If he survived this one, Sheppard thought grimly, swinging the helicopter hard in the last of a series of evasive maneuvers right on the brink of crazy, it would be way worse than last time. At least last time he didn't have a general on board.
He was practically on the ground and they were both diving out of the chopper when the squid thing stopped following them and just dropped, slamming itself into the snow beside them on the ground. Sheppard closed his eyes in sheer relief when the damn thing failed to detonate, and then hauled himself up out of the snow. The general was still making stupid comments, but Sheppard just ignored him and crouched next to the missile to take a closer look -- it was like nothing he'd ever seen before.
He tried digging it out from where it lay half buried in the snow; one of his hands brushed it accidentally and a flicker of blue spread along its tentacles, which twitched. He jerked back reflexively and landed on his ass in the snow and ice. The general snickered at him, and Sheppard rolled his eyes, carefully out of line of sight.
"Don't worry, it probably won't bite," O'Neill said dryly. He peered over Sheppard's shoulder and prodded the thing. Another tremor of blue light skittered down it, and Sheppard glanced up to find O'Neill eyeing him thoughtfully. "You're going to have to get it back home, you know. Can't leave experimental stuff lying around, even out here. The eggheads'll cry." He smiled faintly. "They'll probably want to talk to you, too, so you know, no running off before we're finished at the base."
O'Neill stood up straight and stretched his back with a grunt. "Right. You carry on. I'll be in the bird if you need a hand," and tucked himself back into the relative warmth of the chopper. Sheppard glowered after him, and followed to look for the cargo netting.
Sheppard shook his head, trying to shake the odd buzzing sound in his ears as a very apologetic Scotsman tried to explain without explaining any of the clearly classified -- incredibly classified -- equipment and experiments all around them. The weird blue and silver art deco style aesthetic made the place look like no base he'd ever seen: the lines were beautiful, not merely functional. He didn't want to think about it too much, his head hurt enough already.
"Don't sit there--"
The buzzing in his head blazed to a crescendo and then stopped as the chair reclined itself, seeming to mold itself to his back and thighs. In a burst of light that only emphasized the silence, a constellation leapt into being before his eyes.
Footsteps rushed towards them, but he didn't look away, staring up at the brilliant cloud of stars as a voice said, "Major, think about where we are in the solar system."
He wasn't conscious of really parsing the thought but the image spun between them, swirling until the solar system emerged from the constellation, and then rushed inwards, deeper still to Earth, Antarctica, and then all the way down to the base they were in, half buried under snow.
The buzzing was back, not as strong as before, and Sheppard looked up. "Did I do that?"
When he looked back, a guy in an orange fleece rolled his eyes and said, "Yes, well done. Carson, you can go away now."
The Scotsman spluttered, "Make up your bloody mind, McKay," and turned on his heel.
"Don't go too far," McKay said absently, his eyes fixed on Sheppard's, "I might want you for backup or something."
Sheppard smirked at 'McKay', "Play nicely, McKay."
McKay snorted. "If I played nicely we'd all be dead. Or ignorant. Or both, in fact. Now, shut up, lean back, and--"
"Think of England? Not that kind of boy, Doc."
McKay's eyebrows flickered up, and he met Sheppard's eyes properly for the first time. They were bright blue and abruptly full of a kind of wary amusement. "While you're in my chair, you're whatever kind of boy I tell you."
"Technically, he's mine, McKay," O'Neill said firmly. He turned to Sheppard, "I thought I said don't touch anything?"
"It asked so nicely," Sheppard sniped straight back, and O'Neill paused, apparently taking the comment more seriously than Sheppard had meant it.
"I think I better pull your jacket, and see about reassigning you," he said, lips pursed. "Did the drone talk to you too?" He gripped Sheppard's shoulder and hauled him out of the chair, which promptly slid upright again and darkened. McKay looked like he was about to burst a blood vessel. "Infirmary first, McKay, then you can have him back for the afternoon."
He steered John away from the chair room briskly, and through a maze of corridors until Sheppard wondered if they were just walking in circles, or if there really was a destination in mind.
"So." O'Neill leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "Have at it."
"Whoosh, whoosh?" O'Neill accompanied the noise with a couple of wide sweeps of one arm, then folded them again. "Game? Only one, blah blah?"
