Characters: Mostly McKay and Sheppard, with some Ronon. Shep whump and Rodney POV.
Spoilers: Up to and including Midway in season four. This story is set after Midway, but before The Kindred.
Summary: Sheppard, McKay and Ronon are stranded in a cold wilderness without warm clothes or any supplies, and days away from rescue.
Notes: This story is complete, bar a bit of last-minute editing. I intend to post part two tomorrow, and part three on Sunday. Thanks to alipeeps for the title.
"I guess this is what they call a cliffhanger," Sheppard said, one arm held out stiffly, the other raised.
"Oh, ha ha." Rodney did not dare speak louder than a whisper. "Save the jokes for when we aren't facing certain doom."
The puddlejumper teetered ever so slightly, almost silently. Rodney had never been so aware of all the million little movements that his body made at every moment of apparent rest. There was breathing, and his heartbeat, and… Oh, God! What if he had to sneeze? His nose started tickling, and he dug his nails into his palm, but even that was movement; even that could be the last straw that caused them all to plummet to their doom.
"I thought --" He said it out of the side of his mouth like a ventriloquist would do. "-- you said it would be okay. 'We're good.' I distinctly heard you say that. Did you --?" He began to turn to Ronon, then froze in horror, so intensely aware of his neck muscles that he could feel on the verge of going into spasm.
"Anything you say, Doctor I Can Restore Power Before We Crash," Sheppard said.
"So says Colonel I Can Fly Anything," Rodney retorted. "You must have missed the day they taught landings at Colonel School."
"I landed." Sheppard sounded almost hurt. "Barely a scratch on any of us."
Rodney rolled his eyes; that, at least, was surely safe. "Oh, so that's okay, then."
"This isn't helping," Ronon said.
"Of course it is." Sheppard and Rodney said it together, almost as one voice. Any reaction Rodney might have given was consumed by another tiny, enormous movement of the puddlejumper. The windshield showed things that were just not right.
Sheppard had been moving the whole time they had been speaking, his arms outstretched in careful balance. An inch backwards, an inch, an inch… There was the sound of something crumbling. The jumper tilted ever so slightly further forward. Far far away, and far far below, Rodney saw a distant forest, trees fading into grey.
"Didn't you notice the cliff when you were landing?" Rodney blurted out. "It is kind of obvious."
"I was too busy… I don't know, trying to save our asses?" Sheppard hissed through gritted teeth. "I had very little control and I had to… avoid… trees."
"Half the jumper landed safely." Ronon said it with apparent perfect sincerity.
"Then I must be a glass half empty kind of guy," Rodney said, "because all I can see right now is the half that didn't, and the certain doom that awaits us when the rest of it decides to join it on a trip to oblivion."
"Not for you." Sheppard turned incredibly slowly, and for the first time Rodney was able to see his face. For all the lightness of his words until now, his face was entirely serious. It was his 'so long, Rodney' face. It was his 'I'm about to do something monumentally stupid and infuriatingly heroic' face.
"Don't even think it." Rodney brought his hand up sharply, then froze. He told himself that it was entirely coincidental that the jumper inched a tiny bit more towards painful oblivion as he did so.
"You might have to," Sheppard said, still with that unbearable look upon his face.
Both Ronon and Rodney were at the back of the jumper, pressed against the rear hatch. Rodney had hurled himself there the moment he had realised what had happened, his mind full of nothing but the desperate desire to get out. Ronon had stopped him with his hand on the door release, and for a moment they had frozen there, their hands together. The two of them, with their weight near the back, were stopping Sheppard from going over. If they stepped out, there was no knowing what would happen.
Beneath them, loud against the floor, was the sound of crumbling rock. The jumper slid even further towards the edge, tilting at a visible angle. Sheppard was moving like a novice tightrope walker, testing every step. Rodney bit his lip, bubbling over with frustrated panic. He couldn't shout, he couldn't rant, he couldn't wave his arms… All he could do was watch Sheppard inch forward, edging away from death in painful slow motion. He was only yards away, but it felt like an eternity. If the jumper started to fall, Rodney could reach out, but he would be unable to touch.
