A/N: As always, many thanks to my betas, Saclateri and Ashanome, for their hard work to make this a better story. All the bad parts are strictly my fault.
The roar of the waterfall provided a pleasant background as Jinto walked back into the camp. He dropped the unwieldy armful of branches next to the fire-pit he had dug earlier. Crouching, he began to build a small pyramid of kindling. He would add the longer burning logs once he had a good bed of coals started.
Satisfied that he had laid a good base for a fire, he got up and went to rummage through his pack for his fishing line. The last time Ronon had visited the mainland with Teyla he had shown Jinto and his friends how to catch fish using just their hands. Jinto intended to try that, but would bring the line too – just in case. If he and Wex were really unlucky in their fishing, they had some dried crall meat and the tubers they had brought to roast in the fire.
Hearing an angry exclamation he looked over to where his friend, Wex, was trying to put up the tent. The smaller boy was struggling to get one of the support poles into place without all the others collapsing.
"Do not just stand there," Wex yelled, red-faced with frustration. "Come help me with this, you grinning lemerk."
Jinto snorted in amusement and hurried over, ducking behind the other boy and into the partially assembled tent. He held the rest of the frame still as Wex wedged the final pole into place. The two boys stepped back out into the clearing and admired their handiwork.
"It may be hard to get it set up," Wex said with a grin, "but it does a good job of keeping the rain off." He sent a sidelong glance toward his friend. "Does your father know you have it yet, Jinto?"
Jinto shook his head then shrugged. "I have not told him, but I think he would have talked to me about it if he had found out. You know how he is," he added, rolling his eyes, a child impatient with the vagaries of adults. "But it was my trading credit. I think I should be allowed to spend it as I like."
He felt a little guilty at deceiving his father about how he had used the credit he had earned trapping game for the Atlantians. But Halling, although not as suspicious of them as before, still did not approve of the Athosians adopting so much of their technology. Trading for food, cloth, medicine, knives, farming equipment – this was all right with him. But the tent was frivolous; a piece of waxed cloth held up with tree branches should be sufficient when camping. It would not matter to Halling that the entire tent weighed less than half what the waxed cloth alone would, that it was less bulky and kept out rain from all sides not just from overhead.
"Well, sure," Wex said loyally. "But Halling is bound to find out sooner or later. You have had it over three moon cycles now. You should tell him."
Jinto shrugged again, not wanting to talk about it right now. "I will think about it." He looked at his friend and grinned. "Let us go fishing. We can practice the way Ronon taught us."
Wex grimaced; he did not like to touch live fish as they flopped about. "All right, but later – when it is dark – we have to play 'Sheppard and the Wraith'."
"Okay," Jinto said, savoring the word he had learned from the Atlantians. He didn't want to appear too eager to play a younglings game. After all, he would be thirteen summers old soon. "Okay, we can play. But I get to be Colonel Sheppard."
He turned and began walking away from the waterfall, wanting a quieter stretch of river to fish in. Behind him Wex stuttered indignantly.
"But you were Sheppard last time!"
Two days later
Teyla Emmagan hurried into the armory, her usually calm demeanor marred by a worried frown. She started down the narrow corridor between long rows of shelves, turning her head from side-to-side to peer down each one as she passed. A sudden burst of P-90 fire had her pace quickening toward the door to the firing range. The weapons fire stopped and was quickly followed by the sound of a bolt lever being worked and then an exclamation of pain.
"Ouch! Dammit. Do you see what I mean, Gunny? If there is nothing wrong with the equipment or ammo, then something is off with that batch of lubricant." Colonel Sheppard's voice was muffled, but definitely contained an element of irritation. "I've tried three different cans and it's still jamming."
"I've inspected every inch of that P-90 myself, Colonel. There's nothing mechanically wrong with it," Gunnery Sergeant Keisha Waite said placatingly. She took the malfunctioning P-90 from her commanding officer and started stripping it. "A couple of other people have complained about jams. I've a new shipment of the lubricant, sir. I'll have all the cans from that previous lot collected and the paperwork filled out for return. I just hope we don't run out before I can get a new supply ordered and shipped."
Sheppard pulled his forefinger away from his mouth and stared at the sluggishly bleeding cut. His hand was still filthy from cleaning the weapon earlier; blood and gun lubricant were not a taste treat. He pulled a bandana out of his back pocket and wrapped it around the wounded digit. "Email me the req form and I'll have it transmitted with the data burst to Earth tomorrow. They should be able to get it on the Daedalus before she heads back to Atlantis." Sheppard looked up as Teyla appeared in the doorway and smiled. "Hi, Teyla."
"I am sorry to interrupt, Colonel," she said hurriedly, looking apologetically toward the sergeant. "May I speak with you, please?"
"Sure," he said, concerned by the worried look on her face. He looked back toward Waite. "We done here, Gunny?" he asked. When she nodded, he added, "I'm going to take another P-90 off the rack. Don't forget to get me that req. Come on, Teyla."
He took her elbow and started walking back down the rows of weaponry, pausing only briefly at the racks of P-90's. "What's the problem?"
"I was hoping you would arrange to have someone take me to the mainland. I am sorry to have to ask, but I cannot wait for the regular shuttle this afternoon."
"Has something happened?" he asked.
She nodded and the concern on her face deepened. "I just received a message from Halling. Jinto and Wex are missing. I would like to go and help with the search."
"Of course," he said, sympathizing with her need to help her people. He ran his own schedule through his head and decided there was nothing he couldn't postpone or pass on to Lorne. "I'll fly you myself. Can you give me twenty minutes to change a couple things around and then meet me in the jumper bay?"
"Yes, Colonel," she said with relief, a weight she had not been aware of falling off of her shoulders. "I did not mean – "
They had reached the main corridor and he stopped. He put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a little shake.
"Don't apologize, Teyla," he said. "You're a team member and the Athosians are our partners. We help each other. Now... twenty minutes, in the jumper bay, don't be late."
