Normally, Dr. Rodney McKay felt a sense of excitement when the Jumper exited a stargate onto a new, unexplored planet, though he never would admit it to anyone. This time, however, as soon as they cleared the event horizon, fear made his breath catch in his throat. It became almost impossible to talk or breathe. Directly in front of them was a forest of tall—extremely tall—trees. "Pull up, pull up," he croaked.
"What do you think I'm trying to do?" Colonel John Sheppard returned, sweat coating his upper lip as he pulled back on the ship's controls.
"Can you do it faster?"
"You of all people should know the laws of physics apply here."
McKay barked, "It's about to become painfully clear that what goes up, must come down."
"It is also irrefutable," Sheppard calmly said, "that speed, weight, and velocity contribute to lift."
As the massive evergreens loomed closer, Rodney closed his eyes. He had always hoped death would come while he wasn't looking.
"You can open your eyes now, Rodney," Sheppard advised.
Ignoring the suggestion, McKay ducked his head and shielded his face with his hands. "I would rather not see Death as it approaches. We've never been intimate friends, and I don't plan to start now."
"We made it."
"What!" Rodney's eyes snapped open to view a clear, blue sky. Relief turning his muscles to jelly, he slumped in his chair. "Thank God."
"Well," drawled Sheppard, "I wouldn't say I've reached such a lofty position yet, but you're welcome."
The indignant glare Rodney rested on him was ignored as he had known it would be. He realized he should have had more faith in Sheppard's abilities. It wasn't the first time the man had rescued his team from what appeared to be certain death with his exceptional flying skills. Rodney decided the whole near-death experience was getting a bit too frequent. He was beginning to wonder if just knowing Daniel Jackson had placed a curse on him.
"Huh?" McKay tried to wrap his mind around Sheppard's simple request, finding it difficult in the wake of the receding adrenaline.
Waving an arm in front of him to indicate the planet, Sheppard slowly clarified, "Which way is that power signal you detected?"
"Oh." Rodney studied his sensors and pointed to the meadow on the other side of the forest. "Out there."
"I don't want to leave the Jumper in the open." Sheppard guided the vehicle to the edge of the trees and skillfully brought it to the ground. "We'll walk from here."
"Great, instead of exposing the inanimate entity to possible danger," grumbled McKay, "we'll imperil the fragile sentient entities."
Shutting off the rest of the switches, Sheppard set the remote cloaking device. As he rose from his chair, he patted McKay on the shoulder. "That's the plan. We don't have an infinite number of Jumpers. They aren't expendable."
"And we are?"
"Now you're getting the idea." Sheppard smiled. Opening the rear hatch, he walked out.
Rodney glanced at Teyla and Ronon. "Does anyone else have a problem with this policy?"
"Not really." Ronon shrugged his shoulders and followed Sheppard.
Teyla indicated McKay should exit the craft ahead of her. "This is no different than it has been in the past, Doctor."
"That's what scares me." Shoulders slumped, Rodney proceeded down the ramp.
"I'll take point," Sheppard said. "Ronon, you cover our six. Which way, Rodney?"
Checking the readout on his scanner, McKay pointed straight ahead. "That way."
"Let's go. I'd like to get home in time for dinner. Cook's making a turkey."
"I just hope our goose doesn't get cooked."
"What was that?"
Sheppard nodded and started walking. "That's what I thought."
As he stepped into the tall golden stalks covering the landscape as far as the eye could see, Rodney glanced back to make sure he had the Jumper's position fixed in his mind. The last year had stripped him of any illusions that there was such a thing as a "milk run" in gate travel. Running for your life, with massive amounts of adrenaline pumping into your system, tended to distort a person's memory. What looked like a tall tree now could become several meters shorter when viewed through eyes fogged with panic.
"Is it a lot farther, McKay?" asked Sheppard.
Rodney looked around and saw they were already a mile or more from where they had started. That was another thing that had changed in the past year. Depending on conditions, he could walk miles without his muscles protesting. He was in better shape now than he had been at any time in his life.
The plaintive note in Sheppard's voice caught Rodney's attention. "Yes, yes." He looked at his scanner. "Colonel, you're about to . . ."
A loud snap and a howl of agony almost drowned out Rodney's warning.
". . . step on it."
Quickly brushing the tall stalks aside, Rodney saw Sheppard writhing on the ground. His left leg had two ragged-edged clamps snapped around it. One of the traps had closed around the ankle, the other just above the knee. Blood coated the teeth imbedded in the soft flesh, and colored the flattened stalks.
"Get this th-thing off me," Sheppard stuttered.
Holstering his weapon, Ronon knelt. Disregarding the sharp spikes, he grabbed the thigh vise with his hands. His face showed the strain as he tried to pull them apart.
"Stop! Stop!" Sheppard begged. Sweat coated a face twisted in pain. The words barely making it past trembling lips, he explained, "You're making the ankle clamp tighter."
"Then how do we get it off?" demanded Teyla.
Rodney could feel all eyes turn to him. If Ronon didn't have the strength to separate the clamps, it was a sure bet Rodney couldn't. Teyla might have a better chance, but not much. "What? Do I look like a trapper?"
