Walking hurt every bit as much as he had known it would. For the first few steps, he braced himself against the wall, and put as little weight as possible on his injured ankle, but even that was too much. Then he tried a tentative hop. The landing made him cry out – once from the explosion of pain in his head; once from the merciless stabbing in his good foot. "My feet are cut to ribbons," he told Sheppard. "I've got surprisingly sensitive feet. It's a scientist thing."
Sheppard said nothing, but Rodney could hear him breathing. His feet were entirely silent. Bare feet on gritty stone made no sound.
"Why did they take our shoes, anyway?" he wondered out loud.
"I don't know, Rodney. Do you want to go back and ask them?"
Not just their shoes. Their vests. Their supplies. Their P90s. They only had the pistols because Sheppard had…
"It's your fault, you know," Rodney blurted out. Then his injured foot met a lump of rubble, larger than the stabby, pointy bits of gravel that surely had to be sticking into his feet like pieces of… like something, anyway. At least, he hoped it was rubble. The sheep had distracted him from thoughts of skeletons, but the bones had not gone away.
"Watch out to your left," he heard Sheppard say.
"Bit late there, Colonel."
He experimented, testing out different ways to walk. Left foot useless, left arm on the wall, right foot bleeding… The floor was uneven, with painful hazards. If he tried to hop again, he would risk landing badly and breaking his neck. He really needed Sheppard to… No. No. Couldn't ask that. The man was shot. Rodney had shot him.
"How is it my fault?"
Rodney flapped the gun. "In a minute."
No, he thought, with a fatalistic sigh. There was no help for it. He would have to put weight on the broken ankle. Walk through the agony. And if that meant that he did terrible damage to his entire leg… Well, Carson could… No. It didn't matter. He'd probably be dead by then, anyway. A skeleton with one leg was still a skeleton.
He took the first step, carefully lowering his weight onto the ankle, though supporting as much as he could with his hand on the wall. It hurt. Oh, how it hurt! He heard grinding – his broken bones, grinding together, jagged edges thrusting through the flesh. He bit his lip against a scream, a cry, a whimper. His face twisted with pain, but that hurt his head, and he smoothed his face out again. Sweat ran into his eyes. The corner of his eyes pricked with another liquid, hidden by the darkness.
The grinding came again, a little ahead of him. Oh. Sheppard, making his way across a fall of rubble. Not bones. And Sheppard said it was only twisted, not broken. But this was Lieutenant-Colonel 'I'm fine', with the missing leg and the rusty pen-knife. But he took other people's injuries seriously enough, and he had been in enough wars and battles and other ridiculous macho things. He probably knew.
He tried enough step, and it less all-consumingly-agonising than the step that had gone before. The next step was almost tolerable. I did it! he thought triumphantly. It was strange to feel this triumph for something as mundane as walking, rather than for cracking an intransigent problem quicker than anyone else, and saving the world again. He had bitten his lip, and managed to be silent throughout his valiant struggle. Sheppard didn't know. Sheppard walked on oblivious, and Rodney all alone had faced… had conquered…
"Well done, Rodney," Sheppard said quietly. Even the murmur was enough to send the words back to him with the echo. Well done, Rodney. Well done.
His eyes pricked worse than before. Rodney swiped at them with the hand that held the gun. "As I was saying, Colonel, this is your fault."
"A doorway," Sheppard said. "About as wide as they are back on Earth. Keep your hand on the door frame this side, then go forward. You should be able to reach the wall on the other side." Rodney did what he was told. The air from the side passage was more fresh and inviting. "How is it my fault?"
"You and your super-powered Ancient gene." The words were punctuated with gasps as bare feet fell on grit and rubble. "A peaceful agrarian people, Teyla says. Oh, wait! They're only peaceful when they're dealing with normal people. As soon as they find out about your freaky mutant blood, they cry, 'Witch!' and turn into a cult of blood-crazed savages."
"They took you, too," Sheppard pointed out. "You're a freaky mutant, too."
"Yes. Well." Rodney concentrated on his feet for a moment. "You're the one who touched that… thing without checking they weren't watching."
"You touched it afterwards."
"Yes. Yes, I did, but…"
"Freaky mutant," Sheppard muttered, then he gasped. There was the sound of tumbling stones, and the thud and the slide of someone falling. Rodney carried on, one step, two. His outstretched hand met the back of Sheppard's head, and he could feel that it was hunched over. Lower, and he could feel the quick, shallow breaths heaving through Sheppard's shoulders. Apart from when Sheppard had pulled him to his feet, this was the only time he had been anything other than sounds in the darkness.
"You okay?" Rodney asked.
Just words. Useless words. What were words? Rodney hid behind them. He pushed people away with them. Now, in the darkness, they were all he had, and they were nothing. Words could not show you where a man was bleeding. Words could not show the expression on his face as he lied.
"Just get that gun off the back of my head," Sheppard said.
"Oh." Rodney twisted his hand, the fingers still clenched around the useless pistol. He took a step back. "Are you…?"