Sheppard stopped, arms outstretched. "You might need to get out. If I give the order…"
"Don't even think it," Rodney said fiercely, but part of him was whimpering, crying out, I don't want to die. He was inches from safety. Open the hatch, jump out, and let the others two go to hell. That's what Doctor Rodney McKay, PhD, personification of arrogance and bad social skills, butt of jokes and gossip, would do. Save himself. Run. I don't want to die. I don't want to die.
"Open the hatch." Sheppard was closer now, but only by inches. "If there's no other choice, I want you to go. Please." There was the faintest crack to his voice, and that was the worst thing of all. Sheppard never begged.
"It can't…" Rodney swallowed. "No, it probably won't do any harm. It might… uh… shift the… the centre of mass further away from the edge." Ronon reached for the door release. "But gently!" Perhaps it was only in his imagination that the jumper edged a tiny bit more towards the edge when he shouted. "Gently," he said quietly. "Gently."
The hatch lowered, but its usual gentleness felt like an assault. Rodney slammed his hand against the wall, then screwed up his eyes in horror at what he had done. Daylight and fresh air beckoned towards him. All he had to do was step. One step, one wild jump, and he would be safe, standing on the edge of a cliff, watching the circle of an open hatch as it plunged to the rocky floor so far below, with Sheppard inside it, reaching out.
Ronon edged backwards, spreading his weight. Was he going to jump to safety, and to Hell with the rest of them? Rodney looked at him, and told himself that of course Ronon wouldn't do a thing like that. Of course he wouldn't. Of course he wouldn't. But how well did he know the man? How well did he know anyone? When it was a matter of life and death, it was every man for himself, and Ronon was a survivor. Who had he betrayed to survive as long as he had? No-one, he told himself. No-one. But…
"I've an idea," Sheppard said quietly. Halfway there, now. He was halfway there, and if he survived this, Rodney would never again think of the jumper as small. It was miles long, one end opening to life, and the other to death. Then Sheppard turned away, heading back towards the end of the jumper that was hanging over nothing at all.
"No!" It came out as a low whimper, almost a sob.
Sheppard reached up above his head. More rock crumbled beneath them; the jumper was tilting visibly now. Rodney pressed his hand to his mouth, as the cool fresh air of safety teased him and tempted him, and he pressed down with his feet and tried to make himself as heavy as possible, as heavy as lead, heavy, heavy, heavy.
"Rope." Sheppard pulled out a coil from the overhead locker, and smiled. God, Rodney thought. This man could stare unruffled even into the mouth of Hell.
Despite everything, Rodney laughed – a cold, bitter bark of quiet despair. "I hate to break it to you, colonel, but we can't haul a jumper --"
"But you can haul me." Sheppard wrapped the end of the rope around his body, and tied it in a knot. "Not a proper harness," he said, "but it'll do." He threw the coiled end of the rope towards them, and Rodney's hands remained mute and still at his side, but Ronon at least was ready to catch it.
"I don't…" Rodney's mouth opened, then closed again. "I don't…"
"Get out." Sheppard's eyes were entirely serious, and behind him, through the windshield, there was hardly any sky left, just the tilted view of the faded floor, so far below. The sound of crumbling was louder, constant. "Both together, and get ready to pull, if it… if it goes."
"But you're…" Rodney's mouth was dry. He moistened his lips; clenched and unclenched his hands at his side. The air of freedom outside was cold, so cold. "My tablet's over there," he said miserably.
"Got more pressing needs," Sheppard said grimly. "Four days before Atlantis knows we're in trouble."
Four days. And the sun was well past its highest, and the air was bitter cold. In the shadows, the grass was white, and they weren't even wearing their vests and they weren't carrying packs. Sheppard had bare arms, for crying out loud. Not daring to move his feet, Rodney reached forward and snatched at one of the bags of supplies on the back bench. Sheppard, he could see, was edging towards another locker, his able fingers reaching for the catch.