"No, but you have analyzed more sophisticated instruments," Teyla reminded him.
"'Sophisticated' is the operative word." Rodney pointed a finger at her, trying to ignore Sheppard's groans of pain. "At home, the only way an animal got out of one of these things was to gnaw off its leg."
Sheppard declared, "I'm not chewing off my leg, so think of something else."
Feeling helpless, Rodney checked the readout on his scanner, though what answers he expected to find were unclear. It was an act of desperation rather than expectation. "Oh, no," he moaned, fingers flying across the screen double-checking what he saw.
"What?" Teyla inquired.
"The signal the device was giving off has changed. Now it's broadcasting the same signal as that transmitter the Wraith planted in Ronon's back."
"It's calling the Wraith?" Teyla asked for confirmation.
Dismayed, Rodney nodded. "Yes."
"Get back to the ship," Sheppard ordered through gritted teeth. "Try to get back to Atlantis before the Wraith show up."
"And leave you here?" verified Rodney.
"That's the idea, McKay."
"Well, it's a bad idea."
"You take me, they find you," Sheppard said. "It's as simple as that."
Ronon shifted to study the bottom of the trap. "Not if we deactivate the signal."
"There isn't time," insisted Sheppard.
Kneeling next to Ronon, McKay studied the metal frame. "We'll take time."
His voice growing weaker with pain and blood loss, Sheppard reiterated, "I gave you an order."
Though the raspy speech made him wince, Rodney forced himself to disregard it. Leaving Sheppard behind was not an option.
"C-4?" Ronon suggested.
Sheppard incredulously asked, "You want to blow my foot off?"
"Ronon's got a good idea," countered Rodney.
"My leg doesn't think so."
Rising, Ronon said, "I'll go back to the Jumper and get some."
With a speed Rodney envied, the warrior ran down the trail they had blazed. Checking the readings on his scanner again, Rodney said, "Colonel, a very small amount of C-4 should be sufficient to knock out the transmitter."
"And get this thing off me?" Sheppard closed his eyes, pillowing his head on Teyla's lap.
"Let's hope so," Rodney whispered without conviction.
Though Ronon returned in an amazingly short time in actual minutes, it felt like hours to Rodney. This wasn't the first time he had watched helplessly while his friend suffered. The memory of the Wraith bug sucking the life from the vital body made Rodney shudder. Work and the firm voice of his commanding officer had kept him focused. The strained features of Sheppard's face told Rodney he would not receive the same support in this situation. He would have to rely on his own strength.
As Ronon knelt beside him, McKay said, "Cut off a small corner of the C-4 and put it on the bottom of the trap in the center."
The big warrior didn't question the instructions. Showing no fear, Ronon took out his knife and easily cut off a portion of the putty. "Is this enough?"
His mind calculating the size of the lump with the power of the explosive, Rodney hesitantly nodded. "I think so."
"You think so?!" questioned Sheppard.
With a quick glance at the colonel, Ronon placed the triangular plastic at the base of the trap. Smoothing the edges, he made sure it was firmly attached before turning to Rodney. "Now what?"
Wishing people would stop asking him that question, Rodney pushed a firing cap into the center of the clay-like mass. "Now," he said, "we should move a safe distance away."
Teyla took off her coat and folded it into a pillow. Holding Sheppard's head with one hand, she slid out, replacing her lap with the less comfortable garment. "I will be right back," she encouraged, squeezing Sheppard's shoulder.
"I'll be here, or at least most of me will," Sheppard said, the worry on his face belying his brave words.
His stomach twisting into a knot tight enough to make bile rise in his throat, Rodney took refuge with his teammates a short distance away. "Are you ready, Colonel?" he shouted.
"Just do it," Sheppard ordered.
Unable and unwilling to take his eyes off the tortured face of his friend, Rodney ignited the explosive. The pop and flash was followed by a muffled scream.
"Colonel?" Rodney anxiously inquired, returning to Sheppard's side.
The words barely audible, Sheppard asked, "D-did it work?"
Secretly hoping the explosion had triggered the trap to open, Rodney was horrified to see it was still firmly clamped around Sheppard's leg. Swallowing his disappointment, he checked his scanner. "The transmitter has stopped broadcasting."
"Then let's get the hell outta of here before the Wraith show up." The command was issued with weary resignation as Sheppard struggled to sit up. When his teammates converged to help him, Sheppard said, "McKay, get the Jumper ready for takeoff. Ronon, Teyla, I could use a hand."
"I can carry you without assistance," Ronon offered.
Rodney didn't stay around to hear Sheppard or Teyla argue with the Satedan warrior. He knew what he had to do. With Sheppard incapacitated, he was the only one with the necessary gene to operate the spacecraft. Under any other circumstances, he would have been gloating with superiority, but these weren't normal circumstances. He would give almost anything to have Sheppard well enough to take control of the aircraft. Rodney almost wished it was his leg in the trap. The physical pain had to be easier to endure than the emotional pain of watching his friend suffer.
As soon as he was close enough, Rodney clicked his remote, turning off the cloaking device. Once everyone was on board, he would reinstate it. At the moment, speed was just as important as stealth, not only to avoid the Wraith, but to get Sheppard medical treatment. Rodney wanted to make it as easy for Ronon and Teyla to find the Jumper as possible.
