McKay was running. Well, moving faster than normal, and much faster than could possibly be advisable for the terrain. Or his comfort. Better uncomfortable than dead, though, he told himself, and kept moving past endurance, one foot at a time, back aching, salty sweat burning the scrapes on his face.
Better him running on a wild goose chase -- again -- than them all dead.
Better one free than four dead in some stupid civil war, chasing a story that probably didn't hold so much as a grain of truth at its core.
A boulder loomed large in front of him and he stumbled into it, coming to a forcible halt. He swallowed, throat clicking dryly, all moisture long gone in the dry heat. The stone was cool where he leaned on it. He pushed himself up a little one handed, the LSD clutched tightly in the other, looking for a hand hold, and gulping air in, just for a moment, gathering his strength to scramble over. A glance upwards , but all he could see was snow and sky and mountain, reaching on up forever.
"Snow boarding!" he said derisively to the memory that came all too vividly. Sheppard had seen the mountains and could talk of nothing else -- for a while. He hooked bleeding fingers into a promising crack, and tugged. It fractured almost immediately, and he dropped his face against the cold stone for a brief moment. Crap. Try again.
"Lovely mountains, McKay! Where's your sense of adventure, McKay?! Live a little, McKay! Yes, *let's* try doing that why don't we?" He leaned on the rocks for a long moment, trying to hear past the pounding of blood in his ears for sounds of pursuit. Nothing. Yet.
He wedged the tip of his boot into the small space between cliff face and fallen mass of rock, shoved hard. It held, and he reached up, tugged on another tiny gap, a mere fracture in the stone. It too crumbled under his fingers, and he tugged again until it stabilized, and he could haul himself up a little. And again. His thighs burned, his back ached, he wouldn't look at his hands at all except he needed to see where to put them next. Fortunately, most of the blood had dried, or tracking him would be incredibly easy.
Halfway across the rock and he was sprawled on top of it, breathing hard, wriggling forward in small cautious increments, eyes closed. Stones clattered down from somewhere, skittering over his back and then tumbling out into emptiness catching, bouncing, tumbling endlessly until the sound was too far to hear any more, and he froze, heart pounding, breath shaky, clinging to the sun warmed rock and trying to detect any hint that it too was about to tumble down the mountainside, splattering him across all the ground he'd so arduously made.
"It's not moving, it's not moving, perfectly safe, perfectly safe," he told himself firmly, and with absolutely no belief. He very nearly slid into the 'wide open fields' mantra and swallowed hard. Yeah, there really were wide open fields, and they were approximately a half mile straight down.
Fifteen hours ago he'd've laughed heartily at anyone who'd suggested that any such thing, and then asked anxiously if they knew something McKay didn't -- he'd learned something in the Pegasus galaxy, and mostly it was that the worst that could happen, did. Usually with sprinkles and lemon sauce.
Still not moving. He turned his head slowly, cheek pressed against the smooth rock, and peered cautiously back over the boulder to see if the pursuit was continuing, or if they'd given up. Nothing moved.
He waited long moments, squashing the panic that insisted that every second he spent here was just giving them time to catch up. He needed to pause for just a second or two, or three... "Not some sort of Olympic sized mountain man," he muttered, and remembered his water. Okay, just a little, just quickly, he'd done enough hadn't he? Just -- oh, bliss.
He corked the water bottle and put it away carefully. There wasn't much left and if he didn't find more water soon -- he drew a deep breath and concentrated on the view to push away the rush of images that came with 'what if'. He'd find water. There was water in the valley, all these stones and rocks were getting smoothed by something, it had to come from somewhere, he'd find it.
His breathing steadied and slowed, and so did his heart beat. He slithered down the far side of the boulder. The path wound on upwards, but he dropped and sat on the narrow ledge it formed, tucked into the corner between boulder and mountain. He let his eyes close again. "Step one: escape. Check," he said softly after a good fifteen minutes had left only silence. "Step two: get off the mountain, back to Atlantis, desperately attempt entirely pointless and tardy rescue of people who've already rescued themselves, thank you, and sleep for a month." He shook his head, dropping it between his knees. "Just that. It'll be a snap."
A stone rattled overhead and his gun was out, the LSD falling where it would with a terminal sounding clatter, safety off and aim. An animal, maybe the size of a Labrador, with pointed cat-like features in gray and tan, peered back down at him. He stared back, wide-eyed. Clearly this was why the pursuit had stopped. The Mareans knew that man-eating mountain cats would do the job for them. His arms began to shake, lactic acid burning as he kept the gun up and ready.
"It's going to jump, it's going to jump, and rip my throat out, and then they'll all die, and there'll be an afterlife after all just so John Sheppard can come after me and hit me completely unnecessarily, don't jump, nice kitty, good kitty." The whispered words tumbled over themselves and the cat's head tilted curiously, then it sat back and idly examined its own shoulder before ducking its head down to lick it intently, as though perching on a high rock above an Atlantean with a gun, and combining a spot of sunbathing with a quick cross check for personal hygiene was all it had ever had on its mind. Putting said Atlantean on the menu had never so much as crossed its fluffy little mind.
