragent. The instructions and the facilities for making it are all in here, and as far as I can tell, everything still works. I can make some fairly quickly. In fact, I'm doing it now."
Sheppard tracked along on the conversation, and his stomach dropped. "But then we have to inject it into them."
"Yes, that would be the bad news."
"Which means getting close enough to --"
"Yes, Colonel; the bad news."
He banged his head lightly into the cliff wall. "Why couldn't it just be a simple matter of flipping a switch, for crying out --" He froze.
"Because our lives are never that simple, that's why. Uh ... Colonel?"
Sheppard was already scrambling to his aching legs, scooping up Teyla and slinging her across his shoulders. He wouldn't have even noticed it if he hadn't been looking in exactly the right direction at the right time -- a shadow flickering across one of the high, sunlit canyon walls, there and gone. Ronon was up there somewhere, and undoubtedly he'd spotted them.
"Gotta go; it looks like there's a couple hundred pounds of pissed-off Satedan headed my way. You make that antidote, Rodney, okay?"
"Working on it," Rodney snapped, and then there was only silence. Sheppard recognized and sympathized with that reaction -- he knew very well that feeling of frustration, when your friends were in danger and there wasn't a damn thing you could do about it.
He never would have believed he'd think of Teyla as bulky, but draped over his shoulders, she was quite a solid weight -- and also cut off his visibility to either side and behind. Sheppard hauled her through an archway of rock and out into a boulder-strewn field that looked like the remains of a long-ago flash-flood. Although the canyons offered mute testimony that water had flowed here at some point during this world's geological history, this was the first indication that there had been flooding within the more recent past.
Using the boulders for cover, Sheppard picked his way through. He looked back over his shoulder, but saw nothing -- only blocky patterns of light and shade at the mouth of the canyon.
Perhaps he'd imagined the shadow earlier.
Yeah, and perhaps an Ancient might fly down in a souped-up puddlejumper, rescue them all and wipe out the Wraith species while she was at it, but he wasn't holding his breath.
Teyla's hipbone was digging uncomfortably into his neck. With a sigh, and another swipe of his tongue at his cardboard-dry lips, Sheppard resettled her on his shoulders and began to walk again.
Things were starting to swim around him just a little. His head felt light, as if it were a balloon that might float off at any moment. He recognized the signs, and didn't like it any more than he liked the harshness of Teyla's panting against his neck. If he couldn't find water soon, it wouldn't matter if Ronon caught up or not.
Casting one last glance behind him before the mouth of the canyon vanished from view, he sucked in his breath. He thought he'd seen a shape dart quickly through the shadows and then disappear. But maybe it was just the heat-shimmers. He blinked as formless shadows swooped in the corners of his vision. He couldn't trust anything that he saw right now. Damn it, he had to get out of the heat and find water.
He stumbled through another archway of rock, hoping to find shelter, but instead found himself in an open amphitheater, with pale sky overhead and stone all around him. There was no water, nothing but stone and dust.
And Ronon, waiting for him.
John froze. For an instant, he wondered if he might be hallucinating. Then the apparition smiled, and he knew it wasn't a lie. He tried to whip up his 9-mil, but Teyla's dangling arm got tangled with his, and Ronon shot first.
It was an incredible shot. It didn't touch John's fingers at all, but blew off half the barrel of the 9-mil and sent the small gun spinning away into the brush with a shock that temporarily deadened all sensation in his hand.
Sheppard went totally still with his hand in the air. Ronon didn't move. Finally, Sheppard said, "Do you mind if --" His voice was a dry rasp. He coughed and managed to muster up a little saliva. "Do you mind if I put her down? Getting a little hard to stand here."
"Go right ahead." There was a hoarse note to Ronon's low growl, and Sheppard realized that the heat was taking a toll on him as well, if not as severe. "I can kill her on the ground just as well as on your shoulders."
Sheppard slid Teyla gently to the sand. "I'm wondering why you haven't shot me."
The powerful shoulders rippled in a shrug. "No sport in that."
"You've led quite a chase, even burdened with the wounded bitch." His casual dismissal of Teyla sent a cold, hard spike through Sheppard's stomach. Hearing the words from a friend -- that was the worst part. "I know that you're a skilled fighter, even if I haven't seen much evidence of it so far. I want to see what you can do."