Racing to the pilot's seat, Rodney had barely gotten halfway through the start-up procedure when the remainder of his team arrived. Pausing only long enough to reactivate the cloak, he finished his pre-flight sequence. He glanced back to make sure the hatch was secure before nervously engaging the engines. This was the first time he had piloted the vessel without Sheppard's calming influence beside him.
As the ship rose above the trees, Rodney put his right hand on the DHD, ready to dial Atlantis as soon as they were within range of the stargate. When it was in sight, his hand pressed the first glyph before he realized four chevrons were already glowing. "Somebody is dialing the gate," he informed the others.
"One guess who it is," hissed Sheppard. "Are we cloaked?"
"Yes," Rodney said, cringing at the distinctive pain in his friend's voice.
Ronon crossed to sit in the co-pilot's seat as the wormhole opened. "We'll know for sure in a minute."
Three Wraith darts flew out of the blue puddle. They immediately pulled into a steep climb, indicating they had visited this world before. Rodney was disappointed. He had hoped at least one of them would meet its end in a fiery explosion in the trees. "It's the Wraith," he unnecessarily confirmed. "When they get far enough away, I'll dial the gate."
"Negative," groaned Sheppard.
Certain he couldn't have heard correctly, Rodney swiveled in his chair. Sheppard was sitting in much the same position as when he had been bitten by the Wraith bug, leaning against the back wall, his injured leg stretched out in front of him. "Excuse me?"
"We can't take the chance the Wraith will s-see the address," Sheppard haltingly explained. "Know Atlantis wasn't destroyed."
Rodney knew he should have remembered that little detail. He blamed his lapse on concern for his colleague.
"We'll have to wait until they l-leave before we go through," said Sheppard.
Though fearful of the answer, Rodney asked, "Can you wait?"
"I don't have much choice." Bruised eyelids dropped over the pain-filled eyes as Sheppard allowed his head to fall back against the bulkhead.
All his life, Rodney had been proud of his intelligence, vainly believing he could find answers to questions other people weren't even smart enough to ask. Now, when he needed the insight that had saved his team and Atlantis numerous times before, it seemed to have deserted him. As hard as he tried, he couldn't come up with any other options. Sitting idly, watching Sheppard suffer, wasn't how he wanted to spend his day. Yet his choices were just as limited as his friend's.
"What if we dial another gate and then go to Atlantis from there?" suggested Teyla.
Rodney stared at the Athosian in disbelief before exchanging sheepish glances with Ronon. The answer was so simple; Rodney couldn't believe he hadn't thought of it.
"As soon as we start to dial it'll draw the Wraiths' attention," Sheppard vetoed the new plan. "We could take fire."
"It's worth the risk," insisted Rodney.
"No," Sheppard disagreed with as much force as he seemed able to infuse in the command. "Without an iris, the Wraith will follow us th-through. If the ship is damaged, we'd be sitting ducks on the other side."
The agonized moan following Sheppard's declaration made Rodney tremble in sympathy. Carefully landing the Jumper in the area they had just left, he took one last glance at the Wraith Darts before abandoning his seat and joining Teyla at Sheppard's side. Pitching his voice lower, he said, "Teyla, get the med kit. See if there's something we can give the colonel for the pain."
Retrieving the box, Teyla opened it. Inside, she found Tylenol, and a syringe of morphine. "Which one do I give him?"
"On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the worst, where would you rate your pain, Colonel?" Rodney inquired.
"Then go with the morphine." Rodney had hoped they could postpone using the more potent medication as long as possible. He knew from experience Tylenol wasn't strong enough to ease the discomfort of a hangnail. But if Sheppard was in that much pain already, withholding the morphine would be tantamount to torture. They would just have to hope the Wraith left before more painkillers became necessary. Prepping the shot as he had been taught, Rodney said, "Teyla, I need you to get his jacket off."
By the time the simple chore had been accomplished, Sheppard was sweating profusely and gasping from exertion. Teyla took a cloth from the medical kit and wiped the streaming perspiration from the pale face.
"Hurry, Dr. McKay," the Athosian begged.
Glad Sheppard was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, Rodney wiped the upper arm with alcohol before pushing the needle into the resisting flesh.
Almost immediately, Sheppard's tense muscles started to relax. Ronon asked, "How long will the shot last?"
"At that dosage, approximately four hours," said Rodney
In another time, and another situation, the string of expletives coming from Sheppard's lips would have made Rodney smirk. One of the advantages of working with multi-lingual personnel was learning new swear words. When he went home, he was certain he would be able to swear for a solid five minutes without anyone knowing that was what he was doing—unless they were from Atlantis. But right now, he wished he didn't understand anything that was being said. He knew as well as Sheppard that four hours wasn't going to be long enough. This was only a momentary reprieve.
"What do we do when the shot wears off?" Teyla shook the small bottle of pills.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Of all General O'Neill's clichés, this was Rodney's least favorite. Being a pessimist, he knew they would have to cross the bridge. And he would have to be the one to find safe passage.