McKay slowly, tensely, lowered the gun, putting the safety back on with a weird sensation, like every hair on his body had settled down again with sheer relief.
"Perfectly safe," he said under his breath, then leaned a little to peer back down the path he'd taken up here. Although path was something of a misnomer -- if it hadn't been for the sharp objects being waved at him he probably would have dismissed it as a dry stream bed, unsuitable for anything but water coming down, or mountain goats going up. Still nothing. No sounds except a distant rumbling.
He concentrated on the sound, then realized that the damn cat was purring.
"Well, I'm glad you're having such a good time," he grumbled, and carefully holstered his weapon. His hands throbbed and he took a quick glance, then looked away. The LSD glinted and he crouched over it cautiously. Spiderweb cracks on the casing, scratches on the screen, but it still turned on, and lit, showing three active subcutaneous chips. Best to assume they were attached to living people. He flicked onto the next screen, and there was the signal, still flashing away, coming from something Ancient, high up in the mountains. This mountain.
It better be something really fucking good up here. Something he could use to bribe or buy or cheat the Mareans with so they gave him his team back. Or something to level the town, if that wasn't an option.
Right now though, he was halfway up a lump of rock in the middle of fricking nowhere, his team in gods knows what condition, and only a sliver of a plan to get them back. What did he have? "My brain;, which is a not inconsiderable asset in its own right, though it would do better with food. A hand gun, a P-90, enough ammunition to start a small war although winning it could prove problematic. Half a canteen of water. Food." He thought of the one MRE and the three power bars, with a sinking heart. He'd been looking forward to decent food. It was only habit that had him stuffing military rations into his pack. "The laptop," he added as an afterthought. It was the single heaviest thing in the pack, after the ammunition, and he knew that Ronon --well, okay maybe Sheppard too -- would tell him to dump it. They might even have a point, but heavy as it was, and as useless as it was right now, he would indubitably regret ditching it later.
He tugged at his earpiece and turned it over in his hand consideringly. No chance that anything would be coming through on it any time soon. It was no weight at all. And there was always the faintest possibility... He put it back in place.
For a moment he saw the booted heel crushing down on the earpiece knocked from Teyla's head, the way she'd twisted away from the blow and then looked back, face already swelling on that side, eyes steady and fearless as they met his. She'd shaken her head at him as he reached for his gun. He winced and looked away, even though it was only in his memory. The yelling and the noise; Ronon choking, a thin dark line around his neck, his fingers dragging deep welts in his own skin trying to get them under the garrote. Sheppard down already, blood pooling beneath him, Teyla standing over him with her bantos rods moving with deadly accuracy.
She'd fixed her eyes on Rodney as he looked around, panicked. The Mareans had already closed chains around Ronon's wrists and ankles although he was still fighting bare handed, his gun and swords already lost. The Mareans were coming for him, Rodney had backed away, someone hit Ronon and he went down in an ungainly, motionless heap. Teyla was the only one still conscious, and she was looking straight into Rodney's eyes and telling him go, go, go! like some sort of demented, bloodied cheerleader.
And he'd gone, gone, gone. Bolted like a startled rabbit. There was nothing he could have done. The others were alive, but he was the only one to escape. They'd done that for him. He couldn't waste it.
Teyla had told him to go.
He'd done the right thing.
Funny how it felt like the wrong thing.
Still no sound of pursuit, so either they'd given up, or they were coming up with a better plan than 'chase armed and panicky scientist up the side of a mountain', which okay, they had home turf advantage, and many rugged mountain men, but the armed aspect of his side of things maybe evened that out.
He swallowed hard, and his stomach rumbled; a faint taste of bile at the back of his throat suggested he'd better back it up with something to eat.
He broke open the MRE and ate the crackers slowly, careful not to puke them straight back up again and waste water. He had iodine tablets somewhere, he thought, which would be great, if only he found some water... He hadn't seen any yet, but the greenery suggested that there had to be some, somewhere.
Okay. Clockwork flashlight, instead of the battery operated thing they'd been issued with. What exactly were they supposed to do with them once the batteries expired? So, yeah, let the Marines laugh, he had a light that always worked. Utility knife. He eyed the cat thoughtfully, then decided that he wasn't desperate enough yet to try to catch, kill and eat a cat. It was hard enough to catch them when they knew and tolerated you. What else? Painkillers, bandages, epinephrine, anti-histamines, decongestant... Maybe he could cut back on some of these, but which? If he needed it and he'd ditched it...
He sighed and decided that between his own reluctance to carry any more than he absolutely had to, and Sheppard's determination that he should be able to survive at least a night alone in the wild, there probably wasn't anything he could usefully lose.
He pondered the chocolate brownie and instant coffee sachet, then tucked them away. Later.
Light nylon rope and the survival blanket would do for a shelter, if it was needed. No sleeping bag, but they hadn't been expecting an overnight stay. Right now, his main priority had to be water and the team. He could survive a few days without having to focus on food with what he had, as long as he paced himself.
The cat stretched itself, front legs, back legs, back arched high and curved, then jumped lightly down from its ledge. She landed lightly on the boulder and then bounded out of sight and he smiled at her nonchalant grace. Not for the first time, he was mildly envious of a cat.