Sheppard tried to slide Teyla into the shade of a boulder, as much as possible, and then turned around. "If I fight you -- let her go."
Ronon snorted. "Not a chance. I'll cut your throat and then hers."
He tucked the big gun back into its holster and a knife appeared in his hand. Not really sure what else to do, Sheppard drew his field knife from his belt. He really sucked at knife fighting.
"You're gonna hate yourself in the morning if you keep this up, buddy."
Ronon just stepped towards him with that grin -- the 'I'm gonna kill someone, and I'm gonna like it' grin.
Sheppard retreated, deliberately leading Ronon away from Teyla. Maybe if he could just get them both far enough away --
Ronon feinted with a quick swipe of his knife. Sheppard ducked, refusing to be drawn in. He might suck at knife fighting, but he knew the basics. Ronon was trying to test out his reach, figure out how much range of motion he had. Damned if he was going to play.
Another swipe came close to clipping his ear.
"Knife fighting is for girls," Sheppard said, putting a boulder between himself and Ronon.
The big Runner leapt to the top of the boulder. Sheppard stared up at him. Good Lord. The only thing scarier than Ronon trying to kill you ... was a ten-foot-tall version of him trying to kill you.
"Maybe, but a girl with a knife can kill you just as quick," Ronon said lazily, and flipped the knife with an overhand motion.
Sheppard started to dodge, only to realize too late that the throw had been a fake. Ronon hadn't let go of the knife, but when John began to move, he did throw it -- angled to intersect with John's current trajectory.
He was unable to change directions in mid-leap, but he managed to twist his body so that the knife glanced off his upper arm, leaving a stinging crease rather than sticking in his chest. He danced quickly backwards as Ronon leapt down off the boulder, drawing another knife from God-knows-where.
"This is the best you can do?" Ronon curled his hand, the knife lying back along his wrist, preparatory for throwing. "Not very impressed so far."
"Hey, I'm rusty, what can I say." And not too keen on the idea of killing one of my teammates, thanks.
He was anticipating another fake throw, but this time Ronon closed with him, flicking the knife from throwing position to slashing position with a movement so quick that his fingers were a blur. John whipped around in a desperate parry, blocking a slash at his throat. Their blades met; Ronon's knife slid down John's blade to hit the finger guard with a ringing clash. Ronon immediately flicked the knife over and plunged it into Sheppard's wrist.
"Holy fuck!" he gasped, dropping his knife and stumbling backwards. He nearly went down on his ass, but managed to recover in time.
Ronon's lips curled back from his teeth. Both his hands moved quickly across his chest, and flickered out to the sides with a knife in each grasp.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Sheppard groaned. He was backed up against the cliffside now. He had another knife in his boot, but could barely close the fingers on his right hand; he probably wouldn't even be able to get it out, let alone wield it.
Ronon's approaching figure -- implacable, deadly -- shimmered in the heat. John blinked against a wave of dizziness. How could the man move that fast in this climate? Rodney, you better get that damn antidote finished soon --
Ronon lunged, a blur of leather and braids. John started shifting his weight as if to duck and then went the other way -- he leaped in the air, slammed his back against the cliff and lifted both feet off the ground, hitting Ronon with a powerful blow to the chest.
Surprised and off guard for the first time, Ronon staggered and John quickly followed up his advantage, driving a barrage of blows into Ronon's face and trying to ignore the blaze of pain that went up his injured arm every time he connected. He didn't want to hurt Ronon; he really didn't. But he'd seen some of the things that Ronon had shrugged off. He didn't plan to do any permanent damage, just enough to knock him down for a--
A fist hit the side of his head -- it felt like being cold-cocked by a tree trunk. The impact threw him literally his own body length. There was no chance of staying on his feet; it was all he could do to bring up his arms to protect his face from the gravel and thorny desert brush.
Gasping for air, he rolled over just in time to see six-foot-something of death coming down on top of him. Sheppard threw himself to the side and brought up his knees, scoring a kick in Ronon's midsection.
He wasn't pulling punches anymore. He didn't dare. He just had to hope that Ronon was tough enough to shake off the worst that Sheppard could throw at him -- because there was no way he'd get out of this alive if he didn't fight with everything he had.