* * * * *
One Wraith ship had returned through the stargate. However, the other two continued to search the planet for their prey. If it wouldn't have meant getting the life sucked out of him, Rodney would've loved to have seen the frustration on their scarred faces. After all the problems they had caused him, it was a source of satisfaction to return the favor. But Colonel Sheppard's dire straits took away even that small pleasure.
Pouring water on a cloth, Rodney gently wiped Sheppard's face. The fever the colonel had developed wasn't unexpected; it was only surprising it hadn't started earlier. Rodney was taking turns with Teyla trying to keep their friend as cool as possible. Ronon had remained in the co-pilot's seat, never offering his assistance, and nobody was inclined to ask. There would come a day when Ronon would become as much a part of the team as Lieutenant Ford had been. That day had not yet arrived.
"I believe I will check on the Wraith," said Teyla, rising to her feet.
Rodney nodded as the Athosian crossed to the pilot's seat and sat down. They both knew it was unnecessary; Ronon wouldn't miss a thing. It was an excuse to escape. Watching their friend suffer was almost as difficult on them emotionally as it was on Sheppard physically. Any chance to take a break was eagerly embraced.
Looking into the anguished eyes, Rodney reached for the Tylenol
"Wait." Sheppard weakly lifted a hand to stop the action.
"For what? For you to start screaming in agony?"
Sheppard closed his eyes. "I want you to make me a promise."
Leery, Rodney hesitated. "Tell me first, then I'll decide if I'll give you my word."
A half-smile curved Sheppard's lips. "Always gotta have the bases covered, don't ya?"
"I play it safe, if that's what you mean," Rodney reluctantly agreed.
When Rodney reached to wipe his perspiring face, Sheppard grabbed his hand. "I want you to promise," said Sheppard in between moans, "that you won't let them take my l-leg."
"I can't . . ."
"It may be the only way to save your life."
"You won't be saving my life."
"Bullshit!" Rodney angrily snapped. "People live productive lives without limbs."
Sheppard quietly countered, "They don't fly spaceships."
At a momentary loss, Rodney finally whispered, "You have a lot more to offer than your flying skills, Colonel."
"Come on, Rodney." Sheppard paused to take a deep breath, working through the pain. "You know as well as I do, I'll be sent back to Earth as soon as a w-wormhole can be established. Then what?"
Rodney desperately tried to find an answer for his friend. It was what he was supposed to be good at, but nothing came to him. Unable to imagine Atlantis without Sheppard, he finally conceded, "I promise."
Visibly relaxing, Sheppard said, "Thank you."
When Sheppard suddenly grabbed his leg and involuntarily screamed, Rodney almost reneged on his pledge. Praying he would have the strength of his commitment, he grabbed the Tylenol, realizing they had reached the bridge he had been dreading. Retrieving some water, he dropped the pills into Sheppard's hand before raising the bottle to the dry, chapped lips. He didn't want to think what would happen if the Wraith hadn't left by the time all the pills were gone.
* * * * *
A second Wraith flew through the gate, but the third continued to patrol the area. He would often come close to the stargate, raising Rodney's hopes, only to turn back. Rodney wished he had the skills to shoot the sucker down. But he didn't trust his abilities. He knew his chances of making a direct hit were almost nil, and if he didn't destroy the Wraith, it left them open to attack, not to mention endangering Atlantis' existence. They—Sheppard—had endured too much to blow it now.
Teyla appeared to stand between the two men. "Colonel Sheppard has fallen asleep."
"It's about time." Rodney had expected him to pass out much earlier. Sheppard had been enduring the constant agony for over six hours.
An agonized scream shocked Rodney and Ronon to their feet. Her reaction time faster, Teyla had already returned to Sheppard's side. The injured man was sitting up, gripping his thigh just above the metal jaw.
Knowing any movement intensified the pain, Rodney quickly crossed to kneel opposite Teyla. Though considerably weakened, Sheppard fought their efforts to subdue him.
"What's wrong?" demanded Rodney.
His teeth clenched until he bit through his lower lip, Sheppard groaned, "The trap closed tighter."
"Teyla," Rodney breathlessly said, "is there a sedative in the med kit?"
"It does not matter if there is," said Teyla, pressing Sheppard's shoulder against the bulkhead with one hand while the other wiped the blood dripping down his chin from the split lip, "we cannot give it to him."
Rodney stuttered, "Why not?"
"Colonel Sheppard was feeling only marginal pain until he fell asleep. I believe the jaws closing more are connected to his inert state," Teyla theorized
"According to Dr. Beckett, the body gives off a small electrical charge. In a dormant state, the charge may be too miniscule for the device to detect."
Though Sheppard had calmed down, it was obvious he was still in a great deal of pain. "So what do we do?" Rodney watched Ronon return to the cockpit, wishing he could join his teammate.
"There's nothing we can do."
"The Wraith is dialing the gate."
Rodney was surprised by the emotion in Ronon's normally dulcet tones. If someone had asked him, Rodney would have said the Satedan was unaffected by Sheppard's plight. Obviously, he had been wrong, something that was happening too frequently on this mission. A request that Ronon take his place at Sheppard's side was on Rodney's lips when the warrior exited the co-pilot's seat and, without a word, nudged Rodney toward the pilot's chair.