Almost exactly twenty minutes later Sheppard glanced up from the cargo net he was trying to attach to the jumper wall and saw Teyla. She was standing on the ramp and staring in at him and Ronon as they wrestled with the fasteners. He was about to wave her in when Ronon suddenly slammed a hand against a recalcitrant clip, accidentally catching Sheppard's already injured forefinger.
He grunted in pain and snatched back the throbbing digit. "Jeez, Ronon. A little warning next time and I'll move my hand."
"The clip needed to be held still," was the unapologetic reply. "Hi, Teyla. Don't worry, we'll find the boys. "
"Thank you, Ronon," she said, looking a little bewildered. "Colonel?"
"Hey, Teyla. Come on and get settled," he said, looking up with a smile. "We'll be ready to go as soon as McKay gets here."
"I'm here," came an impatient voice outside the jumper. "I'd be on board, but someone decided to stop and block the entrance."
Teyla stepped aside with a murmured apology and McKay stomped past her on the way to the cockpit, grumbling as he went. Before she could speak, Sheppard broke into the muttered complaints.
"Stop bitching, McKay. All I asked for was a life signs detector. You were the one who insisted on coming with it. I could have had a half-dozen marines with the ATA gene volunteering to help with the search, if for no other reason than sucking up to their commanding officer."
He winked at Teyla as he spoke, fastened a last clip on the netting and then waved her and Ronon ahead of him into the front of the jumper.
"Colonel Sheppard," she began, settling into the co-pilot's seat, "I was not expecting you, or the rest of the team, to stay and help with the search. I only wished for a ride to the mainland."
"I know what you asked for," Sheppard said, unzipping his vest and stowing his P-90 before starting the pre-flight check. "I didn't get a lot of details from you before, but I figure if Halling is worried enough about the boys to call you, then they have been searching for a while and come up empty. Right?"
"That is correct. But – "
"No 'buts'. I meant what I said earlier about us helping each other. And Weir agrees. Besides Ronon and McKay insisted. Didn't you guys?" he called over his shoulder with a grin.
He got a silent nod from Ronon and an impatient "Are we there yet?" from McKay.
"See?" He finished powering up the jumper and then keyed the comm on. "Flight this is Jumper One. I'm go for a bay launch."
"Understood, Jumper One. Safe flight and good luck with the search."
Sheppard sent a command to open the bay roof and the jumper rose smoothly into the open air. After putting the jumper on the proper course and setting the autopilot, he stood up to fetch the First Aid kit. He had to step over Ronon's long legs, which had been stretched out into the aisle, and then over McKay's backpack where it had been dumped after the pc tablet was extracted, and then had to repeat the process on the way back to his seat
He dropped the kit on the console and started to peel the bandana off of his finger. The material had stuck to the gash at several points and it started to bleed again when he ripped the cloth free. He hissed at the pain and started to bring the injured digit up to his mouth, but Teyla grabbed his hand and slapped an antiseptic soaked pad on it.
"Ow!" He tried to jerk the wildly stinging hand back, but she held on firmly. He shot a glare over his shoulder when he heard Ronon chuckling.
"Be still, Colonel," Teyla said disapprovingly. "This cut is very dirty. And it looks as if it needs a stitch or two. You should have gone to Dr. Beckett."
"Well, I thought this was more important," he said, trying not to sound like a sulky child. He watched as she dabbed at the greasy dirt and fibers left from the bandana, then placed a clean antiseptic wipe over the wound before pulling out gauze and tape from the med-kit. He cleared his throat and asked, "Why don't you tell us what happened to Jinto and Wex?"
"Halling says they were given permission to camp out overnight at the waterfall. The boys have stayed there before by themselves. They were to return no later than mid-day the next day. That was yesterday." She sighed as she cut off the last piece of tape, smoothing it down before letting him take back his hand. "The searchers found their belongings at the falls near sunset yesterday. Jinto and Wex had set up a tent and laid a fire that was never lit. The trackers were able to follow the boys' footprints downriver and... "
Her voice petered out and she looked down at her hands which she was clasping together much too tightly. She sighed and started putting things back into the med-kit. She continued briskly, "This morning they found a place where it looks as if one or both of the boys slipped and fell into the river. The water is very fast and rough at that point. They discovered one of Wex's shoes several hundred meters further downriver. They have been searching ever since, but have found no other signs of the boys. Halling and Wex's parents are desperate."
The jumper was quiet when she finished. Even McKay had stopped working on his tablet as she spoke. He finally blinked rapidly and looked around as if embarrassed to be caught watching her when she was not her usual steady self. A self-conscious "hmmph" escaped him.
"I'm not surprised they're frantic," Sheppard broke the silence. "We'll be happy to help with the search. The jumper's sensors should help. And, if needed, we can get some more volunteers from the City."
Teyla smiled. "Your help will be much appreciated."
A few moments later the jumper crossed from water to land and Sheppard took back control. Teyla directed him to where the searchers had set up a staging area. It was about two kilometers from the village, downriver from the waterfall, and close to a small clearing where he landed the jumper.
They grabbed their gear and exited the craft. As they were walking up to greet the two elderly women who had been left to coordinate the search, one of the search teams, consisting of Halling and two Athosian hunters – Beyra and Errak – came limping into the camp. Halling and Beyra were supporting Errak between them.
After easing the injured man to the ground under a shade tree the tall Athosian came to greet Teyla. As Halling pressed his forehead to Teyla's the other team members could see his eyes were sunken and bruised from sleeplessness. He turned and offered his hand to Sheppard, a habit he had learned from the Atlantians.
"Does Errak need a doctor?" Teyla asked, indicating the injured man. "Should we ask Dr. Beckett to come?"
Halling shook his head tiredly, accepting the canteen Sheppard passed him with a small smile. "No, he has wrenched his ankle. It just needs to be bound up, and Marya and Nela can take care of that." He indicated the two older women who were already fussing over the seated man.