He'd lost his radio on impact, so he couldn't even contact Rodney. He'd just have to trust in that, too. Ronon and Teyla weren't wearing their radios; one of the first things they'd both done was to remove them so they didn't have to listen to their teammates trying to talk them down.
It was an old trick but a good one: Sheppard scooped up a double handful of sand and flung it in Ronon's face. The Runner saw it coming and turned his head to the side, but it provided a moment's distraction. Rather than following it up with another attack, Sheppard got to his feet and ran.
He couldn't outrun Ronon any more than he could outfight him, but maybe he could gain some advantage if he could get to higher ground.
He didn't dare look back; the pounding of feet let him know that Ronon was in pursuit. He dashed along the bottom of the cliff. There was a crack in the rock, going up; he jumped and caught it, pulled himself up and then twisted around to kick Ronon in the face when the Runner tried to climb up after him. Ronon's head snapped back; there was a nasty-sounding pop. "Shit," John said, wincing in sympathy.
Ronon's head straightened up; his dreads half-obscured his bloody, sand-encrusted face.
"You know this isn't personal, right?" John asked, scrambling up into the crack in the rocks as quickly as possible. "What say we talk about it?"
"I'm gonna rip you apart."
"Guess that's a 'no', then."
He emerged from the crevice into dazzling sunlight. His incipient headache, from fatigue and dehydration, turned into a blinding migraine. He ignored it, scrabbling up a steep slope of loose scree. A glance over his shoulder showed no one behind him, and he paused at the horrifying thought that Ronon might have turned and gone back to kill Teyla. Then a sharp clatter of dislodged rocks drew his attention to the Satedan, halfway up what had to be a nearly sheer cliff -- but a faster way up than Sheppard's method. Ronon obviously meant to beat him to the top and cut him off.
Okay, so ...
There was a ledge near the top of the crevice he'd climbed; it led away from Ronon. Sheppard jumped to it and hastily ran down it, hoping that it didn't peter out and leave him stranded; he was already fifty feet or more above the sunny amphitheater where Ronon had trapped him. Looking down, he could see the place where he'd left Teyla ...
... and she wasn't there.
He looked around desperately. She must've come to and dragged herself off somewhere. Her hands were tied, but her feet hadn't been, and he suspected it wouldn't take her very long to free herself. He wasn't sure whether to be afraid for her, or for himself -- it depended on how bad her wound was, and how fast she could move without causing herself permanent damage. Either way, one of them was in serious trouble.
Check that, he thought as Ronon appeared around the curve of the rock, coming fast and lethal on the ledge. He was definitely in trouble no matter what.
As he'd feared, the ledge ended -- but the top of a nearby stone pillar looked within jumping distance. This place was just unreal, like the world's biggest jungle gym. Without giving himself time to contemplate the consequences of failure, John sprang. He fell to his hands and knees on the rough gray rock, driving gravel into his palms.
"You're only delaying the inevitable," Ronon said behind him.
Sheppard didn't answer, because Ronon was exactly right, but all he had to do was delay it long enough. From the pillar, he leapt to the rise of a stone archway, soaring like a bridge across the amphitheater, and scrambled on hands and feet towards its apex. The ground must be at least a hundred feet below him now. Heights didn't scare him, but the precariousness of his position, combined with the lightheadedness of oncoming sunstroke, left him dizzy and breathless.
He half-expected to be shot in the back as he ran across the natural bridge, but Ronon appeared to be serious about this whole sporting-chance business. That was something, anyway. On the other side, John jumped to the top of a sort of mesa and went into an all-out sprint, aiming for the far side of it. He didn't have a plan. He just needed to avoid Ronon until Rodney had a chance to --
Fingers hooked into the back of his belt and he was yanked from his feet to go tumbling on the stone. He ended up sprawling on his stomach, eye to eye with a boulder that had nearly brained him.
"Like I said." Ronon straddled him, the big man's shadow falling across him. "Delaying the inevitable."
The first kick caught him in the side, and he felt ribs give. He curled around his stomach, trying to protect himself against the worst of the blows. From the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of silver in Ronon's hand -- crap, another knife! He hooked one of his feet around Ronon's ankle and brought up his knee sharply towards his chest, tipping Ronon off balance and following that up with a kick to Ronon's other leg. It didn't leave the Satedan off balance for long, but John was free, rolling up and over the boulder and --
-- into thin air.