His hand twitched uselessly. "Do you…?"
He heard the sound of Sheppard rising to his feet again. Filled with a sudden awful thought, he passed the gun to his other hand, standing unaided for the first time. Was his right hand smeared with blood? He raised it to his nose, and sniffed, ready to gag. No blood. At least, he thought not. Only dirt and mustiness and dead things.
"I can't smell the mon… the creature," he realised, suddenly. "You said it stank."
"In contrast with the entrance," Sheppard said. "You've just gotten used to it. You probably stink, too."
"Ew." Rodney plucked at his t-shirt, wrinkling his nose. "I want a shower." Even the noise of dropping water was gone, left behind as they had walked. "And food. I can't go for too long without food, you know that. Did you find any…?"
"You don't have to snap."
"I'm not snapping." Sheppard was clearly struggling to speak. "I'm just…"
And then no more words. A gasp. A shaky sigh. Breathing, tight and shallow. The echoes brought it all to him. Without sight, hearing meant everything. Even in the darkness, there were some things that could not be lied about. You could lie with your words, but the truth came out in the sounds you did not mean to make.
Rodney licked his parched lips; curled his left hand into a fist, pressing it into the wall. "Plants do grow underground. Ferns, and things. Are ferns poisonous? And there could be animals. Bats, and…" He swallowed, fighting sickness in his throat. "Worms. The monst… the creature has to eat something. We can tell it likes flesh. It came after me, didn't it?"
"Rodney," Sheppard said warningly, but his voice was stronger. "We'll be out soon. This place is man-made; it can't be too big. We're walking slowly, that's all."
They walked on. Rodney wondered if his feet were an entire mass of red – if there was anywhere that was still whole. His ankle hurt less than it had expected, though, or maybe that was just the numbness of permanent maiming. His head throbbed atrociously. Even though he was on his feet, sleep was dancing on the edges of his consciousness. "At least it beats sheep."
"Nothing." Rodney pressed his lips together. He wouldn't say another word for… for… "Who built this place, anyway? This whole creepy underground dungeon thing they've got going here…? It was probably a palace once, or something, and I doubt it used to be underground."
The bones crunched. No, not bones. Stones. Not the bones of the former inhabitants. They had seen other ruins across the planet. They were not Ancient, although the Ancients, too, had left their mark, but they spoke of a flourishing civilisation long departed. It was probably the Wraith; it always was. The Wraith had come, the civilisation had fallen, and the survivors had scraped out a bare living in the soil. Towers had crumbled; palaces had been claimed by earth and grass. Nothing remained but this, lost in darkness forever more.
"So why build only one entrance?" he continued, trying to close a door on those thoughts. "It doesn't make sense. There should be lots of ways out. And all these maze-like corridors. What sort of architectural design is this? You'd think they were designing a spooky ruin for us to get lost in, not somewhere to live in."
"Like all those dungeons in Dungeons and Dragons." Sheppard was barely a step ahead, by the sound of it. "I always wondered that, too."
"Dungeons and Dragons?" Rodney stopped walking. "You play…?"
"Played," Sheppard said. "What? It's not sufficiently soldierly for your image of me? Hidden depths, remember." Another step, another near-fall on the stones. "You?"
Rodney drew himself up. "Just because I was the sort of person that jocks like you would call a nerd… No. No, I didn’t. I could have, of course. I had lots of friends who asked me to join their games – lots and lots. I was too busy doing proper work. I didn't want to waste my time with trivia. That's all."
Sheppard said nothing. Then, very gently, he said, "We'll be out soon."
Rodney wanted to make some sort of retort, but to his amazement, he lacked the spirit for one. His head was hurting worse than ever. A sheep popped its head over the fringes of his perception, and he saw the flash of colour that was the fertile meadow of ripe ZPMs. He groped forward, brushing Sheppard's arm with the knuckles of the hand holding the gun. "Can we stop for a moment? Just sit down for ten minutes?" Sleep, bleated the sheep.
Sheppard said nothing. Rodney could hear the sound of his careful breathing, as he weighed up how badly to lie.
"Colonel?" He tried to keep the whine from his voice.
"If I stop, Rodney…" Sheppard's voice faded, as if he was turning away, hiding things in the dark. "I'm not sure I'll be getting up again."
Oh. Oh. This is bad. He brought his cramped hand to his face; lowered it again. Swallowed. Sternly told the sheep to go away. "Then you can pace manfully up and down while I sit down and rest." He raked his left hand through his hair, dirt smearing over his face. "Just a few minutes. Please?"
Because then he would regain his strength. Just a few minutes at rest in the meadow of ZPMs. Everything would go away. It would come back again when he awoke, but not so bad. He would have the strength to help Sheppard walk. He would have the strength to carry him, if he had to, or leave him here, and pass alone through the monster's lair in an attempt to get help. This was his fault. This was all his fault.
"Go ahead and rest," Sheppard said wearily, "if you want to lie down in the middle of a flesh-eating monster's lair."