Needing no more urging, Rodney took his place at the Jumper's controls as the last glyph locked. The wormhole exploded before settling back into its familiar blue puddle. But the Wraith didn't go through. It hovered near the event horizon, playing on Rodney's already taut nerves.
"Will you go through already?" he implored.
Even when the Wraith finally obliged, Rodney had to wait for the wormhole to disengage before he could dial Atlantis. A visibly shaking hand hovered over the dialing device. He was beginning to worry they would have to wait the full thirty-eight minutes, the longest a wormhole could remain active, when the rippling "waves" winked out.
Pounding each symbol as though the action would hasten the dialing sequence, Rodney tapped his comm unit as soon as a wormhole was established. "Atlantis, we're coming through. We have a medical emergency."
"What's the nature of the emergency, Dr. McKay? " Weir's voice came through.
"Colonel Sheppard has a trap clamped to his leg. He's lost a lot of blood and is in a great deal of pain."
"Will this device pose a danger to Atlantis?"
Angered at the time they were wasting, even though he understood Weir's concerns, Rodney replied, "Negative."
"A medical team will be waiting, " Weir assured him.
The Jumper moved from side to side under Rodney's anxious guidance. The motion was similar to a rocking chair without the comforting association. Unable to shake the memory of another mission where they had gotten caught in the event horizon with a wounded Sheppard, Rodney took deep, even breaths to calm his nerves. It was a very narrow needle he would be threading going through the stargate. Even missing by a few inches could irreparably damage the spacecraft. For the first time, Rodney began to understand Beckett's aversion to the pilot's seat.
Feeling the sweat roll down his temples and back, Rodney slowly approached the gate. He wanted to go through full throttle as Sheppard did, but he knew his limitations. A scraping sound along the port side made him softly swear and quickly adjust their bearing.
The pain in Sheppard's voice had ratcheted up a notch. "I got it," assured McKay, silently praying he wasn't lying. "It's all right."
Rodney was grateful when they entered the event horizon. If there was further evidence of his poor flying skills, he wasn't aware of it. Thanking whichever Ancient had the foresight to put the Jumpers on autopilot as soon as they exited the wormhole, Rodney released the controls and sat back in his seat.
As soon as the shuttle settled in the hanger bay, Ronon opened the back hatch, allowing the medical team to enter. Rodney watched from the pilot's seat, his legs too unsteady to hold his weight. Carson lead the way in, followed by two orderlies with a gurney and another doctor Beckett had handpicked on their visit to Earth. Rodney hoped she was as good as her resume boasted.
With Ronon's and Teyla's help, the medical team carefully lifted Sheppard and placed him on the gurney. Despite their caution, a hoarse scream came from the injured man's swollen lips. Even from where he was sitting, Rodney could see Sheppard was on the verge of passing out. Knowing this could kill his friend, Rodney rushed to his side. Lightly tapping a pale cheek, he urged, "Stay with us, Colonel."
When the eyelids continued to flutter, Rodney slapped Sheppard's face with a force that left finger-shaped marks on the translucent flesh. "You've been through too much to lose it now."
Sheppard grabbed Rodney's hand. "It's all right. I'm n-not going anywhere."
Held in Sheppard's tight grip, Rodney was compelled to accompany the gurney on its journey to the infirmary. He didn't mind; he had no interest in going anywhere else. He knew getting Sheppard into Carson's care had solved only half the problem. They still had to find a way to get the trap off without amputating Sheppard's leg—or killing him.
* * * * *
Rodney rubbed his gritty eyes, trying to focus on the small digital display on his computer screen. The numbers blurred, making it impossible for him to distinguish one from the other. Though he would be loath to admit it, he knew he needed sleep. However, even the short, involuntary naps he had been taking periodically since their return to Atlantis filled him with guilt. Sheppard wasn't allowed even those brief reprieves. It had now been almost twenty-four hours since he had gotten any rest. The signs of sleep-deprivation were unmistakable; it was clear Sheppard was running out of time. Which meant Rodney had to deny his own depleted reserves and find an answer to their problem.
"I think I've got it."
It took a few precious moments for Zelenka's excited cry to penetrate the fog surrounding Rodney's thought processes. Surprised at his disappointment that someone else had found the answer he had been seeking, he asked, "You know how to open the jaws?"
"Yes," confirmed Zelenka. "But it is not going to be easy."
"I don't care what we have to do, we'll make it work." Rodney rose to peer over the Czech scientist's shoulder.
"For us," Zelenka emphasized, "it will be very simple. For Colonel Sheppard, it will not be so easy."
As he read the data on the computer screen, Rodney realized Zelenka was right. What they would have to do could as easily kill as cure. Closing his eyes, he searched his soul, hoping that when he opened them again another solution would present itself. The practical side of him knew he wouldn't get his wish. "I don't see that we have any other choice."
Opening his eyes and unhooking Zelenka's laptop from its power supply, Rodney slipped it under his arm. "Let's go tell Carson and Elizabeth."
Once outside the lab, Rodney realized he had left the most important person off his list. Altering his course, he activated his comm unit. "Elizabeth, meet us in the infirmary."
"Have you found a way to free Colonel Sheppard?"