He didn't fall far -- maybe ten or fifteen feet -- but smacked into sharp rocks with a whole-body crunch, aggravating whatever Ronon had done to his ribs. For a minute, all he could do was lie gasping like a beached fish. Thirst was quickly becoming the least of his physical woes.
Ronon landed in front of John, dropping as gracefully as a cat, catching his weight with flexed knees.
"Seriously," Sheppard panted, climbing to his knees, "you are really going to hate yourself for this when you wake up."
Ronon's only answer was a kick that caught him in the side of the head and flipped him over backwards.
His head ringing from the blow, John rolled to his feet. The hell he was just going to sit here and take this. Ronon was family and he'd give his life for him in a heartbeat, but he was not going to let himself be beaten to death, not with Teyla and Rodney still to protect.
And with a yell, he threw himself into Ronon's midsection. This was obviously not something Ronon had anticipated; they both went down in a sprawl of limbs, tumbling over and over on the rocks. Everything was lost in the wet crack of fists on bone, feet and knees and elbows on muscle and soft tissue. He didn't remember most of the blows he threw and was hardly aware of the ones that landed on him. Somewhere in the space between fury and pain, he forgot who he was fighting, forgot everything but the red haze in his vision and the primal need to survive, to win. He locked both fists in Ronon's dreads, oblivious to the Satedan's punches battering him, and drove Ronon's head into the rock as hard as he could.
Ronon went still under him, and a soft thrill of terror raced through his stomach, clearing the fog from his brain. Because it was Ronon, and he hadn't -- he couldn't --
The bloody lips moved, and Ronon groaned, and something untied in the pit of Sheppard's belly. He hadn't killed him. Oh God, he hadn't killed him.
Ronon's eyelids flickered, the eyelashes matted with blood. Sheppard leaned over him, a deep weariness spiraling up from inside him. The taste of copper filled his mouth; before he could speak, first he had to spit out a mouthful of blood.
"Hey there. Sorry about that, I guess I got a little --"
He didn't see the blow coming, hardly felt it at first, until his head connected with rock and there was a moment of blankness before he swooped back to consciousness as he was hauled over onto his back.
Ronon didn't look much better off than Sheppard felt; he was obviously barely keeping himself upright, his face a mask of blood, his hair matted with it. Sheppard couldn't see his friend's eyes, and he was infinitely glad for that.
In one hand, Ronon clutched a rock; with his other he gripped a ragged handful of Sheppard's shirt, holding the pilot's slumped body upright for the final blow.
"When Rodney fixes this --" Sheppard rasped. Blood tickled his throat and he had to stop to cough. "I hope to God you don't remember any of this. But if you do, remember --" Another cough. But Ronon hadn't hit him yet. "As your commanding officer, I'm telling you, Specialist Dex -- it's that device in there that's causing this, not you. This isn't your fucking fault and if you don't remember anything else, I want you to remember that."
Ronon didn't respond -- didn't move at all, in fact. Then he made a soft gargling sound in his throat, and very slowly keeled over to one side. His fingers relaxed on Sheppard's shirt. The grip had been the only thing holding John upright; he slumped back onto his elbows, and looked past Ronon's limp body to see a white-faced, shocked Rodney McKay, holding a slim silver syringe of clearly alien manufacture. He was just drawing it back from Ronon's upper arm.
Rodney's mouth opened and closed a few times. "You -- you -- ah --"
"Teyla," John croaked.
Rodney's forehead creased in a frown. "I was hoping you'd be able to tell me where she is. Your life signs were the first ones I found, and let me tell you, it would have been a lot less of a pain in the ass if you'd just told me where you were so I didn't have to look all over creation for --"
The thrown rock struck him in the side of the head, and he went down without a sound. The syringe, released from his limp fingers, rolled across the ground and came to a rest against Ronon's thigh.
I hate this fucking day, Sheppard thought.
Blinking blood out of his eyes, he looked up, trying to find Teyla. It would have been easier if his vision didn't keep going in and out of focus. Eventually he located her, a small dark shape crouched on top of a boulder not too far away.