This time when the rock crumbled, the effect was visible, the centre of the jumper trembling and the unnatural view through the windshield lurching. "Jump!" Sheppard shouted, and Rodney saw a snatched glimpse of his face, frozen in urgency, and, God, of fear, even of fear. "Both of you! On three. Two… three! Now, Rodney! Now!"
Rodney jumped; he had to trust, he had to. He had no idea if Ronon was jumping at the same time, no idea if he was killing both of them, no idea if, when he landed, the world and his own life would be changed forever. The hatch moved beneath him, jerking upwards, and he stumbled, fell, sprawled, ground beneath him, cold and hard, but that was only his hands, and there was nothing beneath his legs, nothing, and he scrambled, flailed, and something scraped against his palm, making him cry out. He flailed with his legs, brought his knee up, found some purchase with his feet, hauled himself up and found something to kneel on. Everything important was a blur, but in that moment he saw a tiny white flower, with five exquisite petals and a yellow middle, emerging from a crack in the rock.
I'm safe, he thought. Safe. Still alive. For now there was rock beneath his legs and stone beneath his hand, and he dragged himself up and around, and blinked up at Ronon, kneeling on the very edge of the cliff, his knees spread, holding a rope with both hands.
Sheppard. Rodney tried to say it, but his mouth was dry. He heard something crashing far below, then another crash even further away, then nothing except the gentle trickling of loose stones from the edge, from the crumbling scar that had been the jumper's resting place.
"Is he…?" He managed to stand; managed to teeter over towards Ronon. "Can I…?"
Ronon's teeth were bared in a grimace of exertion. Rodney almost said something else, but decided not to. He picked up the loose end of rope behind Ronon, and pulled on it, knowing that it wasn't helping at all, but knowing also that there was no way he could stand by and not do this thing.
It had been meant to be so easy – a mission, yes, but more like a vacation, really. Rodney had laughed at Sheppard's insistence on bringing P90s. "At least stow them in the lockers so you don't frighten the children and cause a diplomatic incident," he had said, and Sheppard had done so, though he had won the argument over sidearms. Flying without proper weapons and without his vest… God! Sheppard never did that. Reckless he might be in certain circumstances, but he never let his team go out unprepared. He'd tool himself up with weapons even for a walk in the park with squirrels bounding all around.
And now… Rodney pulled uselessly. He felt bruises he hadn't noticed getting – pain on his shins and his ankles, perhaps as the hatch had tipped up and over as he had jumped to safety. His hands hurt, and now Ronon was standing up, muscles quivering as he slowly rose to his feet. He edged backwards, one step, two, and Rodney backed away. Sheppard should have been there. A hand should have been appearing at the edge of the cliff; another hand; a head, smiling at their near-miss, so Rodney could berate him for joking about such things, and could… well, do other things, say other things, because they were all alive, and once again Sheppard had cheated death.
"Why isn't he…?" he gasped.
"Let go," Ronon said.
"What? Let go? Let Sheppard go?"
"Not helping anyway." Ronon did not look round. "Go to… the cliff edge."
"But it's crumbling." He pressed his lips together. His hands did not want to uncurl from around the rope. Of course. He had to go to the cliff to see what was dangling at the end of Ronon's rope. Was it Sheppard alive, or…?
He walked forward; went down on his knees; edged to the brink. He saw the flower again, crushed between his fingers. He saw the rope chafing against crumbling stone, and dust and grit falling down below. Then he felt movement beneath his hand, and snatched it back. His heart was beating very fast. He glanced back at Ronon, then found another place to rest his hand. This time it was solid. Then slowly, fighting the urge to screw his eyes shut, he looked over the edge.
Sheppard was barely two feet from the top, dangling limply from the rope. "He's here." It came out as no more than a whisper, just a breath of air. He reached down, but could not touch, not without leaning far too far over the edge himself. "He's here." He said it more loudly, though his usual flow of words had quite dried up. Sheppard gave no response. There was blood on the side of his head. Rodney turned back to Ronon. "Can't you pull --"
"Will hurt him if I drag him over. You need to help."