"Yes." Rodney kept his acknowledgement brief. The excitement in Weir's voice would disappear soon enough.
With an unhappy Zelenka on his heels, Rodney arrived in the infirmary only moments ahead of Weir. He wasn't surprised to find Beckett, Teyla, and Ronon at Sheppard's bedside. It was doubtful they had ever left. The hopeful faces turning toward them as they entered almost sent Rodney scurrying back out. One look at how much Sheppard had deteriorated kept him in place. Dark brown circles rimmed the pain-glazed eyes, the only color on the gray, drawn face.
"What have you determined?" Elizabeth demanded the minute she came into view.
Prevaricating, Rodney admitted, "Actually, it was Radek who made the discovery."
"I don't care if it was B-Bugs Bunny," Sheppard whispered. "Get this damn thing off me."
"What do we have to do?" asked Beckett.
Though he knew it would mean very little to most of the people in the room, Rodney opened the laptop and set it on the table by Sheppard's bed. "We have to disrupt the signal that is preventing Colonel Sheppard from being able to sleep."
"Works for me." Sheppard's bloodshot eyes never strayed from the schematic on the monitor.
Rodney saw a muscle in Sheppard's cheek twitch. The man's intelligence was no longer a surprise to Rodney. In this case, he was grateful for it. Explaining for those who could not read the display, he said, "The only way to block the signal and force the jaws open is with electricity."
"You want to attach the trap to an electrical current?" Carson asked skeptically.
Rodney nodded. "It's the only way."
Weir spoke up. "I'm no engineer, but won't the electrical shock transfer to Colonel Sheppard?"
"Yes." Rodney avoided Sheppard's gaze as he confirmed Elizabeth's analysis.
"How strong would the jolt have to be?" demanded Carson.
Exchanging glances with Zelenka, Rodney said, "We don't know."
"We would start at the lowest setting," Zelenka hastily suggested, "and raise the voltage in measured increments."
"No!" Beckett shifted his gaze from one scientist to the other. "What you're proposing is torture. I'll not allow it in my infirmary."
"Then I guess we'll have to go somewhere else." Sheppard rose onto his elbows.
"Wait a minute." Beckett gently eased his patient down on the bed. "Colonel, do you understand what they want to do?"
"Probably better 'n you, Doc."
"And you still want to go ahead with it?"
"Can you give me another choice?"
"No, son, I can't."
"You know as well as I do, I can't stay awake m-much longer."
"Then let's get on with it."
Rodney focused his attention on Weir, knowing they would need her consent as well. A hesitant nod gave him the go-ahead. He reined in his seesawing emotions. "Carson, we'll use your defibrillator."
"I'll get it." His shoulders slumped, Beckett crossed the room and brought back the requested machine.
Taking the paddles, Rodney said, "Put it on its lowest setting."
It almost looked like Carson was going to refuse, when he finally complied with the request. Rodney didn't blame him. It took every bit of strength he had to place the contacts on the trap's control center, while praying they hadn't damaged more than the communication signal with the C-4. Disappointment almost broke his resolve when nothing happened. "Higher," he ordered.
By the fifth try, Rodney was finding it more and more difficult to keep his promise to Sheppard. What Carson had foreseen was coming true. The higher the voltage, the more Sheppard was feeling the current. It was running through the weakened body, coursing along blood vessels, igniting nerves and tightening muscles until the contractions broke bones. Rodney was torturing his friend. The last two applications had left Sheppard screaming as a bone in his left wrist snapped and a rib cracked.
"Before we go to a higher level, Colonel," Beckett stepped away from the control panel, "I think you should know what you're facing."
His raw throat making it difficult to speak, Sheppard growled, "I'm not losing my leg."
"That's just it, you still could," revealed Carson. "Your muscles are being severely damaged, giving off a substance called myoglobin. Microscopic fragments could clog your kidneys and produce kidney failure. And that's just for starters. We're chancing heart fibrillation or arrest, respiratory arrest, seizures, coma, and paralysis."
As each risk was revealed, Rodney's hand shook a little harder. Torturing his friend was bad enough; killing him was something he wasn't prepared to do . . . even if it meant he had to break his promise. It would be easier to live with Sheppard's condemnation than with his death. He put down the paddles. "We're done."
"No," Sheppard said with a throat raw from screaming. "We're not, y-you promised."
Rodney physically stepped away. "I can't do this anymore."
The devastation on Sheppard's face was almost enough to make Rodney reconsider. Before he could fortify his courage, Ronon picked up the paddles.
"I'll do it."
The look of gratitude in Sheppard's eyes turned to pleading as he shifted his gaze to Beckett. "Please, Doc."
A man would have to be made of stone to ignore the plaintive appeal. Rodney knew Carson didn't have a speck of granite in his entire body, much less his heart.
"Once more," Carson unhappily agreed. "If this doesn't work, we find another way."
They were all aware there was only one other option. Rodney found himself holding his breath as Beckett's trembling hand turned the dial. His features devoid of emotion, Ronon pressed the paddles to the trap.