What now? Well, the objectives were defined: now he just had to break them down into tasks. Unfortunately there were no white boards or post-it notes available, so the kind of planning that Elizabeth was so fond of was going to have to go by the board.
He stood carefully. The ledge was narrow, but as long as he focused on his footing, he'd manage. He looked up ahead, following the vague trail that was formed by the dry stream bed, and felt his heart sink. One step at a time.
He could do this.
And then what? If the signal -- what the Mareans insisted on calling the Voice of the World -- turned out to be something, well, maybe the Mareans were right, he could bring it back, help them win their war. Maybe he could use it himself, save the day. Or maybe it would be nothing, just a lonely old beacon calling out to a civilization that had died before Gilgamesh was even a legend.
And what then? Reach the top and die in the snow? Wait for Wolsey to decide they were overdue, to send in the Marines just in case? This was meant to be an easy, friendly site, they'd had a positive check-in at four hours, and the next one wasn't due for another twelve hours or more. It would be all talk and negotiations and jawing, and in the meantime, his team's chances of getting out alive -- his chances of getting out alive-- diminished by the minute.
No one had anticipated the kind of political unrest that resulted in the four of them being taken hostage in a game where no one was going to win. If he'd just kept his mouth shut about the damn signal, maybe they'd all be sitting tight, a little roughed up, but together, alive, and waiting to be ransomed or broken out by the Marines -- again. But no. He'd had to mention the signal they'd been tracking, and all hell had broken loose.
He swallowed and stamped hard on the memory of his team, of leaving them behind.
This would be so much easier if he'd listened to the briefing. Or if, come to think of it, the briefing had mentioned a civil war. They better not be dead. They really, really better not be dead.
No. He needed a plan. A real plan. Pity he didn't have one.
He looked back down towards the foot of the mountain, at the rolling hills that splayed out into river valleys and wide plains chopped up into neat fields and enclosures. It was heavily cultivated, terraces up the lower reaches of the mountains, oddly shaped fields interlocking in a vast agricultural jigsaw punctuated by little clusters of buildings, villages, towns, and right at the foot of the mountain, surrounded by hills, carved out of the side of the mountain itself, the Mareans' great city, irregular streets winding through overhanging houses, filthy with detritus of tens of thousands.
He could make out at least four rivers winding through the fields, but those were no good to him. He could just imagine himself running cross country, and it wasn't a pretty sight. To the north -- and he was never, ever letting Sheppard know that he'd resorted to designating a planetary north on a world without a planetary magnetic field, but never mind. The nearest arctic zone would be the north pole, and everything else would work from there. Absolute bearings. None of the relative military nonsense that changed depending on where you stood and which way you faced -- to the north lay more mountains and the snow capped peaks that looked depressingly like they would be only too happy to kill him in any number of damp, painful and above all cold, ways.
Which wasn't getting him anywhere whichever way he looked at it.
He wanted to call them, but there was no point. Whatever hope he'd had that they had their comms, would be able to talk to him died early. There hadn't been any answer the first three times he'd tried, and the baying of the dog-things had gotten louder and closer each time, until it dawned on him that they might be hearing his voice, or triangulating on his transmission, or *anything*. Sound carried. Up here, it felt like the silence was closing in on every little sound that he made. True, the echoes bounced confusingly, but in the end they still told anyone who cared to listen that he was up here, stumbling around, ripe and ready for a little quiet garroting.
Somehow, he felt as trapped as he once had under 60 tons of water. He wasn't meant to be the daring rescuer here; he was meant to be the hostage. but they'd seen the other three as a threat, and gone for them first, which was probably a really smart move all round, but it wasn't *fair*.
He stopped, and breathed in carefully. He could panic later. He grimaced.
Okay, technically, it would be more of a hiatus in a slow motion panic attack, except not so slow, and --
He carefully picked everything up and edged towards the path upwards.
Sheppard woke coughing and hacking water out of his lungs. For a long, terrible moment he thought that he'd drowned, Atlantis had sunk, cracked open under the weight of their demands and collapsed into the sea. He rolled onto his stomach and promptly rolled back as his hands caught painfully underneath him.
Someone was talking to him, and he wiped at his mouth and eyes, only realizing belatedly that his wrists were cuffed together when they lifted together. He blinked blearily, the room gradually coming into focus. His face felt fat and swollen on one side, his right eye barely opening at all. He coughed again, and a hand at his collar dragged him up into a sitting position. He bent forward over his knees, struggling to catch his breath against the rough, wet feeling in his lungs.
The voice raised, and he was just looking up to see what it wanted when another bucket full of water was thrown in his face. He barely got his arm up fast enough to block off the worst of it, and was left choking again.
The hand on his collar shook him roughly. "I said, explain this!" The P-90 was waved in front of him and he squinted at it, his head pounding so hard he could barely think.
"'S a, a gun," he said foggily. "Point and click."