"Hi there," he rasped, pushing himself up to an awkward sitting position. Both Ronon and Rodney had fallen across his legs; he may as well have been under a couple of logs. No way he was going anywhere. Something silver caught his eye, sticking out of Rodney's jacket pocket.
"Finally, I have you where I want you, enemy." Teyla's voice was as hoarse as Sheppard's; only willpower, he thought, was keeping her upright at this point. Willpower and the urge to kill.
"Why don't you come down here and kill me face to face." Sheppard leaned forward, slumping over Ronon's back as if a fit of dizziness had come upon him -- which, in honesty, it had. But his goal was the remaining syringe in Rodney's pocket. He rested a hand on the scientist's side.
A clatter of dislodged rocks let him know that Teyla appeared to be following his suggestion. Sheppard gripped the edge of the syringe between two fingers and slid it up his sleeve, just as Ronon had once shown him to hide a knife. Perhaps he wasn't utterly useless at knife fighting, after all.
Teyla slipped to the ground in a shower of rocks. She stood for a moment, leaning heavily against the boulder she'd been sitting on. Fresh blood glistened on the crude bandages knotted around her side. She leaned down, keeping one hand on the boulder for support, and groped around for a nicely fist-sized, Sheppard-killing rock. Her fingers came to rest on a length of sun-bleached deadwood, and she straightened, smiling as she hefted the length of wood. Aside from a few twists and curls, it was about the size and shape of one of her fighting sticks.
As she limped towards him, Sheppard struggled to extricate his legs from the dead weight slumped across them. "Don't suppose you're up for a little chat, hey? Want to tell me just what, exactly, you think you're doing at the moment?"
"Eliminating an enemy." Her eyes were bright with a manic gleam. Tangled hair fell across her beautiful face, utterly devoid of the warmth and affection that normally lit it when she looked at him.
"You know, of all the various ways in which the Ancients have screwed up since we've been cleaning up their messes, I think this qualifies as the very top of the fuck-up pile," John remarked conversationally, working one of his legs loose from Ronon. "Remind me to have Elizabeth lock this world out of the database when we get home, okay?"
Teyla's slow, limping progress continued. She was dragging one leg, and each time her weight shifted to it, she looked as if she'd fall over. But somehow she stayed upright.
Sheppard resigned himself to the fact that he just wasn't going to be able to get untangled in time, not in his present condition, and braced for the blow to come. All he had to do was get close enough to jab her with the syringe. Maybe he could block her first strike with his forearm --
But she stopped before she reached him, and raised the stick above Rodney's head instead of his. Sheppard's heart leapt into his throat. "Hey! I'm the one you want to --"
She snorted. "I saw what he did before. He is far more dangerous than you."
"That's what you think," Sheppard muttered, as he brought his arm forward in a quick motion that yanked at protesting muscles in his shoulder and back. He could just reach her leg. The Ancient syringe slipped beneath her skin and a small green light on the side blinked on.
Teyla stumbled backward, and dropped onto her butt on the sand. "I should have killed you the first time I had the chance," she mumbled as she slumped over.
"Yeah, probably," Sheppard said.
Rodney was the least injured, or should have been, but he hadn't moved at all since Teyla's rock had struck him square in the temple. Sheppard shifted him into a patch of shade; he was already developing a fiery flush of sunburn across his pale forehead. He was horribly limp and unresponsive, but his pulse felt strong, so Sheppard arranged him in the closest thing to the recovery position that he could manage -- what with the fact that he could barely move himself -- and then made his slow, limping way back to the others.
Teyla's wound scared him. Whatever Ronon's weapon did to human flesh, it looked sort of like she'd been hit with a load of buckshot and then charred extra crispy. At least the wound had been mostly cauterized; it was seeping blood and other fluids, but she would probably have already bled out if she'd been shot with a regular firearm. He dragged her into the shade, too. Her breathing was shallow and rapid, her pulse faint. He didn't think she'd last very long without help -- help he couldn't bring her.
Ronon was a goddawful mess. There didn't seem to be an inch of him that wasn't bruised or bloody or scraped raw by gravel. When Sheppard rolled him over cautiously to move him, he discovered that Ronon's arm was broken in two places -- the arm he'd been holding up Sheppard with. Damn. Hardcore. Of all of them, he suspected that Ronon was the most likely to survive, just because the man was too blasted tough to die.