Though he was expecting it, Rodney cringed when Sheppard's hoarse cry echoed around the room. The sound almost drowned out the crackle of splintering circuits and the pop of the trap opening. Rodney was still staring in shock as Ronon lifted Sheppard's leg out of the way with one hand and grabbed the trap with the other, throwing it into a far corner. The deadly jaws snapped closed with a force that made Rodney shudder.
The room was suddenly filled with medical personnel. They pushed Ronon and Teyla away from the bed, surrounding Sheppard until the only thing visible to Rodney were two bony feet that were unnaturally still, at least in Rodney's view. From the day they met, Sheppard had been a man of action, playing as hard as he worked. Rodney desperately wanted to push the interlopers away, but the complications Carson had outlined were all the restraint he needed. He had already done enough to "help" his friend. It was doubtful Sheppard would ever ask for Rodney's support again. A little over a year ago, the Earth Rodney wouldn't have cared. However, this Rodney, the Atlantis Rodney, had discovered offering assistance was even more rewarding than receiving it. He would miss the bond he had formed with Sheppard.
Medical jargon flew around the room. Rodney knew many of the words; he even knew their definitions. What he didn't know was how they applied to Sheppard, or even if the patient was alive or dead. Normally, he would have butted in, demanding answers. But fearful he would endanger his friend's life, he searched for Carson's familiar visage in the sea of faces. When he found it, what he saw stole the voice from his throat.
The frantic activity around the bed ceased completely before resuming at a less frenetic pace. Carson pulled away from the crowd. His gaze flashed from Ronon to Teyla to Zelenka to Weir, before finally settling on Rodney. "We still have a number of tests to conduct, but I think Colonel Sheppard will be all right."
Rodney felt empty lungs fill with air. He hadn't realized he had stopped breathing until his chest started burning. Even that wasn't enough to make him think and act with a degree of sanity and self-preservation. Only Beckett's statement had freed him to live again. Noticing that his hands were visibly displaying his feelings, he quickly hid them behind his back.
Now all he had to do was find the courage to face Sheppard when he woke up.
* * * * *
The bruised flesh under Sheppard's closed eyes made Rodney flinch. He knew he had been partially responsible for it. Sheppard was so pale, veins were visible beneath his skin. The only color in his face was the dark smudges under his eyes. A part of Rodney desperately ached for Sheppard to wake up so he could apologize. The other part of him was content to sit quietly by his friend's bedside. He hadn't apologized often in his life; he wasn't sure how to begin.
"Rodney, go get some sleep."
Shaken, Rodney focused on Sheppard's lips, until he realized the admonishment had been spoken with a distinct Scot's burr. He shifted his gaze to Beckett. "Are you sure he's not in a coma?"
"Positive," Beckett acknowledged with a long-suffering sigh.
"What makes you so sure?"
"The title before my name and the letters following it."
Ignoring the sarcastic remark, Rodney pressed, "Then why isn't he waking up? It's been almost two days since the trap came off."
"The almost twenty-four hours he had little to no sleep, the amount of body trauma he sustained." Carson ticked off the reasons on his fingers. "The loss of blood, the intense pain and the disruption to his system from the electrical shocks—it's not surprising he's so tired. He's got a lot of sleep to catch up on. As have you."
Rodney waved a hand dismissively. "I'm fine."
"You have two choices, Rodney." His tone clearly indicating he was in no mood to argue, Carson said, "I drug you and you sleep here, or you go to your room and your own bed."
"Really, I'm—" Rodney trailed off when Carson crossed to the drug cabinet and unlocked it. "All right, you win, I'll go to my room."
"And sleep," Carson emphasized.
Savoring his triumph, Beckett added, "You are not to step foot in this infirmary or your lab for a minimum of eight hours."
"Now wait a minute—"
Picking up a syringe, Carson shrugged. "Take it or leave it."
"Has anyone ever compared you to Attila the Hun?" grumbled Rodney, slowly rising from his chair, stiff muscles making the simple task difficult.
"They were being kind."
"See you in eight hours." Carson waved goodbye.
Rodney made it as far as the doors before he stopped and turned around. "You will call me if there's any change?"
"If there's a change for the worse," Carson amended. "I don't think he'll appreciate you hovering over him when his catheter bag needs changing."
Wrinkling his nose in disgust, Rodney agreed. "I'll leave it to your discretion."
His legs feeling as though they had a ten-ton ball and chain attached to them, Rodney dragged himself out of the infirmary. A couple of marines in sweatpants and T-shirts denoting their branch of service jogged by. Rodney envied their energy. He often went days without sleep or interrupted by short catnaps, so he knew his lack of vigor wasn't a physical symptom, it was mental. More specifically, it was due to a guilty conscience, which could not be cured until he talked to Sheppard. He never thought a person could dread and eagerly anticipate something at the same time. He had been wrong. With his recent track record, he wasn't surprised.
* * * * *
Though his body had undergone a remarkable transformation in the ten hours since he'd left the infirmary, Rodney's emotions remained unchanged. Culpability was an encumbrance weighing him down. While he eagerly anticipated unburdening himself of the load, he wondered if it would ever entirely disappear. He had already accepted that guilt would be a constant companion for the rest of his life.
Entering the infirmary, he zeroed in on the bed Sheppard had been occupying. When he saw it was empty, Rodney had to grab the doorjamb to keep himself from passing out. When his frantic gaze located Beckett, he said, "You promised you would call me if there was any change."