The gun was pointed across him, and he had a moment to realize what was probably going to happen before there was a dull click. Relief shook him; he followed the gun's line of sight and looked away -- Teyla was lying right where the P-90 would have cut through her. The inertial safety must have cut in when he went down, but it was only a matter of time before they tried disassembly. After that, with one to reverse engineer and two to play with, all bets were off. Shit.
He couldn't see Ronon, and he didn't dare turn his head to look. He wasn't entirely sure he had the energy to do so. Someone grabbed him by the ankles and he shut his eyes as he was dragged backwards across the floor. Everything hurt, and he couldn't think of anything except breathing, shallow, easy breathing, not letting the water choke him, not coughing, not making a sound as his head bounced on the floor and his ribs groaned.
A kick to the ribs rolled him into the corner of the cell, and he lay there until the pain reduced to just a dull buzz. He could think over it, just as long as he didn't move. He cautiously opened his one working eye, and found himself staring at Ronon's unmoving back.
"Ronon?" he whispered. He suppressed a cough before it caught anyone's attention. He slid a hand over, but Ronon didn't respond to that either. Not that he had a lot of leverage like this. He rolled himself forward a little and slumped against Ronon's back.
The pain took a while to die back down.
He focused on breathing, and on the growing realization that their one small point of contact, his forehead against Ronon's shirt-covered back, was getting warm. It only took a small twist and he could hear a heartbeat not his own.
Not dead. That was two.
Rodney woke, his whole body jolting with shock. His hands fisted tightly onto smooth rock. He must have rolled over in his sleep and now lay on his stomach, one leg hanging into thin air.
He pressed his face into the stone, and breathed. In two three four. out two three four. In two three four... not falling. Not falling. He inched himself back from the edge. Two three four. Knees under him, shuffle round until his back was pressed to the side of the mountain. Out to three four. In. He was cold and stiff, but the sun was rising far across the plain, and his ledge was already flooded with light. Time to move. Slowly, cautiously climbed to his feet, clinging to the rock face with more hope than actual grip.
"Still alive," he said finally, not entirely convinced. A glance at the LSD: three signals still showed. Until he had evidence otherwise, that meant Teyla, John and Ronon were still alive.
He blinked away the too bright light, and got going.
"We don't want to see your friends come to any further harm. Call him back. We know you have communication devices." Chebji leaned forward and spoke first, much as he had the last time. The audience chamber was a lot less festive this time, lined with soldiers and archers, and only part of the ruling council - the three red robed Utescini, the Marean ruling triumvirate - sitting on the dais where a mere day earlier the hall had been alive with traders and entertainers.
"We do not wish to be your enemies, but we cannot allow you to give an advantage such as the Navel of the World to someone undeserving."
Sheppard said nothing. The guards had freed his hands, and he'd been encouraged to clean himself up. He hadn't bothered. Fucked if he was going to pretend that they hadn't beaten and tortured him. If that offended their delicate sensibilities they should have thought of that before they started in on him.
They'd even put fresh clothes out, food and water. Even if they had tipped half of the water over his head, and laughed to see him cough and splutter.
"You must understand that it is not safe out there. The Navel of the World is said to be a perilous place: no one has ever come back from there alive. And that's if your friend even finds it. Anything might happen up in the mountains, with the rebels and the wild animals that roam them. Help us to help him."
"He'll be fine," Sheppard said mildly.
"He is a stranger, an off-worlder. He will stand out like an othlass among jentans. someone will find him, and they will not be kind."
Sheppard smirked at her and shook his head. "You have no idea," he said cheerfully. "You don't know McKay. I do. I know how he thinks, and he's gone to ground. You'll never find him, he'll blend in like he's lived here all his life. Every trail you think you find, every clue, every whispered hint will be fakery and lies, and you'll never even see him when he's right under your noses, eating at your table, drinking with your soldiers, making time with your daughters. He'll find your precious navel long before you can get to him, and he'll take it and make it his, because he can." He grinned recklessly. There were worse things than stealing a line or two from Indy. And who knew? Maybe it would throw them off a little.
The Utescini looked taken aback. "Our trackers do not believe this to be the case. Your Doctor McKay has traveled into the mountains, and is believed to be climbing Oasholl, the summer killer." Tha'ini leaned forwards, her anxiety practiced and utterly unconvincing.. "He will die, as so many untried hopefuls have done before, long before he reaches the Heights and the Navel of the World."
"I don't think so, Ma'am." John leaned back into his seat and crossed his legs at the ankles, ignoring the discomfort of the shackles.
She smiled, and nodded to Chebji on her left. Chebji shrugged. "The last reported position of Doctor McKay was he was heading into the territory of the mareats," he said. "Your McKay is the least stealthy person we have ever had the pleasure of hunting. They will eat him alive, feed him to their cubs and break his bones for their marrow."
"And yet, you haven't actually got him, have you?" John let a slow, smug smile widen. "And I bet you can't find him right now or you wouldn't be talking to me."
The Utescini looked unfazed by his bluff, and he wondered if they had found McKay, if they'd gotten to whatever the hell was making the signal that had gotten them into this mess and somehow stolen a march on them. What if it was some sort of armory? What if McKay was already making small arms and munitions for the Utescini so they could wipe their rivals, the Caranthani from the face of the planet.