It took a lot of wrestling to get Ronon's limp body into the shade with the others, and when he was done, Sheppard slumped down in a heap while the world spun around him. He'd gone through desperate thirst and out the other side; he was only aware of a vague sense of pain in his throat to go with all the other pain.
Teyla gave a faint, dry cough, and Sheppard lurched upright and dragged himself to her side. "Hey. Hey there. Can you hear me?"
She blinked, staring up at the sky, and he had time for a sudden rush of worry: what if it hadn't worked, what if the syringes hadn't even contained the antidote at all -- maybe it was just something to sedate them, maybe the antidote was back at the Ancient facility or unfinished or impossible ...
"John." Her voice was a thready whisper. It was the first time she'd called him John since she had been affected by the device.
"Yeah. Me." He stroked her hair back from her forehead.
"I am ... I ..." Her eyes flickered shut, and then opened again. Glazed with pain, they focused on him, desperate in their intensity. Moisture gathered in the corners that she could ill afford to lose. "I do not know how to apologize for what I --"
He laid one filthy hand across her lips, silencing her. "It wasn't you. Nothing to apologize for. Believe me, I've been there."
She took a slow breath, swallowed, and moved her head in a tiny nod.
Sheppard glanced at the others. He knew what he had to do; he just didn't know how likely he was to survive it. "Teyla, keep an eye on 'em. I'm going to head for the gate, get help for you guys."
Her throat worked as she swallowed again, trying to muster up enough moisture to talk. "You cannot," she whispered. "Too far -- not in this sun --"
"I'll be okay." He grinned, feeling the trickle of blood on his chin as new cracks opened up in his dry and battered lips. "I'm not hurt as bad as I look. It's all superficial."
Her eyebrows drew together; she appeared unconvinced. But she was also having trouble staying awake; the intense brown eyes drifted shut, opened, closed again. And for one terrible instant, he was back in the Afghanistan desert, watching a friend die slowly beside him.
The hell he was letting it happen again.
"I'll be back," he told her, touching her hot forehead lightly.
He hauled himself over to Rodney and Ronon, checked their vitals again -- no change -- and lifted Rodney's radio off his ear. It took him several tries to get to his feet, and he stood swaying while the rocks blurred in and out of focus around him.
"I'll be back," he repeated -- to them, to himself, to the ghost of Holland and all the others he hadn't been able to save. Turning, he started walking, one step at a time.
He retraced his previous route because otherwise he was afraid of getting lost. There was no way he could navigate the stone archway in his present condition, so he had to find a different way down to the bottom of the canyon, and he ended up losing his grip and tumbling the last twenty feet or so. He must have passed out for a moment, and he woke up dazed and hurting and badly shaken by how easily his grip on consciousness had slipped.
You pass out and they die, John.
He forced himself not to listen to the other voice in the back of his head, the one telling him that he'd never survive this. That none of them would. The flight from the gate to the Ancient facility had taken them across miles and miles of rough desert wilderness. Even if none of them were injured, it would still have taken a day or so to walk back to the gate. And that, he thought, should have been their first warning sign, because it wasn't normal for a Stargate to be located so far from the world's obvious purpose for being inhabited.
Just keep walking, John. One foot in front of the other. Keep walking.
He dragged a hand along the canyon wall to keep himself focused and oriented, upright and moving. The world rippled around him, like being underwater. He couldn't help smiling at the cruel irony of that. A few more cracks opened up in his abused lips, but the small sharp stings were a welcome sort of pain, a reminder that he was still alive.
He lost his equilibrium and went down to his knees, catching himself with a sharp gasp that stabbed at his side with fingers of fire. Broken ribs, he thought, pulling himself very slowly back to his feet.
He made it another twenty yards or so before he fell again. This time he stayed down for a long moment before he doggedly climbed back upright again.
He was going to make it to the gate if he fucking had to crawl there.
His world narrowed to an agonizing sequence of events, repeated over and over: walk a few steps, fall, get up, walk a few more steps ...
His radio crackled.
He was lying facedown in the sand when it happened. Didn't remember how he'd gotten there. Took him a minute to realize that what he was hearing was real, and not part and parcel with the heat illusions that flickered at the corner of his vision.