Teyla watched them for a moment before turning back to Halling. "Is there any sign yet?"
Halling shook his head, a brief flash of despair entering his eyes before disappearing behind a mask of calm. "No. Other than the place where they fell into the river we have found no tracks. But they could have climbed out at one of the rocky places and left no footprints. There are teams walking both sides of the river, and others searching further into the woods. I ..."
His voice broke at this point and he fell silent, looking at the ground. Teyla reached out and touched his arm. "They will be found, Halling."
"We'd like to help with the search, if you'd let us?" Sheppard offered, waiting until Halling nodded before continuing, "We brought radios that can be passed out to the search teams to help you coordinate the search. And I'd like to use the scanners in the jumper and do a sweep of the area, see if we can spot them."
"That would be most welcome, Colonel," Halling said. "I appreciate you taking the time from your important work to do this."
Sheppard frowned. "This isn't an imposition, Halling. The Athosian people are our friends. You should always feel free to ask for our assistance."
He saw the usual protest about the Athosians becoming too dependent upon the Atlantians trembling on the other man's tongue and sighed in frustration. He understood them wanting to be independent, but felt that Halling sometimes carried it too far.
"Why don't you show us where the other teams are searching? Ronon and Teyla can take the radios out and then join up with one of the search teams. And McKay and I'll take the jumper and start scanning along the river. The boys are likely to stay near it, right?"
Halling nodded as he led them toward a table. There was a large topographical map, provided by the Atlantians, spread across the surface. Small, carved wooden figures were being used as place markers to show where the dozen teams were searching.
Sheppard memorized the patterns of the search teams and made sure McKay had them noted accurately on the map on his pc tablet. After a plan was decided on Teyla took a supply of radios and she and Halling set out to deliver them to the teams on this side of the river. After making sure the ladies in-charge of the headquarters knew how to use the radios, the others returned to the jumper along with the third member of Halling's team, Beyra. He and Ronon would be delivering the radios on the far side of the river before starting off on their own part of the search grid.
Five minutes later Sheppard closed the ramp after Ronon and Beyra exited the craft. He looked over at McKay who was hunched over the tablet which had been interfaced with the ship's scanners. "Well?"
"Give me a minute," McKay muttered, pressing several keys in succession then hissing in annoyance. "Dammit, why do they make the keyboard so blasted small? Do they seriously think only two year olds are using them?"
"I think that's why they come with a stylus," Sheppard said dryly.
"The cord always comes off and who can keep track of them after that?"
Sheppard picked up McKay's backpack and shoved his hand to the very bottom. Digging past crumpled bits of paper, paperclips and powerbar crumbs he pulled out three of the plastic-coated implements – two of which still had the springy cords attached – and offered them to McKay. The scientist took one absentmindedly and returned to trying to coax the jumper's systems into narrowing the scanner parameters.
After a moment he looked up with a triumphant "Ha!." "Okay, I've got it to agree not to flag every squirrel-cat it sees, but the area it will scan in a single sweep is going to be narrowed drastically."
"Understood," Sheppard said, lifting the jumper back up into the air and directing it downstream. He took it to ten meters above the treetops and brought up the HUD. He watched as the two dots he knew must be Ronon and Beyra moved north and east away from the river. The signal abruptly disappeared off the edge of the display. He whistled softly, "Yeah, that's a much smaller area than normal. It can't be more than a hundred meter radius."
"Hmm... eighty-seven point two to be exact," McKay offered helpfully. "And the more altitude the jumper gains the further the radius will shrink."
"Great. Okay, let's get started"
Two hours later they were completing a third circuit. They had agreed that he and McKay would scan ten kilometers down the river and he was scanning further from the river with each circuit. It was unlikely the boys, both of whom were knowledgeable about woodcraft, would venture very far from the river. He would scan out to one kilometer from the river on both sides. If the boys were not spotted, he would expand the length and breadth of his search area.
Sheppard concentrated on keeping the jumper as close to treetop level as possible, and studying the changing HUD data. He was not paying that much attention to the actual scenery so was startled when McKay suddenly exclaimed, "Where did that come from?"
He looked around trying to spot what the scientist was talking about. The HUD was depressingly clear; they had passed the last search team a half kilometer back. The actual view in front of them was just more trees. "What are you talking about?" he asked finally, seeing nothing out of the ordinary.
"That," McKay said, waving an accusatory finger at something through the left side of the windshield.
Sheppard looked toward where he was pointing and felt even more confused. "It's a hill. It's a natural geological phenomenon."
"The landscape around here is depressingly flat." McKay had the HUD flashing up different sets of data. "Or rather, the changes in elevation are very gradual. That thing rises almost thirty meters in less than half that distance. Look at how narrow it is. And there is nothing growing on it except that mossy, grass stuff."
Intrigued now, Sheppard nudged the jumper closer. The hill was outside of their current scanning range. They were still a distance away when a dark gouge in the gray-green ground cover caught his eye. "Look at that, McKay," he said, pointing toward the bare topsoil. "Looks like somebody tried to climb the thing recently."
"It's hollow," McKay said in an excited voice. "Whatever is under there is man-made. According to the scanner it's made of a material similar to that used to construct Atlantis."
Sheppard took a closer look at the scar in the hillside and decided it definitely looked as if someone had skidded a meter or so on the steep slope. In fact, this close he could see several places where the topsoil had been exposed. He had the jumper follow the slope up to the peak. Once there, he was surprised to see that, except for a narrow rim around the periphery, it was almost completely free of soil or the mossy groundcover. What was revealed was a flat platform, definitely manmade, three or four meters across. On closer inspection he could see a narrow channel running completely around the circumference. It was a door, a hatchway.
"How come this didn't show up when we were scanning prior to the Athosians moving here?" Sheppard asked.
"We weren't looking for artifacts," McKay said defensively. "We were checking for man-eating monsters, and poisonous plants, and taking soil and water samples. Excuse us for not searching for buried buildings."