"What?" Rodney brought his hand to his mouth; it tasted of dirt. Sheppard inched closer to him, his shoulder scraping against the rock face. It was bright and jagged, recently exposed from some enormous land slip where the whole edge of the cliff had just sheered off. These things happened, and with a jumper landing on the edge… Rodney reached out again, leaning forward in tiny increments, until his fingertips brushed Sheppard's hair. Sheppard swung around like something dead, and there was fresh blood on his forearm and the back of his hand, skin scraped away by the rock.
"Can't," he found himself saying; just that, over and over. "Can't," but he leant over the drop, seeing the shattered jumper so far below, seeing the boulders and the rubble of frequent landslides. Stones slewed away beneath his hand, rock dust falling on Sheppard's hair. "Sorry," he said, and "Can't," as Sheppard came closer and closer, and his hand was on his shoulder, his fingers digging into the cloth there. Just one hand, and… God! If he leant over with the other… His left hand found the other shoulder, and Sheppard was only inches away now, and Rodney had him, arms round his shoulders, hands on his shirt, grappling, cushioning…
"Back," he heard Ronon say. "Ease him," and he had no idea how he had done it, no idea at all, but Sheppard was on the ground, one foot still hanging over the edge, and Rodney was sprawled beside him, and he pulled weakly again, but then Ronon was there, raising Sheppard's shoulders and half carrying and half dragging him away from the edge. Rodney followed on hands and knees, then pushed himself to his feet, tottered a few more steps, and slumped down beside them.
"What happened?" His voice was hoarse as if he had been screaming.
Ronon touched Sheppard's neck; Sheppard did not stir. "Must have smashed against the side of the cliff, or maybe something in the jumper hit him when it fell."
"Is he going to be okay?" Stupid question. Stupid question, he berated himself. Of course he wasn't. None of them were. They were stuck for four days in the middle of nowhere, all their supplies had gone over a cliff, the ground they were sitting on was likely to fall away any moment, and there were probably wild animals in the woods, with sharp teeth and hungry bellies and a taste for scientists, and Sheppard was unconscious, probably dying, and Rodney's computer had gone, and with it all his preliminary notes on a revolutionary new power source that would win him international acclaim for sure, and there was no hope for them, none at all.
"We have to move further away," Rodney managed to say, looking from the cliff edge to the tree-line, and back again.
"Don't move." Ronon's voice was surprisingly quiet.
"Don't move? Why ever not? Oh." He saw that Sheppard was stirring, eyes fluttering open. Sheppard winced, and Rodney realised that there was full sunlight on his face. He moved round, blocking it as much as he could with his body, trying not to think – but how could he ever forget? – about the unstable cliff that was now a good five and a half inches closer to him than it had been before.
"How do you feel?" Ronon asked.
"Like a puddlejumper landed on my head." Rodney had once thought that Sheppard didn't show pain, at least not for the non life-threatening sort of injuries that, even so, would have all normal people screaming and demanding instant attention. Now he knew that Sheppard did show it, but you just had to know where to look. It was there in the small things: the muscles around his eyes; the tension of his jaw and his neck; the way he was breathing, quivering and fast. Though why he couldn't just say it out loud like normal people?
"Pupils seem okay," Ronon said.
"Someone stop the world spinning please?" Setting his jaw, Sheppard raised himself up onto his elbows. Rodney reached out abortively to help, but he had never quite learnt how to act around an injured Sheppard. Ronon, it seemed, had no such qualms. He helped Sheppard up, supported his weight, and turned him around away from the sun. Rodney's arm fell back to his side, and he felt the sun on the back of his neck, and shivered with the cold even of that.
"Gonna puke?" he heard Ronon say.
"Don't think so." He saw Sheppard begin to shake his head, then stop himself. "Or maybe it was the cliff," he said. "I don't… really… remember. Count this as an idea that was better on paper."
"But we're all alive," Rodney felt the need to say, then felt the need to say it again. "We're all alive." It felt important enough to say again, too. "We're all alive." Strange how his voice was getting higher with each repetition. Strange how his hands were trembling. But it was important to say. Sometimes you had to say something out loud before you knew it was true. That's why it was particularly harsh when speaking and gesticulating was likely to hasten certain death, by making the jumper you were in plunge over the edge of a cliff towards a painful doom.