Sheppard took a precautionary step backwards, out of arms reach of the crazy senior officer. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Sir."
"Huh." O'Neill narrowed his eyes at him. "Did you die recently?"
"Uh. No? Not that I noticed."
"Oh *hell*." O'Neill dropped his head in his hands.
"Sir?" Sheppard backed up another step, and angled himself for a quick exit back the way they came. If he could remember the route.
"A newbie. Christ. You couldn't have, I don't know, died twenty years ago and gotten yourself trained by someone who knew what they were doing? No, I'm not crazy, Sheppard, never mind, the whole gene thing fucks everything up."
O'Neill took a deep breath. "I'm going to say this all in one go so you can freak out all in one go. Save your questions. You have alien DNA, which helps you turn on alien equipment, and also, apparently, qualifies you for the Game of Immortals, which largely consists of dodging people with swords and living until you get beheaded."
Sheppard just stared at him incredulously. This was all new levels of crazy, and in nearly twenty years, he'd seen some real quality crazy. "Sir, are you feeling--"
O'Neill shook his head, and produced a sword.
"Whoa! Sir, please, put the--" Sheppard took a wild look at the three feet of cold, sharp steel, "the knife--" Really big fucking knife, where the hell had he been he hiding a *sword*? "--the knife down, and I'll just go and--"
O'Neill jabbed himself in the arm with the sword. The angle wasn't good, and what started as a small cut on his left wrist turned into arterial spray with alarming rapidity as the sword slipped. "Crap. I hate this." O'Neill's grip on the sword wavered and he let go of it, letting it fall ringing to the floor. Sheppard kicked it out the way and gripped O'Neill's arm above the injury, pressing as hard as he could until the blood stopped spurting. The long slice in O'Neill's arm sparked blue for a second, just like the drone had, and the cut closed up right in front of his eyes.
"The *fuck*?" Sheppard let go and backed away, his eyes never leaving the blood stained, unblemished skin. O'Neill flicked the sword back up into his hand with a neat hitch of his foot, and threw him a lopsided smile.
"You wanna try?" O'Neill offered him the hilt of the sword.
"Well, this is going to suck." And O'Neill lunged.
The old guy was faster than he looked, and the blade went smoothly straight through Sheppard's chest. Sheppard grabbed at the blade, trying to stop it going deeper, but the ice sharp blade just sliced his hands to the bone. "Bastard," he choked out, the taste of blood flooding his mouth, and abruptly he was in Afghanistan again, drowning in his own blood on the sand.
The sword slid out again, burning as it went, and he hit the ground. Someone was kneeling behind him propping him up, saying something he couldn't quite make out, but sounding way too cheerful about it. He looked incuriously down himself, chin on his chest, and watched as blood soaked down his clothes, unpleasantly warm, and he had a moment to think, oh shit, that's torn it, and --
-- darkness blinked--
and then he was lying down in a quiet private room, like no time had passed at all. There were two people watching him. One sitting in a chair by the bed, the other, O'Neill, leaning against the wall on the far side of the room. He wasn't in a hospital bed or anything like it. It looked like an emergency bunk room, a couple of military cots stacked against the other wall, and boxes on the floor.
No sword. No sword hole. He coughed cautiously, and sat up.
"I really don't have to be here," Sheppard said, and Beckett fixed him with a glare.
"No, you don't, lad. But *someone* decided that the old fashioned testing was the way to go instead of waiting for the DNA results."
"Oh, as if we didn't already know what they'd say," O'Neill grumbled back. "And this covers all the other questions too: no, I'm not crazy; yes, you are immortal; yes, you need to learn to use a sword; and yes, incidentally, aliens are real and--"
"The aliens almost made sense--" Sheppard stopped himself and started again as he remembered just what had happened. "Hey. You stuck a fucking sword in my chest!"
O'Neill shook his head sadly. "Aliens aren't the tough sell they used to be. I miss those days."
"You would." Beckett sighed. "Well, with most people I'd be in the middle of surgery right now, but you just need to drink some fluids, and keep your electrolytes up. I have to admit it's rather nice to be able to just sit back and watch for once--" he carried on straight over O'Neill's none-too-quiet,
"Don't see why you won't let me make popcorn while we're waiting."