"Colonel Shep -- can't -- not -- signal --"
He recognized the voice. Lorne. Hitting his radio, he spit out sand and tried to form words. It took several tries to get something that resembled human speech. "Major Lorne?"
The voice came back stronger and clearer. "Glad to hear from you, sir! All these canyons are playing hell with our communications. Tried to raise you through the gate, but we couldn't get anything, so Dr. Weir sent a team in a jumper to look for you."
"Took you long enough," he mumbled.
"Sir? You don't sound good. Listen, we're using your radio signal to home in on you right now --"
"No, not me --" He swallowed, his throat working against the dryness choking him. "Team. My team. Life signs. South southwest of me, maybe due south ... hurt -- I --" Then another thought occurred to him. The machine. Desperation forced him to claw his way back from the inviting vortex of unconsciousness. "Major, turn around. Back to gate -- anyone who doesn't have the gene --" His thoughts were losing cohesion, starting to whirl around him like the fading canyon walls. "Need the gene -- won't --"
"Don't worry, Colonel." Lorne's voice was strong, reassuring. "We'll get your team and you. We're right over your position now, and we're going to pick you up first, okay?"
"No, that's an order, Major, dammit ..." But his voice had faded until even he couldn't hear it anymore, and as his head sank down into the sand, he wondered if the sound in his ears was the whine of puddlejumper engines, or just the rushing of blood as he fell away from the world.
The voice was Elizabeth's. Sheppard drifted, listening.
"Aye. Well, from what you've said, that unholy place is off limits to the other teams --"
"Oh, God, yes." Sheppard could hear the shudder in Elizabeth's voice. His lips twitched a little, picturing the look on her face.
"Hey, Carson, I think he's waking up." Rodney's voice, much closer, startled him, and he felt himself flinch. "Yeah, definitely waking up."
"Why aren't you in bed?" Beckett wanted to know, his voice coming closer.
There was a little bit of muted scrabbling. "I am," Rodney said.
"Sitting on the edge of it does not constitute being in it. Are you four years old?"
"Excuse me, Carson, but I think you're missing the important thing here, which is that Colonel Sheppard is waking up."
"I heard you the first time, Rodney." A firm but gentle hand gripped Sheppard's jaw, turning his head. He sucked in an involuntary breath at the pain of bruises along his jawline.
"Sorry, Colonel." The hand shifted its grip slightly. A finger pressed against his eyelid; he had just enough presence of mind to try to turn his head away before the lid was peeled back and a light flashed in his eye -- once, twice, before he was plunged back into purple-spotted darkness.
"Mmhngrhngle," he protested incoherently, as the process was repeated on the other eye.
"Pupil response looks good, and he's definitely waking up. Colonel, can you hear me?"
"Told you," Rodney said petulantly.
"John?" Elizabeth's soft tones had moved closer to his bed as well. "Can you hear us?"
It was awfully tempting to just lie here, but he had a feeling they weren't going to leave him alone, and besides, he needed to know how the rest of his team was doing. "Mmm, yeah."
"I knew he was faking," Rodney said, sounding smug and, under it, relieved.
"How do you feel, Colonel?" Carson asked him. "Anything hurt?"
Everything hurt, but in a very foggy and distant kind of way. Sheppard peeled his sticky eyes open. Carson and Elizabeth were, as he'd suspected, hovering over him. Past them, he saw Rodney sitting on the very edge of the next-door infirmary bed. The scientist had a bandage covering the side of his head and was as white as a sheet.
" 'mm okay." His voice cracked, and he choked on a cough. "Water?"
Carson held a straw to his lips. "You were badly dehydrated, Colonel, and while I'm going to have the nurses keep water on hand for you, I want you to take it easy. Half a cup at a time, and if you want more, they can bring you ice."
"mmm." The water was wonderful; oh, he'd dreamed of this. When Carson took the straw away, Sheppard turned his head to the side, feeling slightly more human. "Hi, Rodney."
"Hi yourself. You look like shit."
"Thanks a lot. You too."
On the other side of Rodney, he saw Ronon lying in another bed, looking like fifty miles of bad road. The Runner's eyes were swollen to slits from the bruising around them, but they were open, staring up at the ceiling.
"Hey, Ronon," Sheppard called over to him.
Rodney looked over his shoulder at the Runner, then winced and swallowed when he moved his head too fast. "Good luck getting anything out of him. Believe me, I've been trying. He won't talk to anybody."