"Can you tell if Jinto and Wex are in there?"
"I'm not getting anything below ground level. And there are no energy readings."
The two men stared at the circular door.
"I think they're in there," Sheppard muttered. The more he looked at the hatch cover the more convinced he became that the boys were inside somewhere. He could see them climbing the hill – to get their bearings or just because it was there, who knew? – and something happening which caused the hatch to open. And the boys fell in, or maybe climbed in.
Sheppard studied the HUD, looking for a clearing large enough to set the jumper down but there was nothing nearby. He looked at the steep slope of the unusual hill and then turned to McKay. "Well, you're going to enjoy this. You get to drive."
McKay looked up from his tablet, an eager gleam in his eye that rapidly changed to worried confusion. "Why do I get to drive? What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to belay down to that little man-made mesa and check it out, see if there is a way inside," Sheppard explained as he maneuvered the jumper so that the rear hatch would be over the plateau when opened. Setting the autopilot to hover in place he got up and went to the rear, pulling a hundred-foot coil of rope and other equipment from the storage nets.
"Belay down? You mean you're going to dangle out of the back of the jumper on a string?"
"A rope, McKay, a rope. And I'm not going to really be hanging from the jumper. I have us hovering about three meters above the top of the hill. I'm just using the rope for security, in case I slip or the hatch decides to open on its own." Sheppard finished tightening the straps on the climbing harness and threading the rope, finally running the end through a ring welded to the inside of the jumper next to the opening. When the marines had requested the ring be installed so that they could practice rappelling, he had never thought he'd be using it himself. "I'm just going to play out enough rope so that I can walk around the perimeter. The ledge's a good half-meter wide, plenty of space to walk on. It'll be easy."
He hit the ramp release and moved to stand at its edge.
McKay came and peered out of the back of the jumper. "That ledge doesn't look very stable," he said skeptically, adding with a shudder, "Better you than me."
"Thanks for the support," Sheppard said dryly, pulling on gloves. "Which reminds me: contact Marya and Nela and let them know where we are and what we're doing."
He lowered himself gingerly over the edge of the ramp, not wanting to land too heavily on the grass surrounding the hatch. Over the hum of the jumper's drives he heard McKay speaking to the search HQ, but tuned it out as he concentrated on playing out some line and carefully stepping around the perimeter.
He had reached a point almost exactly opposite the jumper when he noticed a slight change in the way the metal of the cover met the sides of the hatch. It wasn't much, but he thought that was probably where the hinges were. Playing out a little more line, he knelt carefully and leaned forward. He placed a hand on the sun-warmed metal and pushed while thinking open. Nothing. He leaned a little further forward and put a bit more weight behind it. Still nothing. Standing up, he continued around the boundary.
"What have you found?" McKay called, standing well back from the ramp opening, with a white-knuckled grip on one of the cargo nets.
Smiling as he looked up, Sheppard said, "I know you have infinite confidence in Ancient technology, McKay, but I think I would feel more comfortable if you were actually sitting in the pilot's – "
The ground suddenly crumbled under his foot, sending him staggering backward. His hand tightened around the belayer, but because he had not shortened the line as he walked back toward the jumper he still ended up on his back on top of the cover.
"Sheppard! Are you okay? Oh, my god, I knew this was going to happen." McKay leaned forward, trying to see over the edge of the ramp without releasing his death grip on the netting. "Sheppard!"
"I'm fine, calm down," Sheppard yelled as he sat up. He rubbed at the small of his back where he had landed on his canteen. "A section of the ground cover gave way. Nothing catastrophic."
"I told you it didn't look safe," McKay said angrily to disguise the flood of relief he felt.
"Yes, Rodney, once again your omniscience is proven."
Sheppard stood up and took a step toward the jumper.
A loud creaking noise sounded behind him.
Idiot, he chastised himself.
The hatch cover dropped open under his feet and sent him plunging down the shaft.
He jerked to a halt before he had fallen more than ten meters. His spine bent at a painful angle and the harness pinched some body parts he'd prefer not to have pinched. Muttering curses he swung his arm up and caught the rope again, pulling himself into a more vertical position. He checked to be sure the belayer was still firmly locked, and stuck out a foot to brace himself against the side of the shaft and stop the mad twirling. Finally reasonably still, he looked up to shout for McKay but found he didn't need to.
The scientist was laying on his belly on the jumper ramp, a horrified expression on his face.
McKay didn't say anything for a few moments but finally whispered, as if to himself, "Twice in less than two minutes. Twice. I don't know if my heart can take this."
"Yeah, I'm really sorry I'm... Crap!"
The hatch abruptly slammed closed. Sheppard was jerked up and slammed against the wall of the shaft, his face connecting painfully with the cool metal. He was pressed against the wall for a moment.
Then he fell.
He landed awkwardly, sharp pain radiating out from his ankles and knees and then began sliding down a steep incline. He tried to slow his skid, thrusting out his arms and legs, but only succeeded in flipping over onto his belly. Before he could turn over again the shaft disappeared and he dropped. It didn't feel far, but it was enough to knock the wind out of him when he hit the floor.
He lay there gasping. Then, somewhere out in the pitch-black surroundings, he heard movement, a rustling noise. He jerked up into a sitting position and his hand dropped to his 9mm before he remembered the reason he had been exploring the shaft.
"Jinto? Wex?" he managed to wheeze out.
There was a sob, quickly cut off, before a quivering voice said, "See, I told you the Colonel would find us."
And then two shaking young boys were pressed up against him.
McKay lay gaping at the closed hatch while small sounds of distress escaped him. The shortened rope waved gently in the breeze above the hatch. He looked from it to the hatch and back again.
This continued for nearly a minute before his face suddenly screwed up into a scowl. "Dammit, didn't I warn him? Didn't I? Why does no one ever listen to me? Do they think I talk just to hear myself?" His left hand came up and keyed his mike. "Sheppard!" he snapped, starting to scoot backward without getting off his stomach. "Colonel, can you hear me?"