"--whilst my patient fixes himself. No thanks to you." He turned a ferocious glare on O'Neill, who put his hands up. "You should just give the man a proper answer for once in your life, it wouldn't kill you."
"Pax, pax! I'll do it, sheesh."
"Hmph," Beckett grunted. "Well, how are you feeling?" he asked Sheppard, who just looked from one to the other of them, incredulously.
"When'd I fall down the rabbit hole?"
O'Neill quirked a grin at him. "Good question. Let me know if you ever find an answer. Let me tell you a story."
The sword hung uncomfortably over his shoulder, under the backpack. He'd sort of gotten used to wearing it, just like he'd sort of gotten used to the way almost everyone seemed to ignore it. So it was something of a shock when McKay, who he'd almost decided was too self-absorbed to notice anything not related to himself, yelped and pointed over his shoulder.
Sheppard whirled, "What?" He scanned the terrain but nothing leaped out as imminently dangerous. His heartbeat slowed, and he threw an irritated glare at the man. "For Pete's sake, McKay, what happened? A mouse leap out at you?"
McKay was pointing at *him*. "What?" He glanced down his body, but everything seemed attached as normal.
"Sword! A *sword*! A *sword*? Why are you carrying a sword? Are the guns, and the, the other guns," he mimed what possibly was intended to be shooting a pistol and then a P90, although Sheppard wouldn't have wanted to swear to that in a court of law, "the other guns really just not cutting it for you, or, oh my god, are we running out of bullets? We've been here all of three weeks and already we're running out of bullets! The Wraith are going to *eat* me, and it'll be because Captain Airhead here forgot to pack *bullets*!"
Sheppard was pretty sure that McKay paused to breathe somewhere in there. Pretty sure. He considered reminding McKay that it was 'major', but 'Major Airhead' really wouldn't be an improvement.
"We've got plenty of bullets--"
"I can make you bullets! Well, I say I, but I'm pretty sure I have someone who can make you bullets, though we will need gunpowder, and saltpeter, I wonder where the sewage goes in Atlantis, or we could buy it, someone somewhere in this benighted universe must have come up with it by now--"
"McKay. McKay! MCKAY!"
"What?" McKay looked at him, pausing in his pacing and diatribe, "I'm brainstorming--"
"Oh, you're *something* all right," Sheppard said mildly.
"Eh?" McKay shook his head. "I'm trying to find a solution to our imminent loss of weapons, and you're, you're--" He blinked. "Wait. Why *are* you carrying a sword? Where did you even *find* a sword? Does it light up?"
"Because I took fencing lessons as a kid, and thought it would look pretty with my BDUs." He paused a beat, and added, "And no. It doesn't light up, what the *hell*?"
Ford choked, and Teyla bent a puzzled look on both McKay and Ford, before saying, "Against the Wraith, the sword is a highly regarded weapon. Decapitation, and placing the head far away from the body is a certain means of killing them."
All three men turned to look at her. She smiled faintly, "Swords are hard to come by here, or I would carry one myself. But where the Wraith find swords they outlaw smithing."
"That would make forging swords difficult," Sheppard conceded. He hesitated a second and glanced at McKay for a second, considering, then back at Teyla. "Look. If I could find you a sword would you be interested? I can see how it might be useful to use against the Wraith."
"Certainly. We can train together."
McKay scowled. "Oh, yes, that's a brilliant idea: Major 'I never saw a suicide plan I didn't like' fighting with a pointy weapon and getting his ass kicked."
"Thank you, Teyla. Shut up, McKay, or I'll make you come too. 'Does it light up?'" he added scathingly.
"Could have been an Ancient sword, I was just asking, that's what scientists do," McKay protested, but his heart wasn't in it and Sheppard was already starting to smirk in that reckless way that was fifty per cent turn on, and fifty percent terrifying. "Sheppard, no."
"That's perfect. McKay, report to the second gym tomorrow at nine, and we'll get you started. Teyla, I'll bring you a couple of swords by tonight." Sheppard actually bounced on the balls of his feet, beaming at the two of them.
"What about me, sir," Ford asked. "Can I--"
"No," Sheppard and McKay said at the same moment.
"Too many people with pointy things already," McKay muttered, but shut up when Sheppard glared at him.
"One trainee at a time, kid," he said easily. "Give me some time to break McKay in, and we'll see what we can do."