"If you can tell us where he is going, we can help him," Tha'ini said, and John had to work not to spit in her face. "If you call him back, we can set you all free, we would be happy to forget all this, and send you safely home."
"You broke our communication devices when you attacked us," he said flatly. "You attacked us and took us hostage for some local political stunt. You tortured three of us without cause. No. McKay's safer where he is, and so are we, because yeah, you think he's up in the mountains, maybe he is. Maybe he isn't. Wherever he is, your men are out there alone with him, chancing these 'mareats' when McKay's probably already home and dry, and getting ready to make his move."
"Which is it, Colonel Sheppard?" Satahas leaned forwards, speaking for the first time. She smiled slightly. "He's in the city, he's in the mountains, he's on your ship, off the planet ... he cannot be all of these things."
"You're asking me? How would I know? And why the hell would I tell you?" John did laugh then. "You tried to kill us, stole our weapons and tortured us, all because McKay chose the wrong moment to ask about something he thought he'd seen. He got away: I have no fucking idea where he went and neither do you," he finished with fierce satisfaction.
Satahas tilted her head to look at him thoughtfully. "Bring in the woman."
Somehow it was worse seeing the one he'd thought of as the reasonable one go all evil psychopath on him. He felt like he ought to be used to it by now, but somehow it was always the same. At least she hadn't tried seducing him first for once.
Teyla looked as battered as he felt. Her hair and clothes were soaking wet, and Sheppard winced at her swollen eye and split lip, bruises darkening all down her face and her wrists bloody under the chains they'd put her in. She'd put up a hell of a fight. More than he had, his last clear memory of seeing her before he'd been knocked out was her standing over him, taking on a dozen armed soldiers.
"Hey," he said casually, and smiled at her.
"Good evening, John." She took the chair beside him as though there were no guards, no manacles, no bruises. "Utesci."
"Let us begin again," Satahas said just as nonchalantly, she smiled even, as though the three of them were in on some sort of joke. "Where is the scientist? Where is the signal?"
Teyla shrugged, a gesture that was all Sheppard's, and they both knew it. He suppressed a smile and raised his eyebrows at the Utescini, spread his hands out as if to say, see, I told you so.
Satahas nodded, and leaned across to the nearest of the guards. "Remove her left hand," Satahas said, and settled back in her chair, that faint smile still squarely in place. The guards moved towards them one carrying something very like a kris.
"We don't *know*," Sheppard said urgently. Teyla leaned her shoulder into his for a second, and shook her head very slightly when he glanced at her.
"We do not know where Doctor McKay is, but as you rightly deduce, we would not tell you if we did know," she said quietly. Her hands were folded together in her lap, and Sheppard found himself staring at them, wondering how she stayed so still when so much weighed on her.
"More than that, however, we do not understand what you mean by 'Navel of the World', and your attack on us means that Doctor McKay will never rest until he has discovered it, and set it against you to save us." She smiled more widely and held out her left hand, a challenge. "And for every insult you visit on us, he will repay."
Sheppard bit his lip hard. He had absolutely nothing to add to that, and the guards were shuffling uneasily, and the other two Utescini were leaning in to whisper urgently at Satahas. Chebji looked particularly worked up, and Sheppard knew that Teyla saw it too.
"And what do you offer us in this fine bargain, friend Teyla? We cannot have this all on one side, after all. Mutual benefit is, after all, the very heart of negotiation," Chebji said sharply.
"Friends," Teyla said mildly, "let us go looking for him, and all will be well. We will go peacefully, and never return. Is that not enough?"
"That is, assuming we get him and Ronon back in one piece," Sheppard threw in. "Otherwise..." He shrugged as though to say it would be out of his hands. It would. "He destroyed five sixths of a planet once."
Satahas laughed, but she was the only one. The sound rang out, entirely unselfconscious despite the silence. "And with what, precisely, will he destroy this planet, Colonel?"
Teyla leaned forwards a little, a small icy smile on her lips. "Why, perhaps you can tell us," she said gently. "For after all, it is you who are so afraid of the consequences Doctor McKay finding that which you have driven him to seek."
McKay was not sure that the LSD was still working. It seemed fine, but the intermittent signal that had so upset the Mareans was still blipping away like a grounded pulsar. A very small pulsar. He had to be practically on top of it, and yet all he could see was more rocks. Rock, snow, sky, the occasional pseudo-cat, but no Ancient artifacts, outposts or warships.
He paused, and blinked at the mountainside. Maybe --
Maybe that ridge there was -- and the line down would be there -- and then that would make the front of the ship, resting nose upwards, lying at a steep angle on the side of the mountain, half hidden under boulders and snow and vegetation --
It was a warship. It *was* a warship. He was standing on part of the weapons array under the secondary bridge. Sheppard was actually going to kill him.
Which probably meant that he could get inside without much more walking, which was good. He scrambled over the slope taking chances that only ten minutes before he'd've died rather than chance.
It took him another half hour to work his way inside the ship, and it was in terrible condition. the chances were good it was never going to fly, even if they could clear the vegetation and millennia of tumbled rocks and junk. Getting inside hadn't been the problem -- the hull was split, and he'd worked his way between the primary and secondary hulls with relative ease, even if it had been something of a tight squeeze. No, the trouble was that he clearly wasn't the first to do so.