Rodney had been halfway to the ground. "Thank you very much for that, Colonel." He clambered up again, head swimming. "Now I'll never sleep."
Sheppard moved on. Bare feet made little sound, but Rodney was sure that his steps were faltering. He needed… And Rodney's head was pounding, and his hands were shaking, and he hadn't eaten for hours. They both needed… "We should go back to the entrance," he suggested. "They might have gone by now."
"Or they might still be there."
How many of them had there been? It had seemed like hundreds, thousands, as they had poured after the two of them, crashing through undergrowth, sending arrows into tree trunks, hard enough to go through a man's flesh and come out the other side. He peered at the terror of the memory. Maybe twenty? "Twenty to one," he said. "I thought you'd try that sort of odds."
"I see you're not including yourself in this doomed last stand of mine."
Rodney swallowed, very conscious of the empty pistol in his hand. He didn't think he ever wanted to fire a gun again. "Oh, I'll be cowering behind a rock cheering you on."
"Why, thank you for the support." He heard the smile. He also heard the strain. It came through in everything, now, impossible to hide.
He trailed behind Sheppard in the opposite direction from the entrance, with its fresh air and its sunshine and ripe berries on bushes and… and doomed last stands and barbed arrows and death. "It's your fault," he said again.
"We've covered this. I thought… we'd decided… that it wasn't."
Rodney quietly moved closer – close enough to catch a man if he fell. "I mean the escaping part. I mean escaping in front of a whole village of enraged primitives who think we're sorcerers and want us dead."
"I'm sorry," Sheppard said. "Next time, I won't save you in the nick of time from certain death."
Rodney thought of the flames, roaring on the end of the torch. A mob with flaming torches… How clichéd was that? And he was tied to a stake, with wood piled all around him, and a crowd of primitives were shouting, "Witch!" It was like a scene from a Monty Python film. Death by cliché. It would have been funny had it not been… well, terrifying.
"You could at least have rescued my shoes," he grumbled.
"I'm sorry." Sheppard sounded as if he was speaking through gritted teeth. "Next time I have a choice between saving you and your shoes, I…" He gasped. "I'll…"
Rodney's heart was hammering in his ears. His palms were sweaty, and lurid colours were sheeting across his vision. "It's not the rescuing," he managed. How could his voice sound so normal? "That was welcome. And you escaping, too. Who'd have thought a primitive people would have been so bad at knots? I thought they were good at all these outdoors things." He flapped his hand past his eyes, but saw nothing. "You even managed to get our pistols back from those thugs who were waving them around. I wonder where our big guns went."
Sheppard said nothing. A knife went into Rodney's stomach and twisted.
"So that part of the escape went okay," Rodney said, his voice rising. "It's what came after. Taking refuge in a haunted ruin full of bloodthirsty monsters and no way out..."
"You took refuge," Sheppard said. "I was covering our escape. You saw the hole and went to ground like a frightened rabbit."
The colours faded; all was black again. Rodney smiled, wiping clumsily at his dirt-stained face. "Excuse me?" he said. "Head injury? They hit me. With a rock."
"They hit me, too, Rodney. That's how they caught us in the first place, remember? How they took our weapons?"
Rodney sighed. "And our shoes," he said sadly. "And all my power bars."
Sheppard did not reply, but Rodney could hear him walking. His steps seemed steady enough now. It had all been a panic over nothing. Sheppard wasn't badly hurt; of course he wasn't. He was always okay in the end. He was not like Ronon. You could detonate a nuclear bomb in Ronon's face, and he's shrug and complain that a fly had bitten him. But Sheppard was tough. He had survived bugs and Wraith and Kolya. There was no way he could be taken down by Rodney shooting blindly in the dark.
"Besides," he said, for he did not like the silence, "it was a good thing that I did come in here. It stopped them following us, didn't it?"
"Because they think it's haunted. Primitive superstitions… Sometimes they get you burnt alive; sometimes they save you."
"Haunted," Rodney echoed. He didn't believe in ghosts. At least, he didn't believe in ghosts at home. Here in the Pegasus Galaxy, all things were possible. Maybe this was not so wise. "If you'd waited, Ronon and Teyla might have come and rescued us."
"Rodney," Sheppard said through his teeth, "they were two seconds away from barbecuing us. How much longer should I have waited?"
Were Ronon and Teyla even alive? They had split up, taking their readings in two groups of two. Rodney and Sheppard had been captured. They had woken up to find themselves tied to stakes in the middle of the village. There had been no sign of the other two.
They entered a chamber, and the wall on his left was no longer there. "We need to go across to the right," Sheppard said.
But Rodney had heard something. Behind him. In front of him. Around him. The sound in his sleep, that had sent him jolting from his dreams. The sound he had heard, hot on his throat, as he had lain sprawled in the rubble. The sound of fangs, of matted fur, of claws. Shambling flanks, and invisible eyes, as high as his shoulders.
"It's here," he squeaked. "The monster."
End of part 3
On to part 4
And we're back with the cliffhangers. All's well with the world... ;-)
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