"Yes, we are." He heard the smile in Sheppard's voice.
"Yes," Rodney said. "Yes, we are." But something in his mind went 'pop' with a sound that was almost audible, and the brief elation, that was perhaps closer to hysteria, disappeared, leaving only… No. No. He wouldn't think of that. Alive. They were alive.
"Is it just your head?" Ronon asked Sheppard, as Rodney moved round to a place where he could see Sheppard's pallor for himself.
Sheppard shrugged, then grimaced; Rodney remembered suddenly, vividly, the first time he had heard Sheppard scream. He had screamed twice with the iratus bug, but never since then; never at all, except silently into the gag that Kolya's men had put over his mouth. It had only been after that, after the incident with the bug, that Rodney had started to think that Sheppard never showed pain. Perhaps Sheppard had thought he had shown too much, too early, to a team he did not yet know well, and had gone too far the other way. "Bruises," he said now. He looked at his bleeding arm. "Scrapes. I… uh… hit the controls when we landed – bruised ribs, I think, but nothing broken."
Rodney let out a miserable laugh. "Which is Sheppard-speak for 'I'm dying but won't tell you.'"
"It isn't." Sheppard looked him full in the face. "I know when there's a need for full disclosure, Rodney. Things are going to be tough enough without anyone keeping secrets." Then he turned back to Ronon, and something passed between them. Rodney felt a sharp pang of exclusion. Two stoical warriors, exchanging status information in a dispassionate fashion. Two soldiers who knew what needed to be done. Ronon would never have contemplated jumping; he realised that now.
But, "tough?" was all he said, echoing it stupidly.
"We need a plan," Sheppard said, beginning to pull himself to his feet, then clearly thinking better of it. "It's late afternoon, and nights are cold round here."
"Cold?" Rodney was reduced once more to the role of an echo. He swallowed. They both looked at him, suddenly almost like strangers. "But it's always warm… uh… in the… the settlement. Hawaiian shirts and cocktails on the beach and… and hot women wearing…" He stopped, his voice trailing away, knowing right from the start the stupidity of what he was saying.
"Which is half a world away," Sheppard said patiently, "on another continent, near the equator."
"Yes, yes." Rodney waved his hand. "Didn't it always bother you in Star Trek? They went to a planet and it was like the whole planet was always one political entity, and they always happened to beam down right next to the leader, and it was always an icy planet or a desert planet, and… and… Well, it isn't like that in real life. Think of the climate on Earth and the horrible mess that is our politics --"
"We know, Rodney." Sheppard's voice was not ungentle. "But this part of this planet looks like being a cold one, and we were intending to be four days at the settlement, which, as you know, is a continent away from the Gate and contact with Atlantis --"
"Huh. Midsummer festival." Rodney could not keep himself from smiling at the memory – hot girls swaying in skirts made of rushes and leaves, and sweet fermented something or other, made out of sava, whatever that was; perhaps he would ask one day, or perhaps it was better not to know. Wasn't citrus, anyway, and that was all that mattered.
"And treaty renegotiation." Sheppard grimaced again, this time not with pain. "And Teyla busy being pregnant and not able to handle that side of things while I --" He cleared his throat. "Like I said, they won't know we're missing for four days, and it's going to get cold, and all our supplies have gone down with the jumper."
"Not all." Rodney snapped his fingers in suddenly-remembered triumph. "I managed to salvage a pack." He had managed to throw it a good five yards from the edge of the cliff. He grabbed it now, and opened it. "Oh." He closed it again, his face still frozen in a pathetic and useless expression of triumph. "There's nothing entirely useful there." Perhaps if he smiled confidently…
"Rodney." God, it wasn't fair! It wasn't fair of Sheppard to do his insistent colonel voice!
"Children's toys," he forced out, through gritted teeth, "and lollipops, and a --" He pressed his lips together. "-- a…"
"Useless stuff." Ronon saved him from having to say it. He was looking at Sheppard again, shutting Rodney out. "Gate's barely forty miles away. I can do it in a day."