When he managed to wiggle back inside the jumper, he got to his feet and hurried into the cockpit area. Grabbing his tablet, he pulled up the jumper's communications systems and boosted the power. "Colonel Sheppard, please respond," he tried again, irritation and worry making his voice harsh. He listened hopefully for a moment, but heard nothing. He had boosted the power as far as the system would allow. He swallowed nervously and tried again. "Sheppard, are you okay?"
There was a moment more of silence and then he heard, faintly, "... 'kay... hear me?"
Relief flowed through him. His knees buckled and he plopped down in the co-pilot's seat. "Yes, I can hear you, but it's very faint. Did you say you are okay?"
"Yes... fine," Sheppard said. Although his voice was still faint, it sounded as if he was trying to speak very loudly. "Jinto and Wex are... me. ... -ken arm. Other... hungry and thirsty... okay."
"Will you be all right while I go get help to get you out of there?"
"Okay. I'll be back as soon as possible." He chewed his lip for a moment, then warned, "Try not to touch anything. We don't know what that facility was for. There had to be a reason they put it here on the mainland instead of in the City."
"... lights came on by themselves," Sheppard informed him. "... dim."
"It's probably an automatic reaction to the presence of your ATA gene. Just don't touch anything," McKay said impatiently. He got up and moved to the pilot's chair. "I'm leaving now. Remember: don't – "
" – touch anything... know, " Sheppard said obediently.
"All right. McKay out."
He sent the command to have the ramp close. The fresh breeze and natural light had disappeared from the back of the jumper when the Ancient equivalent of the door is ajar appeared on the HUD. Rolling his eyes, he ordered the ramp back open then trotted to the rear of the craft and pulled the rope inside.
Back in the pilot's seat he turned off the autopilot and headed back toward the search headquarters. He set the communications system so that everyone with radios could hear him and announced, "This is McKay. We've located the boys, but need help extricating them from where they are. I need Ronon and Teyla to meet me back at the staging point as soon as possible."
The comm system immediately overloaded when everyone holding a radio tried to speak at once. Finally, Halling's voice broke into the clear, "Are Jinto and Wex well?"
"Sheppard said one of the boys had hurt his arm, but other than that they were fine. Ronon, how quickly can you be back at the point where we dropped you off earlier?"
"Ten minutes," was the terse reply.
"Okay, I'll be waiting for you. Any other search teams who get there can have a ride back across the river, but I'm not waiting. The clearing is on the east side of the river two kilometers downstream from the staging point."
"Dr. McKay, Halling and I will be waiting with Marya and Nela," Teyla reported in.
"Gotcha," he replied.
A few minutes later he set down in the clearing. After ordering the ramp open he went back to check the supplies Sheppard had packed earlier. Among the camping and survival gear, the climbing equipment and emergency medical kit, he found a container with a block of C4 and a detonator. He thought for a few moments then switched the comm to the channel monitored by Atlantis. "Atlantis, this is McKay. Put me through to Dr. Weir."
There was a brief pause, and then he heard, "Rodney, have you found the boys?"
"Yes, yes, yes," he said impatiently. "They managed to get themselves stuck in some sort of underground Ancient facility and now Sheppard's down there with them. I'm – "
"Sheppard is with them? Are they all right?" Weir asked
"I was getting to that. The comms are iffy. But Sheppard said the boys were okay except one of them had an injured arm." McKay paced up and down the aisle as he spoke, right hand tucked behind his back as his left gestured. "Sheppard packed some C4 – god knows what he was anticipating using it on – but I'd prefer to try something less drastic to open the doorway first. Can you send a jumper with two plasma torches and people who know how to use them? Preferably people who won't mind hanging from a rope while they do it."
"Hanging from a rope? What is going on, Rodney?"
"The entrance to the shaft that Sheppard and the boys went down is at the top of a very steep hill and has what appears to be a pressure sensitive hatch at the top. There's nowhere to land the jumper. I thought about trying to wedge the hatch open, but when that thing slammed shut with Sheppard inside it snapped his rope like it was sewing thread. I don't think we want to chance that happening to anyone else, so I want to remove the hatch. Whoever works with the torch is going to have to do it while hanging from the jumper. How soon before they can get to the search HQ?"
"All right, hold on a moment while I get this coordinated," Weir said.
While he waited and paced, Ronon and Beyra, along with two other Athosians he didn't recognize, came trotting up to the jumper. The Athosians settled themselves on the bench seats and pulled out their waterskins. Ronon stalked up the aisle, herding McKay in front of him into the cockpit.
"What happened?" he asked, pulling off his pack and tossing it onto one of the passenger seats.
"What always happens," McKay snapped back, refusing to be intimidated by the larger man. "The unexpected. Although it could have been expected if someone had bothered to stop and consider the possibilities, but when has that ever slowed the Colonel down? And he probably would have done the same damned thing even after considering all the potential disasters."
He threw himself into the pilot's seat and sent the command to close the ramp. Hearing shouting, he glanced back and saw four more Athosians sprinting into the clearing. He stopped the ramp and yelled, "Well, hurry up! We don't have all day. Everyone sit down. I'm not the best pilot and I don't want a lot of bodies bouncing around if something happens."
They were back up in the air and heading toward the staging area before Weir came back on the comm.
"Still here," he said impatiently. "Are they on the way?"
"They'll be leaving within five minutes," Weir promised calmly, unfazed by his anger. "Major Lorne is flying and has four marines who can use the equipment. There's a corpsman with them. Is there any thing else they should be bringing?"
"Nothing that I can think of right now. Just tell them to hurry."
"Rodney, I thought you said that they were fine except for needing help to get out of whatever sort of structure they are in. Is there something you haven't told me?" she asked, starting to sound suspicious.