He kept catching glimpses of the cat things as he worked his way deeper into the ship, heading for the central command bridge. They hissed but stayed back, perhaps deterred by his flashlight, or the racket he was making as he stumbled through the mess and the dark.
No signs of human occupation. He tried not to think about the probability that the cats had eaten anything remaining.
"On the positive side," he mumbled to himself, squeezing through a mass of tree roots and cat bones, "The Wraith probably aren't lurking in wait up here either."
The command center was sealed shut, the first sign he'd had that anyone had survived what he was rapidly coming to think of as a crash. It took a while to break the seal, and he wasn't wholly convinced it less of a mess: buried deep in the heart of the ship, well away from the exterior and the dangers of impact damage.
"Huh. A homing beacon." It wasn't like the one that had come from the Aurora, but then, the crew of the Aurora thought it was just a matter of time before they were found and rescued. Technically of course they were right, they just hadn't anticipated how *much* time would pass. This ship was different.
The systems booted only sluggishly, dim red and amber lights warning that only residual power remained, error messages flickered up faster than McKay could close them down, with repeated demands for authorization codes. Life support gone. Plant systems failure. Weapons almost out of power, shields gone. Hull integrity compromised -- McKay snorted and rolled his eyes at that one, no shit -- and most disappointing of all: the low low power status of the remaining zpm.
He prodded that one, the signal being boosted out was being powered by something, but it wouldn't be nearly the drain on a zpm that say, several hundred stasis chambers would cause, so what exactly was -- oh.
Another warning, but this one in green for once: Primary manufactory cycling: stage one in progress. He prodded the interface for more information but it wasn't interested, just started bleeping at him. "Well, that explains the power drain, maybe. Except why they left it running." He frowned as the bleeping sped up, and dug deeper. Without Sheppard around to wave his magic gene around it would be slow going, but on the positive side, no one was shooting the cats. Or him.
There was a plaintive wail from the console, and the few lights that had been on blinked out, leaving his flashlight as the only lightsource.
"Um." He looked around. Was something in the room with him? It felt like something was watching him. Something ... hungry. He popped up the windup handle on the flashlight and started pumping it -- the ratcheting noise was terrible in the otherwise quiet room, but after a moment or two, it was oddly comforting, some little piece of normality.
The only thing he could do was find the 'primary manufactory' grab any weapons it might be producing, and -- he didn't know what the hell he'd do after that.
It took him more than an hour to work his way through the broken ship, but he could hear it long before he could see it. The closer he got the noisier it became, until his shoulders were hunched up against the clamor. He turned a corner, levered open yet another door half welded shut with detritus and sap, and lights blazed out.
The hoped for weapons factory, deep in the belly of the warship, clattered and clanged, machinery churning, turning. Empty.
Whatever materials this place once had were long exhausted.
There was nothing here.
A complete waste of time.
A complete waste of his friends' lives.
He took two steps forward and stumbled over a vine, the floor broke as he hit and he dropped the flashlight down the gap that opened beneath him. He balanced himself over the gap and stared.
Ronon's throat still hurt. They'd taken Sheppard earlier, and then Teyla, leaving him on his own. Squinting, he could see the tray of untouched food -- neither of his team mates had been willing to take the chance that the food was contaminated, or just unsuitable for them to eat. His stomach growled, and he sat up. He could eat it. Test the food. Make sure it was okay.
The rest of the cell was bare. No bedding, no bucket. The tray... the tray had possibilities.
He hooked it over towards him with one booted foot, and stared at it some more, dipped his finger in the gruel. It had the consistency of mucus, and smelled like cabbages. Tasted like them too. There was a spoon and three bowls with the pot of gruel, and he smiled. A spoon had definite possibilities.
He picked it up and scraped the metal handle, slowly, steadily against the brick wall, stropping it with long steady strokes.
It didn't take long for one of the guards to walk up and peer through the bars. "What are you doing?"
Ronon grinned, slow and toothy, and kept right on sharpening the handle of the spoon.
"What's happening?" A second guard joined the first. Ronon ignored them both, still rhythmically dragging it back and forth, back and forth, enjoying the anxiety ratcheting up in the two guardsmen.
"You in there, stop that!"
He glanced up. "Make me," he said.
"Don't, he'll go for us," the first guardsman said warily.
"We aren't going to be able to get him out of there if we don't stop him before he's turned that into a knife."
They argued quietly, and then called for more reinforcements. Ronon waited patiently.
The reinforcements were unimpressed. "What's he going to do with a spoon?" one of them asked contemptuously.
"If he gets it sharp enough, anything he wants, Chenji," the first guard snapped, and his colleague nodded, his arms folded.
"Fine. Asem, if you're that bothered, here, you hold my drink, I'll sort him out." The newest arrival rolled his eyes, passed his tankard across, pushed up his sleeves, and unlocked the cell door.