"Could be years," Ford said sourly, and shrugged. "Fine, let me know when."
"In the meantime," Teyla said gently, "Perhaps we can undertake the mission on which we were sent?"
They had barely sat down to supper when all around them people froze. Teyla looked up sharply; Sheppard and Ford tensed in response. McKay kept on stolidly eating his stew, although he speeded up, so even he wasn't wholly immune to the atmosphere, even if his response left something to be desired.
"What--" Ford began, and Teyla hushed him with a gesture.
"McKay," Sheppard murmured. "Trouble incoming."
McKay slid a look at him, and wolfed down the last of the bowlful of stew. "The Gate might have opened for nice people. It could happen."
"Gate?" Ford said softly.
"You heard the Gate open, right? Everyone here heard it. That's why we're all doing our best meerkat impressions, right?"
"I thought you were going for warthog, McKay," Ford said pointedly.
"Very funny. You'll be laughing the other side of your face when I'm halfway through saving the day and I pass out from hunger."
"Faint," Sheppard muttered out of the corner of his mouth. "The word you're looking for is faint." Ford grinned.
"Okay, everyone ready--"
"Wraith!" Teyla said suddenly, standing and pulling her bantos rods free. "They have come through the Gate. Not many. Perhaps a small survey group. Six or eight at most."
The most senior of the village elders stood. "Are you sure, Lady?" His hair was grey, but he didn't seem afraid, though many others clearly were.
Teyla nodded once. "I have the gift of knowing," she said simply, and the Elder nodded back.
"Pass the word," he said, and immediately several of the younger men and women hurried from the hall. Children and adults clutching youngsters scurried to the back of the hall, and into a barely visible doorway.
"Guests, you may leave with the children, or fight with the warriors-- but you must choose now."
"We'll fight," Sheppard said instantly. He glanced from Teyla to Ford, and then stopped at McKay. "Rodney, you can--"
"I'm in this with you, Captain Airhead," McKay said. He swallowed. "If I die, tell my family I was defending children." He blinked, and smiled crookedly. "It might even be true." He pulled his gun up into position and squared his jaw.
"We'll try to not let it come to that," Sheppard said, and Teyla brushed a hand over McKay's where it rested on his weapon. Ford patted him on the back, and managed to keep the doubt off his face until McKay couldn't see it.
"Really?" he mouthed at Sheppard, who shrugged. What else was he going to do with McKay?
"Maybe he can bitch and moan them to death," Ford muttered, and took a prudent step away from McKay, sensing the narrowed eyes.
"Just remember who makes sure you get hot water and aircon when we get home. That's all."
"Okay, guys, stay with me, pay attention to what you're doing, and try to kill only Wraith: no friendly fire. Rodney, leave it."
McKay scowled, but said nothing.
They followed the warriors out of the hall and joined the loose line heading through the sparse woodland toward the Gate.
"This is insanity, you know," McKay whispered.
"We're going to die."
"You might," Sheppard said cheerfully, "but I promise to come back for your body."
"*You* are clearly insane."
"You're starting to repeat yourself. Also, I think I can see Wraith ahead."
McKay apparently had more to say, but John missed it, possibly a pity, but he wasn't kidding about seeing a Wraith drone up ahead. He picked up the pace, swerving out from the main body of villagers to meet it.
John fired as he ran, a steady blaze of bullets hammering at the Wraith until it staggered and stumbled, falling against a tree, then to one knee. Around him he could hear gunfire and yelling, the clatter of sticks and blades on armor, and the screams of those caught and fed upon...
He ignored it all. The only sounds were the beating of his heart; the white noise buzz of something like yet unlike an Immortal. Heat flooded through him, and he was running wholly on instinct.
He didn't even think about it, just let go of the P90 and pulled his sword free. It sang in his hand and he picked up speed. The Wraith was still struggling back to its feet when he reached it, maybe three, four seconds later, and swung.
It felt like a detonation.
The drone's head flew clear, bounced, rolled, but Sheppard didn't see it.
O'Neill had talked about killing other Immortals, and Quickenings, but John had never taken one himself. He had no idea if this was the same -- he saw nothing, no light show, no fireworks or exploding trees, just blinded by something invisible and silent, that threw him back ten feet and left him dizzy and high and embarrassingly, improbably turned on.