"No... no," he said, his hands clenching and flexing around the jumper controls, a habit which Sheppard had tried to break. The jumper, responding to the changing pressure, weaved from side to side. A growled warning from Ronon made him jump nervously and straighten out his flight path. "I don't know anything specific. I just keep thinking of Sheppard and his gene and unknown Ancient technology. And a couple of kids."
"Understood," Weir said, sounding amused now. "I'm sure everything will be all right, Rodney. Be sure to get me hourly reports. Weir out."
"She's certainly optimistic," he commented to Ronon. "You'd think she hasn't read our mission reports."
Ronon grunted noncommittally. "You still haven't said what happened to Sheppard."
McKay scowled ferociously at the innocent scenery. "Sheppard, being Sheppard. If you want details you'll have to wait until we're all together. I don't want to keep repeating myself. Oh, thank god, there's the staging area." He looked harder as they got closer to the landing area but it did not appear to be growing any larger. "Oh, crap."
It really wasn't a large clearing, but Sheppard had had no trouble with the landing. "I can do this," he muttered, hands unconsciously tightening on the controls and sending the jumper into a hard sideslip to port.
"I've got it! I've got it!" He lined the jumper back up and inched toward the clearing again. McKay had to 'back and fill' a half dozen times before the jumper touched the ground. He was pleased with the final result; a couple of branches weren't going to cause significant damage to the hull. And he was pretty sure there was still enough space for Lorne to land the second jumper.
Ronon immediately got to his feet and slapped the scientist on the back, declaring "Good one, Doc." He grabbed his gear and left the jumper as soon as the ramp was down far enough for him to squeeze through, the Athosians hot on his heels.
McKay worked up a sneer for his fleeing passengers. Once he was alone he slumped in his seat and concentrated on peeling his cramped hands off of the controls. He had always thought that learning to fly would be an easy accomplishment, an interesting – though minor – addition to the numerous milestones in his life. Now, he truly envied Sheppard his easy skill with the Ancient craft.
He stood and rubbed his damp palms on his thighs. After disconnecting the tablet from the jumper's systems, he followed Ronon.
Sheppard felt awkward as he patted the boys on the back. There didn't seem to be any crying involved yet, and he hoped it didn't come to that. "Are you guys all right? Your parents are going to be real happy to know we found you," he said. He freed one hand to get the flashlight from his vest. Before he could get it turned on he noticed that the blackness was lightening. The relative paleness of the boys' faces was starting to stand out in the darkness.
"Wex has broken his arm, Colonel," Jinto offered, sitting up and rubbing at his nose while sniffing. He looked around curiously. "Why are the lights coming on? They have not done so before."
"You've heard people talk about the Ancestors' gene?" Sheppard asked. He pulled off his gloves and stuffed them into a pocket. When the boys nodded, he continued, "When we first came to Atlantis this happened, too – the lights coming on. Dr. McKay thinks it recognized that some of us have the gene and started to turn on the lights and other things, like it was welcoming us. I think that's what's happening here. Hold on a second." He reached up and keyed his mike. "McKay, can you hear me? McKay?"
There was no reply. Not wanting to alarm the boys he did not keep trying, confident that McKay would find a way to communicate with him. "He's probably busy," he said, smiling at the boys.
As he spoke, the lights continued to brighten. It did not get past a dusky twilight, but it was enough to see his surroundings. He looked over the boys, taking in the dirt and scratches and the torn clothing. They had rigged up a sling and strapped Wex's right arm to his chest.
"How does your arm feel, Wex? Does it hurt much?" He reached over and gently removed the sling. The boy's forearm was bruised and swollen, but it didn't look as if the bones were grossly displaced. The fingers felt as if they were a normal temperature.
"It aches some, but not as much as before," Wex said, grimacing slightly when he wiggled the fingers.
"Well, don't keep moving your fingers. That'll make it hurt." Sheppard helped Wex get the sling situated again. He got the small first aid kit out of his vest and opened a packet with two ibuprofen tablets. "Here, swallow these. They'll help stop it from hurting so much until Dr. Beckett can look at it."
He pulled the canteen off his belt and offered it to the boys, who took it eagerly. As he was digging out a couple of powerbars he finally heard the sound he was expecting.
"-pard ...okay?" With a burst of static and sounding far away, McKay's voice crackled over the comm.
Flashing a smile and a thumbs-up at the boys, Sheppard replied, "We're okay. Can you hear me?"
"Yes ...you, but it's ...faint. Did ...you're okay?"
"Yes, we're fine for now." He found himself speaking very loudly, although he knew it wouldn't help the transmission. "Jinto and Wex are with me. Wex has a broken arm. Other than that, and being hungry and thirsty, they seem to be okay."
"Will you be ...right while I ...get help to get you out of there?"
"Yes, we'll be fine for awhile."
"... back as soon as possible." McKay's voice took on a warning tone. "...not to touch anything. We don't know ...facility was for. There had ... a reason they put it here on the mainland instead of ...City."
Sheppard had been wondering about that himself. "Understood. I seem to have triggered a powering-up protocol. The lights came on by themselves," Sheppard informed him. "Although they're pretty dim."
"It's probably an automatic ... ATA gene. Just don't touch anything," McKay said, starting to sound a little impatient. "...leaving now. Remember... "
" Don't touch anything, I know, " Sheppard said with humorous obedience. He looked over at the boys as McKay signed off and rolled his eyes with a smile. "Dr. McKay can be a fussy old woman sometimes. Uhm, don't tell him I said that, okay guys?"
The boys just giggled as they finished their powerbars.
"It looks like you two have done a good job of taking care of each other. Have you been in the dark the whole time?"
"No, sir," Jinto piped up, "I did not lose my fire-starter when we fell in the river, so we could make fires. But there was not much to burn down here."
Sheppard nodded and looked around the room they had landed in. It was long and narrow, featureless except for one console at the far end next to a doorway and, on this end, the dark hole of the chute high up on the wall. Under the opening was a pile of dirt and debris, some dried grasses and what looked like small animal bones. Off to one side the boys had used some of the dirt to build a little pit to make their fire in. Now there was only a small pile of ash in it.