Sheppard gave a minute shake of his head. "A lot can happen in forty miles."
"A lot can happen in four days."
Sheppard was very pale, and Rodney was suddenly sure that he wanted to stand up, but lacked the strength. "I don't like the thought of us splitting up," Sheppard said.
"Don't like the thought of you not being the one to go, you mean," Ronon retorted, and Rodney saw how Sheppard set his jaw, how the pulse was racing at his throat, how blood still trickled from the side of his head. He dug his fingers into his palm, and felt suddenly as if he was back on the jumper, unable to let the words escape him.
"I don't like…" Sheppard pressed his lips together; breathed in sharply, and let the breath out. "We have a better chance together."
"You know that's not true." Ronon stood up, his shadow enormous in the sun. "Any head injury bad enough to cause unconsciousness is --"
"Don't quote the book at me."
Rodney had nothing to say, nothing to do. Far above, a large bird flew over, black wings spread against the fading blue. Something cried out in the forest. He was growing cold already, and he could see the gooseflesh on Sheppard's arms.
"McKay won't be able to make it," Ronon said, more quietly now, and Rodney snapped his head up in mute and useless protest, "and you're hurt. Full disclosure, you said. That means accurately assessing your limits. It's going to get cold here, and there could be complications." He jerked his chin at Sheppard's head. "This gives us all the best chance."
Rodney saw Sheppard tighten his fist, clenching it until the knuckles were white. He spoke up himself. "You'll get lost. Forty miles without a map…"
He trailed away. Sheppard and Ronon seemed to be having some silent conversation, whole worlds of mutinous meaning passing between them. Rodney was reminded suddenly of a time long forgotten, when he had won a prize at school and had been desperate to tell his parents, but Jeannie had started talking first, and his own words of proud achievement had fallen uselessly to the ground, unnoticed.
"Every minute we talk about it is a minute longer out in the cold." Ronon drew his gun and studied it critically, as if it could have magically stopped working since they had left Atlantis. "We can argue about it, or I can go."
Sheppard made a sharp movement, then froze, swaying slightly. "Keep in touch." His voice was strained. "Careful when crossing the river."
"I will be." Ronon flashed his teeth in a smile, then he touched them both on the shoulder, first one, then the other. "Take care of each other."
"What river?" Rodney asked. Neither of them seemed to hear him. This was a survival situation, and both Ronon and Sheppard understood the language. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He thought of times spent working hard to save everyone's lives, exchanging snappy words with Sheppard, who didn't understand anything like as much as Rodney did, but at least understood the basics. Ronon was just the big man pacing in the background, not understanding a word that was being said, just waiting for a time to use his gun again.
"I'll be back before dawn." Ronon trotted several steps, then turned back. "Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid."
"Who?" Rodney frowned, unable to tell who Ronon was looking at. "Who?"
"I think he means both of us, Rodney," Sheppard said quietly, after Ronon had vanished into the trees. He brought his clenched fist up to his chest, then slammed it down onto his thigh. "Damn it!"
"What river?" Rodney asked again, because it was easier than asking any of the other questions that needed asking. A pair of birds rose up shouting from the trees, heralding the path Ronon had taken, but that was the only sign of him.
Sheppard let out a breath. "The big river a few miles from the Gate."
"Oh." The birds flew away, their wings beating slowly, until they were just specks. He had no idea if they were going the same way as Ronon, or not.
"Ronon will have noticed it." Sheppard was on his hands and knees, carefully pushing himself upwards. "The river. The mountain pass. All the other landmarks. He --" He made it to his feet, biting his lip with concentration. "When he was a… a Runner, he had to know where he was, how to get out. We've flown this route four times. He knows."
"Oh." Rodney swallowed. His hands, he saw, were fluttering uselessly just short of Sheppard, ready to catch him if he fell.
"He won't get lost." Sheppard looked upwards. "It should be a clear night. He's good at navigating by strange stars."
"Because of his time as a Runner, yes." Rodney pressed his hands together. "You could do it, too." He did not say it as a question.