"If there was a change for the worse," Carson reminded him. Suddenly realizing what McKay thought the empty bed indicated, the doctor hastily added, "Colonel Sheppard woke up about six hours after you left."
Incredulous, Rodney demanded, "That made him well enough to be discharged?"
"Ach no, lad. A little fresh air was the best prescription for him. He's out on the east balcony."
"Miss Wilson is with him. She's a very capable nurse. He's being well looked after."
From his own frequent visits to the infirmary, Rodney was already aware of the young woman's qualifications. He could find no fault with her abilities . . . which gave him no excuse for visiting the balcony to check on Sheppard. A sigh escaped his lips as he pushed away from the doorjamb.
"However," said Carson with a nonchalance that was unusual for him, "I could use Miss Wilson's assistance. You wouldn't by any chance have a little free time, would you, Rodney?"
"I guess I could spare fifteen or twenty minutes." Rodney tried to hide his enthusiasm in grudging agreement. From the smile on his friend's face, he realized he had failed.
"If the colonel seems the least bit tired or chilled, bring him right back here."
"You have my word," Rodney pledged, holding up his right hand as though he were taking an oath. His feet pivoted to take him toward the east balcony.
Only when he reached his destination and saw Sheppard hunched over in a wheelchair, did his steps falter. While there was finally a bit of color in the pale cheeks, the heavily-bandaged left leg and plaster-encased wrist only emphasized the frailness of the normally athletic body.
Before his courage could desert him, Rodney addressed the young nurse. "Miss Wilson, Dr. Beckett has requested your assistance." When she placed her hands on the wheelchair's handles, Rodney quickly added, "Dr. Beckett asked me to stay with Colonel Sheppard if he isn't ready to go back to bed."
"I'd like to stay," Sheppard said, sitting up straighter.
Obviously unhappy with the decision, Miss Wilson nodded. "Call if you need anything."
Finally finding himself alone with Sheppard, Rodney became tongue-tied, something that had never happened to him before. He knew what he wanted to say, he just didn't know how to start. Crossing to the railing, he stared down at the lapping water far below.
"Stop tying yourself up in knots, Rodney, and get it off your chest."
Sheppard's encouragement freeing him, Rodney turned. With an earnestness that could not be misread, he said, "I'm sorry."
Surprised by the puzzled frown on the tired features, Rodney shrugged his shoulders. "Take your pick."
"My pick of what?"
Starting to feel angry at his friend's obtuse responses, Rodney retorted, "Mistakes. Screw-ups. Blunders. Slip-ups. Bungles. Oversights."
"Okay." Sheppard held up a hand to halt the tirade. "I got the idea, you think you blew it. What I don't understand is what you think you did."
"Let's start with the trap—"
"Do we have to?"
"If I had been paying closer attention to my scanner, you might not have stepped on it in the first place."
Sheppard shook his head. "That thing was pretty large. It would've been hard to miss."
"I'm just saying—"
"And I'm saying," Sheppard interrupted again, "you did nothing wrong. The jaws stuck out pretty far. Not to mention, it was well-camouflaged. If I hadn't stepped on it, someone else might've."
Shuddering at the thought of those terrible teeth imbedded in his own leg, Rodney decided to concede the point. He had plenty more sins that wouldn't be so easy to forgive. "If it wasn't for you, I would have betrayed Atlantis to the Wraith by dialing the gate."
"That's why there are four people on a team, not just one or two. When one of us has a lapse, the others pick him up."
Exasperated but finding it impossible to argue, Rodney pointed out, "I should have been the one to realize we could dial a different address to escape the Wraith, not Teyla."
"A plan you can't use is no plan at all."
As Sheppard shot down each of his crimes, Rodney felt his heavy burden lighten. The echoes of pain-filled screams kept the load from slipping away completely, however. "I hurt you when I hit the side of the stargate as we were coming through."
"Yeah," Sheppard agreed, "that's something we're going to have to work on."
"Aha!" Rodney wasn't sure why he felt so triumphant that Sheppard had finally accepted one of his transgressions.
A finger in the air halted any further comment. "It's my fault for not letting you fly more often," Sheppard said. "That's something else that will be rectified in the future."
The load that had almost disappeared, re-emerged as Rodney's shoulders slumped. He was certain Sheppard could not forgive his greatest failing. Turning away to stare out across the water, he reminded him, "I broke my promise."
Angry that Sheppard was forcing him to voice his sin, Rodney snapped, “I promised I wouldn’t let them cut your leg off.”
Sheppard gently patted the heavily bandaged limb. “It’s still here.”
“I couldn’t hurt you any more. I would have let Carson cut it off if Ronon hadn’t stepped in.”
Looking down at his hands, Sheppard admitted, “I never should have made you make such a promise.”
“No, you shouldn’t have.”
Somehow, things had gotten turned around. Rodney had been so sure he had failed his friend, but Sheppard had taken each misstep and shot it down. Shocked, Rodney realized there was nothing weighing him down anymore. “Well, just don’t do it again.”
With a lopsided grin, Sheppard just said, “No promises.”