"Have you had a chance to do any exploring?"
"We did not go much past the door," Wex said, nodding toward the other end of the room. "We had nothing to make a torch with, so..." he shrugged.
"Well, we have some time before Dr. McKay gets back with help. And we have some light, even if it is still a bit gloomy. Let's go see what we can see, shall we?" Sheppard smiled as the boys eagerly jumped to their feet. He got himself off the floor too, wincing as all the sore spots made themselves felt. He took a minute to unfasten the rappelling harness. "Okay, off we go. And remember – don't touch anything!"
That earned him another round of laughter from the boys as they started out. He stopped and grabbed a couple of small pieces of charcoal from the boys' fire-pit and used them to make an 'X' on the corridor wall next to their door. The view was the same in both directions so he mentally flipped a coin and turned to the right.
At first glance, it was very similar to the Atlantis architecture: a wide corridor, tall ceilings and the same style of light fixtures they had found in the City, the Aurora and the Orion. But there didn't seem to be any of the decorative touches, the walls were almost completely smooth. And there were none of the glass walls or stained-glass windows used so frequently in the main parts of the City. This place looked more like the facilities in the lower levels where the star-drive was located, along with the more mundane desalinization tanks and waste-recycling equipment.
"So, guys, the searchers found the place where someone fell into the river," he said, smiling at the suddenly worried look on both boys faces. "What happened?"
Wex mumbled something.
"We were running – " Jinto began.
"Playing," offered Wex.
" – playing tag," Jinto agreed, smiling as he remembered the fun of sneaking up behind his friend and slapping him with one of the fish they had caught. Wex really hated the feel of fish. "And sort of wrestling. And we slipped and fell in."
"We lost all of our fish."
"Yes. By the time we managed to climb out, we were far down the river, and on the wrong bank. And it was almost dark. So, we made a fire and ate."
"We had some crall jerky, but it was pretty wet," Wex said, screwing up his face with distaste.
Jinto nodded in agreement. "The fish would have tasted better, but it was too late to catch more. After our clothes got dry, we buried the fire and tried to sleep. But someone," he glared at Wex, "kept wanting to play."
"You wanted to play, too."
"I did not."
"You did, too. You wanted to be Sheppard, like always."
"You – "
"Hey, guys!" Sheppard interrupted, fighting back a smile. They played a game where he was a character? He was amazed at how flattered he felt about that. "Let's just say you both got up to play. What happened then? How did you end up down here?"
"Jinto got us lost."
"I did not!"
"We got lost in the dark," Jinto said reluctantly. "It was too cloudy to see the stars. So we waited for the sun to come up. When we found this hill we decided to climb it to see if we could find the river or another landmark."
"It was really hard to climb," Wex piped in, adding with a giggle, "We rolled down it a couple times."
"Yes, that was fun."
The two punched each other on the arm in manly camaraderie. Sheppard marveled that some things seemed to be universal.
"When we finally got to the top we found that it was made of metal. We knew the Ancestors must have put it there," Jinto said with a shrug, accepting that the Ancestors did things for unknown reasons. "We were standing there trying to see how far we were from the river when the floor just opened up and we fell down. I fell on Wex."
"He broke my arm," Wex said. He added, with a touch of pride, "I did not yell or cry or anything."
"That is true," Jinto nodded in agreement. "It was very dark. I used my fire-starter to find some twigs and sticks to make a small fire. There was not much fuel. I used part of my shirt to make a sling for Wex and we looked around a little before the fire went out. Then we waited for someone to come find us."
"We sure were glad when you came, Colonel Sheppard. We were starting to get a little scared."
"You were scared."
"You were too."
"I was not."
"You – "
"All right!" Sheppard interrupted, grabbing Wex's hand before he could shove Jinto. "Everyone was scared: you and everyone looking for you."
They continued down the corridor in silence. Sheppard peered into rooms as they passed, finding all the doors open. The rooms were all empty. In fact, except for the ubiquitous 'hash-mark' lighting fixtures, there was nothing to see and no clues as to what this facility was for.
"Hmm? Yes, Jinto?"
"Was my father mad?" Jinto asked in a small voice.
Sheppard stopped and stared at the boy in surprise. "Of course he wasn't mad, Jinto. Halling's very worried about you. He's been out searching for you since yesterday. I don't think he's slept. I'm sure he and Wex's parents are going to be very relieved when Dr. McKay tells them we found you."
Jinto looked confused for a minute and then shook his head. "No, I did not mean about our getting lost. I meant was he mad about my tent?"
"He has not told his father that he traded for the tent after Halling told him he may not have it," Wex said with a snort.
"Ahhh." The light dawned and Sheppard had to bite back a smile. He struggled to put a stern face on. "Well, you really should have told him. But I think he'll be so happy to have you home that he'll forgive you. You might promise not to try to deceive him again."
Jinto sniffed and nodded his head. Suddenly, he threw his arms around Sheppard and burst into tears. Before Sheppard could do anything, Wex hit him from the other side, also sobbing. He stared down at the two shuddering little bodies. He had almost forgotten that they had gone through a traumatic time and were just kids; they had been acting so matter-of-factly. Patting their backs and making what he hoped were soothing noises he wished that Teyla were here. She would know how to handle this situation.
The tears finally stopped, but the boys continued to lean against him, sniffing and hiccoughing. He gave them a couple more minutes, rubbing their backs then patted them each on the shoulder. "You guys ready to do some more exploring?"
With final sniffles, the boys pushed away to stand on their own. Before he could offer them his bandana they both used their sleeves to rub tears and snot into a muddy paste on their already dirty cheeks. He had a sudden uncomfortable flashback to his mother yelling at him for not using a tissue.
The corridor split at right angles after another dozen meters. Sheppard took the right-hand fork and then stopped. The ceiling and walls had given way at some time in the past and the corridor was now filled with dirt, roots coiling in and out of the dark mass. This explained the musty quality of the air the further they had gotten from the shaft room.