He saw Sheppard look beyond the trees, not in the way the birds had flown. "It becomes a habit," he said. "When you're flying into… anywhere, you might get shot down, or have to make it back without navigation equipment. You notice these things just in case."
"Oh," he said again. I didn't. And what was worse, he had never noticed that Sheppard and Ronon did; never thought to notice; never thought that there was something he should have been doing on a jumper flight that he was not. He had always known that he saw things differently from other people, but that was because he saw a complexity of truths that they were too stupid to notice. Everyone else was united by being not so clever as him. Everyone else…
His thoughts snapped off. Sheppard, he saw, was moving away, walking with the very deliberate steadiness of somebody who was not as sure on their feet as they wanted to be. "Where are you going?" Rodney demanded.
"Making sure I can walk." Sheppard's smile was a gauntlet thrown down to Rodney, daring him to say something. "Got to get food."
"Yeah." The smile had steel in it, or something colder. "You've heard of the stuff. A guy called McKay can't get enough of it."
It was something, at least. Rodney rolled his eyes. "Very droll."
Sheppard drew his sidearm. "I'm going to shoot myself some native fauna."
"Oh." He seemed to be saying that far too much. Rodney glanced once again at the place where Ronon had disappeared. Without Teyla on the team, there were only three of them, and that meant a two and a one. Now Ronon was gone, that meant… "I've never done much hunting," he said. "I can shoot a Wraith, but that's a… a big target. I haven't --"
"Then collect wood for a fire." Sheppard gestured towards the tree-line. "There's plenty there."
"We're… we're splitting up?" Rodney unwove his hands. "What was all that about keeping together? There could be… could be wild beasts, and… and you've had a head injury. You were unconscious. You should be lying down, being monitored by a doctor. You shouldn't be…" He waved his hand in a circle, trying to round up the word. "Hunting. Playing great manly hunter."
"There's only a few hours of daylight left," Sheppard said. "I want to get supplies in while we still can. I was a boy scout: I know about Be Prepared."
"You were a boy scout?"
"Actually, we… parted amicably after two weeks, but I could have been." The smile was brief. "Rodney, unless you have a pop-up tent in your pocket, and a supply of food, we're heading for trouble. It's going to be a long night, very cold. We need food, a fire, water… shelter, if possible. The quicker we get them, the better, and if that means doing something we'd rather not do… Being in this situation in the first place is something I'd rather not be doing."
Rodney wrapped his arms around his body against the cold, knowing even as he did so that he was unconsciously helping prove Sheppard's point. "You have a concussion," he said. "You aren't thinking straight. You… you should be lying down. You should let me…" He thought of trying to shoot an animal, trying to skin it, trying to roast it over a fire. "You should let me…"
"Just get the damn wood, McKay." Sheppard walked away, his steps steady, but his shoulders stiff. "Don't go too far into the wood. Stay safe. Tell me if you see anything threatening. Don't call me if you don't."
It wasn't fair. It really wasn't fair. Rodney paced, then remembered how close the edge of the cliff was, and moved his pacing further away. His eyes felt drawn to Sheppard like iron to a magnet, and he couldn't stop looking after him, at how he walked, so steady, so focused, getting further and further away.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. This was supposed to be the mission where nobody tried to kill them, and now he was stranded on a clifftop, and one by one the others were leaving him. You weren't a team when there were only three of you, because as soon as you had to split up, somebody was alone. Ronon, running as he had run for seven years, but this time to bring help to his friends. Sheppard, striding off with a head injury, trying to get food. He was the one who felt alone. He was out of his element. He didn't know what to do.
His radio crackled. "Firewood, Rodney?" But he couldn't see Sheppard any more, just dark shadows between the jagged trees, and deep blackness between their white-ripped needles.