Ronon knifed him, ripping straight up from belly to ribs right handed, and through the heart left handed with his second blade. Before the first guy even knew he'd been hit, Ronon had killed Asem, who dropped the tankard, and then fell, beer and blood both spreading on the stone floor. He took two quick steps forward, out of the cell and took down the third guard, then turned to Chenji.
"This is what you can do with a spoon," he said, the knives from his hair held in one hand, and the blunt spoon in the other, and rammed the handle through Chenji's chest wall and into his heart. "Anything you like, if you have a good enough plan."
He yanked it out, and slit Chenji's throat as he collapsed to the ground.
The prison block had a small room for the guards. Inside it they'd clearly been divvying up SGA1's belongings. The contents of their backpacks were spread out. He grabbed the ammunition, his swords and sheathes, Teyla's sticks, and all the guns. One of the emptied packs would do to carry the ammo and handguns.
Now he just needed to find the rest of the team, and maybe offer a little payback on that motherless coward who'd tried to choke him from behind.
Tha'ini looked worried. Teyla's right eye was badly swollen, but her left could see as clearly as ever, and although it was mildly disorientating to watch through one side only, it was a tiny aggravation compared to the rest. Of the three Utescini, she was the least happy with the proceedings, and thus, the most vulnerable one, both to her own persuasions, and to the other two banding together to dispose of her in some fashion. Caution was second nature in such times, but it would be a delicate line to play.
Satahas was easier in some ways. A plain self interest drove her, and given the right motivation she would move and carry the other two with her. Chebji was the most opaque to her, and that made him the most dangerous -- but perhaps also the least likely to act. So far he had carefully avoided committing to any particular path of action, although there was a hostility from John towards him that concerned her. Most likely they had made threats against McKay. She should not make assumptions, and Rodney was more able than she had ever expected to take care of himself, but nonetheless. It made her the more wary of Chebji.
John was looking tired. There were not so many bruises on his face, but he sat carefully, without slouching -- a notable event in and of itself, and so she worried what injuries he might be hiding behind the rapid fire words and infuriating smirks. He'd looked as bedraggled as she, and she could only assume that they had tried the trial of water, and the trial of whips on him just as they had on her. They had gotten no information from her - but they had not tried very hard, seemingly more interested in causing hurt for the sake of it than getting intelligence.
She was hungry too, and thirsty. The Utescini had offered food, but both had declined, and now they were left watching the three of them gorge themselves, exclaiming over the deliciousness of some morsel or other. Neither of them had eaten, nor even had water as far as she was aware, and that couldn't go on for much longer.
And then there was Ronon.
She'd not been in the cell with the two men, and from the time John had been taken to the moment she herself had been dragged up to the audience chamber he hadn't moved. There was no way to communicate with John on this, and no guarantee that John would have anything better to tell her.
She cocked her head slightly as a sound caught her ear. It seemed familiar: the kind of rolling stir that meant battle, overwhelming force meeting underwhelming defense. She nudged John's shoulder and when he glanced at her, raised an eyebrow towards the direction of the noise. It was coming closer, and a smile spread across John's face.
The three Utescini seemed oblivious until a door to the side of the chamber slammed open, a guard staggering backwards into the room, one hand outspread to catch himself. A booted foot kicked him in the chest, and knocked him flat on his back.
"Don't be ridiculous," Satahas said contemptuously, and took a sip of wine. "You are surrounded, trapped and entirely unable to overcome every guard that we have."
"Don't need to," Ronon said tersely. He hefted a familiar looking backpack, and threw it in a graceful arc to land at Teyla's feet. Her bantos rods followed and she snatched them out of the air, and slammed one into the stomach of her nearest guard while John snatched up the backpack, loaded a P90 and started firing. The sound was deafening, and the guard beside John, who could have stopped him if he'd had the initiative to do so, had clapped his hands over his ears. John stood, clubbed him with the butt of the gun, and squared himself back to back with Teyla.
It was like a fighting game she had played as a child, stuck to the spot, fighting all comers: they couldn't move, hobbled by the chains around their ankles, but that didn't mean they couldn't cause damage. More than that, John's gun ensured that they had a reach that was far far greater than anyone else in the room. Once the guards realized that, they backed up to the doors at the far end of the room, well away from both the Utescini, who were looking panic-stricken, and from SGA1, which gave Teyla the opportunity to grab her own P90 out of the backpack, and clear the remainder of the room.
"Not bad," Ronon said cheerfully. "They aren't very good at planning."
John blinked, and Teyla looked dubiously at Ronon. "There was a plan?" Teyla inquired politely, "I did not see any indication of one."
"I thought you just beat them all to death with your dreads," John agreed.
Ronon grinned boyishly. "That too."
"Perhaps you'd like to persuade the weeping one that she wants to unlock us?" John asked Ronon, jerking his thumb towards the three Utescini who seemed to be fighting to get away first. Satahas seemed to be winning, which might have been the cause of Tha'ini's terrified sounding sobs.
"Since you asked so nicely." He vaulted the table and picked up Tha'ini by the scruff of her neck. "Keys. Now."
"I -- I don't have them!" she yelped, "and if I did i wouldn't give them to, to a vavaros!" She wiped at her face to glare at Ronon, who seemed to be appreciative of the effort.