If that was how a Quickening felt he could see why people would stick around for the sword fights.
He swallowed hard, trying to push down the battle fever, regain equilibrium. Had almost won control over it when another drone moved within a sword length of him, hand outreached.
He rolled to his feet and struck. The drone blocked with the long nose of the stun rifle, and Sheppard grinned fiercely, let the blade slide along the gun. It removed the drone's fingers, and on the backswing he gutted it, and when it began to fold in half, decapitated it in a long downstroke. The explosion of whatever the hell it was was less intense this time, and he only staggered back a few paces, straight into another Wraith.
The drone moved incredibly slowly, as though through molasses, and John turned on one foot, pushing his whole body into the swing that took the drone's head and bounced it several meters.
He took three quick steps back towards the main battle, but it seemed it was over. Teyla was smiling at him, McKay was clutching his gun to him more like a teddy bear than a defensive weapon and Ford was just staring open mouthed.
"Wow. That was so. Cool." Ford shook his head. "No one is going to believe me when I tell them."
"That our mild mannered major turned into Conan the freaking barbarian." McKay shook his head. "No, never mind what I said. That was fucking amazing. I take it back. You want a sword, Major, I'm not stopping you. You want swords we can do swords. God knows I've got enough D&D geeks."
Sheppard grinned, bouncing a little, "That was pretty cool, wasn't it?"
"An interesting technique," Teyla observed, walking from one body to the next, kicking their heads far, far away from their bodies. Sheppard winced a little as one slammed into a tree trunk, but he could see the point. One drone's hands were still twitching near its stun rifle.
"Ford, collect their weapons."
"I haven't had a lot of practice," he told Teyla a little apologetically.
"Ah," Teyla said.
Sheppard ducked his head. "I was lucky."
"You were," Teyla agreed. He looked at her, somewhat disappointed by her agreement and after holding his gaze steadily for a moment she blazed a fierce grin at him. "It was well done, nonetheless. And we can work on making sure that luck does not come into it in the future."
"More planning, less luck sounds like a good plan," McKay said fervently. "Are you all right, Major?" he added anxiously.
"Fine," he said cheerfully. "Better than fine."
McKay looked at him narrowly. "You look high. Could the Wraith have done something to him, Teyla?"
"I did not see them touch him," she replied calmly. "Many warriors experience battle excitement."
John raised an eyebrow. She had not, he noticed, answered the question.
"Huh." McKay eyed her thoughtfully, then looked back at the trio of dead Wraith. "We can discuss this some other time."
Beckett fussed over the lot of them when they got back. Sheppard was pretty sure the man was overcompensating with him, because there was no real reason to restrict him to the infirmary for the rest of the day when he wanted to go burn off some of that Wraith fueled energy he'd acquired.
"I'm fine, really," he said, jittering in place.
"I know," Beckett murmured, "but I want to know what happened, what really happened, not the version you gave Elizabeth, and we can talk once Rodney's safely away."
Beckett turned to McKay and swiftly completed the standard post-mission checks and blood extractions, Rodney grumbling steadily throughout until Beckett snapped, "Fine, go on, hoppit before I decide to restrain you and check whether the obnoxiousness is congenital or a result of something you ate." He folded his arms and McKay frowned, but didn't argue, leaving with his tattered dignity gathered close about him.
"There, Rodney's a good lad, just needs a bit of managing," Beckett said cheerfully. "Now, lad, let's see to you. Tell me about it."
John sighed and went through the whole fight, blow by blow. Carson made him go back over the minutest of details until he could just scream with the need to be done and gone.
Finally Carson sighed, and perched on the edge of Sheppard's bed. "I don't know. It sounds like a Quickening, but no Quickening I've ever seen or felt. Sometimes when the really old ones go, I'm told you get that sort of intensity, but these--"
"There's a kind of buzz off the Wraith, I think. Like you are, but not the same, you know?"
"You're sure that's not our Rodney?" Carson asked, a faint smile tugging at his mouth. They'd gotten used to the idea that the ATA gene therapy apparently made people, or at least, had made Rodney, into something very like a pre-immortal.
"No. I've gotten used to that. Mostly. Just as well he didn't die today though." They both grimaced. If Rodney died, there was going to be a whole new barrel of stinking rotten fish to deal with. The chances were he'd become the first artificially induced Immortal. They really weren't looking forward to finding out if their suspicions were correct, and it wasn't like it was susceptible to testing.