"Yes. Yes. Sorry. Yes." Perhaps he would go the way Ronon had gone; Ronon wouldn't leave any ferocious animals marauding in his wake. He trailed after him, and when the route went into the shadow of boulders, he saw dark footsteps in the thin covering of frost. It wasn't far to the tree line, and Rodney remembered the feel of the jumper scraping against the tops of the trees. Fresh wood had fallen, with pale, naked torn-off ends. Old wood was better, though, wasn't it? Nearly four years on Atlantis, and he had never learnt how to make a fire, or how to survive if cast up in the wilderness alone. Because you don't have to, he thought almost angrily. That's why we have teams. He did the important things, while the others… While the others…
He snatched up wood; piled it up in his arms, feeling splinters driving into his hands. A bead of blood welled from his fingertip, but there was a larger smear on his sleeve, perhaps from when he had helped haul Sheppard up the cliff. He dropped the wood; pawed at the radio controls with anxious hands. "Sheppard? Sheppard?"
There was a short silence before Sheppard replied, time enough for Rodney to shout his name again – "John?" – but then Sheppard answered in a whisper, not sounding like himself at all. "Still here. Radio silence, please, unless it's an emergency."
"Why?" Now that he had noticed it, it was hard to look away from the blood. Sheppard, he remembered, didn't even have a long-sleeved jacket, and it really was very cold.
"So your dinner doesn't get scared away by hearing your voice."
"Oh." But he was speaking to nobody. The cold grew ever more intense, with tall evergreens blocking out the full strength of the sun, making it fall in dappled specks that were far too small to provide warmth. Snow was gathered between the roots that faced the edge of the cliff.
"Got to keep active," he told himself. "Can't just sit and wait." He picked up the wood and carried it out into the open, laying it down a few yards away from the last tree. "Reduced to fetching and carrying," he said out loud. "What a waste." He picked up a twig that was gnawed bare at one end, then a branch, still covered with bark. The smell of resin stirred unpleasant memories of failure, though he had no idea why.
He worked until he had a good-sized pile. By then his hands were bleeding in several places, and the barbed tendril of a thorny shrub had scraped a line along the side of his neck, which hurt terribly but failed to produce blood. The sun was moving backwards, away from the cliff, sinking between the jagged tops of the trees. Although he was sweating with exertion, the coldness grew with every second, tight against his burning cheeks.
"Sheppard?" His hand ghosted over the radio, but did not switch it on. A formation of birds flew away from the sun, their V shape universal, no matter what galaxy you were in and how far away from home you were.
God! he thought. He felt lost, bereft, and he really had little idea why. So his skills were not ones that lent themselves to this situation. So what? There had been countless other situations where he alone had been able to save them all. "Then there's the fear – and don't forget the crashing despair – of having to face a night out in Arctic temperatures. We're looking at hypothermia at the very least, and probably poison from whatever alien rabbit Sheppard manages to --"
His head jerked up. Was that a gun shot?
It was not repeated. His hand touched the radio again, but still did not depress the button. Sheppard?
The pile of wood stared at him, not looking anything like a well-crafted fire. Ronon would have done it properly, he thought. If Ronon and Sheppard had been stranded together, they'd probably have whittled together a four-room house by now, complete with kitchen and toilet facilities. They wouldn't need words. They saw things that Rodney didn't. They spoke the same language. They…
Another gunshot, definite this time. He stood up, a fine rain of splinters and needles raining down onto the ground. Sheppard? There was no voice on his radio. Although he counted to five hundred in primes, and back again in Fibonacci numbers – though that didn't take very long – the gunshot was not repeated.
He could hear his own heart beating fast in his ears. He switched the radio on, his hand moving more slowly and more gently than it had even moved when in a state of abject terror, but said nothing. Sheppard would hear it. Sheppard would hear it, and would answer: I hope you like venison stew, Rodney. Or rabbit. Maybe rabbit, or whatever filled the rabbit-shaped evolutionary niche round here.
There was no answer. There was no sound at all, except perhaps for a very faint… No, that was his own breathing.
"Sheppard?" He hazarded it as quietly he could. There was no answer. "Sheppard?" He tried it louder, as loud as normal speech, then even louder. "Sheppard? Sheppard? John! Answer me! If you can hear me, answer me!"
He got nothing back, only silence.
end of part one
On to part two