"Such a shame," Teyla said and walked slowly towards Tha'ini and the two other Utescini hiding behind her. "Because if someone helped us out over this ... misunderstanding ... I'm quite sure I would be able to encourage Ronon to --" She paused, and tilted her head to look enquiringly at Ronon, "I don't want to spoil your fun, dear friend, but we must find some compromise. Compromise is, after all, the very heart of negotiation." She smiled sweetly at the Utescini.
Ronon considered this, and said, "I'd settle for just killing one of them. Maybe two. Whoever is least helpful maybe."
"I like that idea," Sheppard said, cradling his P90. "We could kill one each. Keep the first one to help us, and--"
Satahas took a swift step to one side, and said, "I have the keys. What guarantee do I have that you will eradicate my colleagues?"
John winced exaggeratedly. "Wow. Lady, if there was ever a competition for the fastest route to losing friends and alienating people, you just won the grand prize. I don't think we're really all that interested in supporting your little coup d'etat, but thanks for telling us where the keys are."
Ronon dropped Tha'ini and leaned over to grab Satahas' robes before she could back away. "I could just turn her upside down and shake her," he suggested as she kicked and fought. His reach was far greater than hers, and she could barely touch him.
"Sounds good to me," John said, and Teyla rolled her eyes.
"Boys. No. Allow me." She shuffled forwards, the manacles jangling and scraping on the floor. "Ronon, if you could quiet her a little?" He hit Satahas, catching her on the temple and held her up by her shoulders ready for Teyla to search. "That wasn't what I meant, and you knew it," she scolded mildly. But Ronon's grin more than told her that she'd been less than convincing. Well, perhaps she hadn't been very convinced.
It was the work of a minute to unlock the chains and put them onto the three Utescini. It seemed appropriate.
Now they just needed to find Rodney.
Rodney was irritated. Irritated, annoyed, and possibly, he conceded with a reluctant frown, peeved.
"All the way up a freaking mountain," he grumbled to himself, "fighting off lions and tigers and well, at the very least staring down things not much smaller than an actual mountain lion, thank you, and what for? What for? This."
The back of his newly acquired puddlejumper was packed tightly with the most useful bits of equipment from the warship. He'd had hopes -- drones, guns, replicators which would provide unlimited coffee, but no. Not even a decent insight into the manufacture of zpms, or the meaning of the universe.
He crooked half a smile. Though technically, it wasn't impossible he'd discovered, if not the meaning of life, something to make Carson-- make the biologists and medical types ridiculously excited.
He headed down the mountain, much much faster than he'd come up, a chain of obediently slaved puddlejumpers following in his wake.
It could all have been much, much worse. And with an 'army' of puddlejumpers he might be able to scare those Maroon idiots into giving back Teyla and John and Ronon.
He was humming as he headed towards the town.
"Why am I apologizing for not needing a rescue?" Sheppard said plaintively. "I didn't mean to get rescued, it was all Ronon's fault."
Rodney didn't stop glaring.
Teyla tried to keep a straight face. "This is true, Rodney. We only helped Ronon out because he clearly needed a hand." John made no such effort and was grinning widely.
"I did not!" Ronon said indignantly. "I was --" he stopped as they all cracked up into gales of laughter. The small fleet of puddlejumpers had arrived just as the three of them had been trying to figure the best way to collect Rodney and get off the wretched planet.
They settled themselves in the lead puddlejumper, and took off.
"Rodney," Teyla asked as an afterthought, "you did not say: what precisely was the Navel of the World -- what did you find up there?"
Rodney muttered something unintelligible, and Teyla frowned. Surely he had not said--
"Did you just say babies?" John asked incredulously. "You found babies and left them there?"
"No, not actual babies. Baby making equipment," Rodney said acidly. "I am not, contrary to popular opinion, the kind of man who would abandon a helpless infant. Or eat it, thank you Conan, I know exactly who came up with that rumor."
Teyla frowned, "But surely, we all have--"
"Yes, no, never finish that sentence, Teyla, please, some of us have delicate constitutions--" this induced an outburst of choked hilarity that took some time to die down. Rodney sighed as the silence grew steadily more pointed. "Artificial wombs, gene splicing tools, genome mapping and what I think are genome projecting tools, all designed to support reproduction outside the womb, probably without using gametes. All calibrated for Ancients but--" He shrugged. "The life sciences people are probably wetting themselves with excitement already without even knowing what we're bringing them," he added grimly. "They're going to be entirely insufferable for months. And it'll be *my* fault."
"So, the navel of the world?" Teyla said thoughtfully.
Rodney sighed. "Not navel. Umbilicus."
"Oh." Teyla paused for a moment. "Oh dear. Oh dear."
"I dread to think what they're going to do with it when we get back," Rodney grumbled.
They all paused to contemplate a future replete with wildly excited biologists, followed shortly after by multiple baby biologist progeny.
"But on the plus side," John said brightly, "You can make that mini-me you've always wanted, McKay."
Summary: McKay heads for the hills, while Teyla, John and Ronon negotiate the delicate art of hostage taking.