"That's going to be a hell of a conversation," Sheppard said morosely. "You know how we made you ATA positive? Well, you're also probably Immortal, except for decapitation. Which is more likely to happen than you might think. Here, have this sword, you're going to need it."
"You're not wrong." Carson stared unseeingly at his hands as they wrung themselves nervously; it was a habit Sheppard had noticed getting worse over the past few weeks since the first attempts at gene therapy had created twenty seeming pre-Immortals on the expedition.
"Carson, if there's--"
"Never mind. No point borrowing trouble. You're fretting to go, and I'll not stop you. Just--"
"I'll watch out for him."
"Watch yourself first, John," Carson said seriously. "You're no good to him dead."
He waved something that was halfway to a salute as he slid off the bed and grabbed his clothes. "I'll bear it in mind," he agreed.
Outside the infirmary Teyla was waiting. "I believe we should discuss the fight today, and develop a training schedule."
He groaned, closing his eyes for a slumped moment and then straightening. "Yes. And then lunch?"
"You may want to have lunch with Rodney. I believe he is less sanguine than he tried to indicate."
"Yeah, that's gonna be fun," he muttered.
"I know, I know. I'll haul him out of wherever he's tucked himself away and feed him. That's usually good for twenty minutes or so of semi-exclusive attention."
"Good. Now. First, we need an alternate training room for working with live blades," she began.
It took a few days to run down Rodney, who turned out to be remarkably good at playing least in sight when he really wanted.
"Here. Food. Eat." Sheppard put the tray down next to McKay's feet and sat cross-legged on the floor beside it. "Hey, I didn't know we had Jefferies tubes."
"They're not--" McKay's voice was muffled and Sheppard grinned.
"Sorry, what was that, Jefferies tubes all over Atlantis? Riddled with the things?" He leaned against the wall and picked one of the pudding cups off the tray and dug in. "You know, these blue Jello things aren't all that bad."
"Geek! Geek in the grass!"
"Mixing your metaphors there, Rodney."
McKay's feet kicked and he slowly started emerging backwards from the tight crawlspace. Sheppard started on one of the apples -- almost the last of the boxes of the things that had come through to Atlantis with them -- and enjoyed the view. McKay's ass wriggling back and forth was something to be relished. Possibly videoed.
"Am I interrupting your reverie, Major?" McKay knelt up, disheveled and peeved, and ran his hand self-consciously over his hair, flattening the dusty spikes.
"No, not all. Take your time." John smiled easily, and accidentally met Rodney's eyes. Awkward. He really kind of wanted to kiss him, but at the same time yell at him, and then persuade him to start sword training with him, Teyla and most of the ATA gene carriers. It was confusing. Rodney was looking confused too. Confused and nervous. Rodney licked his lips, and John found himself doing the same.
"Swords!" Rodney said abruptly as though there hadn't been nearly a week of evasions and sudden really urgent meetings somewhere else. He waved a finger in John's face. "What the hell were the swords about? And the explosions? And there's something -- all you ATA carriers know when each other's around. I noticed it the other day and then I went back over the security footage, and it's just the ATA people and the artificial ATA people, but the artificial guys and the weak ATA guys can't tell when the strong ATAs are around. There's something going on and you're not telling me!"
It was rather like being doused by a very talkative bucket of ice water.
He tried a smile, and Rodney shook his head sharply. "Do *not* think you are going to charm me into thinking it's not real, John Sheppard."
For a split second John considered trying to kiss him into forgetting, and promptly dismissed it as an even more terrible idea than usual. He'd save that for later.
He sighed and tilted his head back against the wall of Atlantis. "Pull up some floor and eat your dinner," he said finally. "I have a story to tell you."
"When did my life turn into a swords and sorcery fantasy?" McKay muttered. "Science fiction, fine, no problem. I was expecting science fiction."
"Raise your guard in third," Sheppard said. "Again, and slowly."
"I'll practice with a gun. I swear. Point and click. Boom. I'll be so point'n'click'n'boom you'll barely recognize me."
"I barely recognize you already, McKay. Come on, try harder or I'll let Teyla have a turn."
Rodney groaned, and Sheppard hid a grin. "En garde!"