"Rodney," Carson said. "Bed. Unless you want to throw up on another nurse."
"Fine ... mother." Rodney eased, wincing, onto his back, and flipped a blanket over his legs. "Better?"
"I'm sure the nurses think so."
"Teyla," Sheppard said, turning to Carson. "How is she?"
"Out of surgery and in recovery." Carson offered him a reassuring smile. "I'm off to check on her now. She's a tough lass, though; she came through with flying colors. I'm sure she'll be pounding on you with her sticks again in no time."
Sheppard's eyes closed briefly in relief. They'd made it. All of them.
Elizabeth leaned past Carson to give John's hand a squeeze; then she patted Rodney on the leg. "Well, it looks like everything is under control here. We'll debrief when you're feeling better, but only when you're ready, all right? And I think Kate will be by to talk to you later."
"Great," Rodney muttered as she left. "Something to look forward to."
Carson glanced over the three of them. "Think you bunch can keep yourselves out of trouble while I go look in on Teyla?"
Sheppard raised a hand in a feeble Boy Scout salute. "Scout's honor, Doc."
Rodney snorted. "Oh, you were never a Scout."
"I certainly was," Sheppard protested. "You on the other hand ... and do they even have Boy Scouts in Canada?"
"Scouts Canada ... and yes, I was. Can't say I ever saw much of a point to it, though."
"You were the kid the other ones pushed in the lake, weren't you?"
"I suppose I'll take this as a 'yes'," Carson said, dubiously, and pulled the curtain shut behind him.
As soon as he was gone, Sheppard raised his head, looking both ways for nurses, and then cautiously sat up. He held onto the side of the bed until things stopped moving, then slid his legs over the edge.
"Oh, you just want to get me in trouble, don't you?" Rodney griped. "If Carson comes back in the middle of whatever the hell you're doing, I was asleep the whole time, capisch? What are you doing, anyw-- oh." He trailed off when he saw that Sheppard's determined, limping progress was aimed at Ronon's bed.
IV in tow, Sheppard came to a halt beside the Satedan. Up close, Ronon looked like he'd been run over by a truck. Sheppard suspected that his own face looked similar.
"Hi there. You get the number of the bus that hit you?"
Ronon didn't respond with his usual "You Earth people are crazy" stare. He just kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
"Yo, buddy." Sheppard reached out with his own bandaged arm and gripped Ronon's unbroken arm below the elbow. "You remember what happened down there?"
After a pause, Ronon's lips moved. "Everything," he murmured.
"Thought so. Then you also remember what I said to you, there at the end? You remember that too?"
There was a very long pause. Just when Sheppard had decided that Ronon wasn't going to respond, the eyes came down from the ceiling to focus on John's face. The lips moved again. "Said it wasn't my fault."
"I remember it all, Sheppard. I ..." Ronon hesitated, casting about for words. "Anger," he said finally. "I was alive with it. Hated you, all of you, more than Wraith. Would have killed you and laughed about it. I can't forget what it felt like."
"Well, you're just gonna have to. Look ..." Sheppard wet his lips, looking around for help. He really sucked at this part of being a boss, a friend. "It was the device, okay? And you know, I've been there. More than once. I shot you, shot Rodney too ... and come to think of it, Elizabeth shot you when Phoebus was in her head, remember that? Plus, Teyla's beaten the crap out of any number of people while the Wraith were controlling her."
"In fact, I think the only one of us who hasn't tried to kill any of the others is me," Rodney put in smugly. "Ha!"
"You shot me while I was being controlled by Thalen," Sheppard reminded him.
The smug look faltered. "That was an accident."
Ronon stirred, and then pushed himself up on one elbow, turning his bruised face in Rodney's direction. "And unlike the rest of us," he rasped, "you didn't even have the excuse of being mind-controlled, McKay."
Rodney hunched down into his bed. "Oh shut up, I hate all of you people. Kick a man while he's down ..."
But there was a slight smile hovering around the corners of his mouth, and just the barest hint of an answering smile on Ronon's cracked lips. Sheppard gave Ronon a light pat on the least bruised shoulder, and limped back to his own bed.
They'd be all right. It might take time, but he knew they'd be all right.