The boys thought this was cool and had to be restrained from climbing the mound, even the handicapped Wex. Disappointed and muttering resentfully, they followed as Sheppard led the way down the left-hand fork. They were all disgusted when that one stopped at a blank wall after only fifty meters.
"Well, I have to say, guys, that this is the most boring place the Ancestors ever built," Sheppard said. "Except for the really cool entrance slide, of course. All right, let's try the other side of the hallway."
They had almost reached the main corridor when he felt the first tremor. It was barely perceptible through the soles of his boots. The boys stopped and looked at their feet and then up at the lt. colonel.
Sheppard smiled reassuringly. "Bet that's just the power generators complaining about having to work after all these years. But, just to be on the safe side, if you feel it happen again I want you both to run to the nearest doorway and stand there until I tell you that it's okay to move. All right?"
The boys looked curious, but nodded obediently.
As they continued their exploration of the corridor, Jinto and Wex darted in and out of the rooms they passed. They seemed to be playing a game that involved a lot of shrieking and slapping at each other as their paths crossed while running from room to room.
Sheppard pulled out his flashlight and made a more detailed examination of the walls and ceilings. In the brighter light he could see that there was damage, seams that were no longer tight and what appeared to be water damage in a few places. Suddenly exploring didn't seem like such a good idea.
"Wex! Jinto!" he called, shoving the flashlight back into his vest. He smiled as their heads appeared around separate doorjambs. He gestured for them to join him. "Come on. I think we've done enough exploring for now."
They looked disappointed, but obediently started back down the hallway.
"Why are we stopping, Colonel Sheppard?" Wex asked. "We have not seen everything along this corridor. There might be something cool," and he looked to Jinto to be sure he was using the Earth term correctly, "further along. Can we not keep going?"
"Yes, please," Jinto added pleadingly, reaching out and tugging on Sheppard's arm. "If you do not want us to play in the rooms, we can stay with you. Please."
"Sorry, guys. Dr. McKay should be back soon and I want to be where I know I can hear him on the comm. Come on."
He herded them in front of him. They were still a dozen meters from the shaft room when a low rumble started, quickly followed by a more vigorous tremor. Sheppard pushed the boys into the closest doorway and wrapped his arms around both of them, pressing them against the jamb.
A loud crack, almost an explosion, sounded in the corridor. An odd groaning, rushing noise followed and the air filled with dust. The lights flickered and died, plunging them back into blackness.
The tremors ceased. After a moment Sheppard released the boys and dug out his flashlight. "You two stay right here for a second," he ordered, and shined the light toward the area they had explored earlier.
The dust still drifting in the air obscured his view. He stepped out into the corridor and took a few steps forward before stopping and staring in amazement. The last fifty meters of that end of the passageway had collapsed. The floor, wall and ceiling now tilted downward, away from him. The seams of the ceiling panels had separated at several points and dirt was sifting through.
As he watched, one of the gaps in the seams widened. There was another cracking noise and then the panel was tumbling through the air. A rush of dirt and rocks quickly followed it.
Sheppard cursed as the panel seemed to head straight for him. Backpedaling as fast as he could, he ducked aside at the last moment, but a corner caught him on the side just below the vest. It ripped through his shirt and pants, laying open a gash across his hip. The impact spun him around and knocked him to his knees. He sprang up and sprinted toward the boys.
Jinto and Wex had stuck their heads around the jamb to watch him.
"Get back to the room!" he yelled as he stumbled toward them.
They stepped hesitantly into the corridor. When he yelled again, Jinto grabbed Wex and they began running toward Sheppard. He met them halfway and threw an arm around them both, herding them along protectively. They were almost to the room when several loud reports heralded the explosive release of more panels.
He managed to get the boys to the doorway and shove them inside just as a heavy blow caught him in the back. He was knocked to his knees and fell forward, unable to keep his balance. Over his shoulder, he saw the doorway filling with dirt and debris. He managed to crawl a few feet further into the room before his legs were covered, pinning him in place.
"All right, if everyone knows what you're supposed to be doing, let's get back to the jumpers. I want to make a couple of adjustments to Jumper Four's comm system before we take off." McKay started gathering up his equipment, fully expecting everyone to be moving to follow his instructions.
A throat was cleared. "Doctor?" Major Lorne called for his attention. "Why do you need to mess with my jumper's comm?"
"First of all, Major, I am not messing with the comm system," McKay snapped impatiently, starting the brief walk back to the jumpers. "I am going to link the two jumper's comm systems together. I'm hoping to get a clearer signal to Sheppard. I can't figure out what was causing the interference before. Maybe the Ancients were using something special in the building composite for this facility, or maybe it's something in the soil. We'll have to – "
"Fascinating, Dr. McKay," Lorne said dryly. He sighed in relief when they reached the clearing where the two jumpers were parked back-to-back, their ramps almost overlapping. "I didn't have a chance earlier to compliment you on your parking job."
"Why... why thank you, Major," McKay said, a small pleased smile appearing on his face.
"Yep. I'm just glad I don't have to explain to the Colonel where those scratches on his jumper came from."
McKay was left standing at the base of Jumper Four's ramp while the Major went to check on the transfer of some equipment to Jumper One. The smile slowly dropped from his face as he searched for a comeback, "Well... well..."
He finally settled on a scowl and stomped up the ramp, muttering to himself. A few minutes later he stomped back out and entered Jumper One. "All right, everyone to your assigned jumpers. Let's get going. I want – "
"Rodney," Teyla's quiet voice jerked him to a standstill. She was standing at the foot of the ramp with Halling and two other Athosians he didn't recognize. "Enna, Aram and Halling wish to accompany us. I said that it would be alright."
He looked at all the equipment littering the rear compartment, the two marines who would be operating it, the corpsman and Ronon and started to shake his head. "We're going to be – "
Her eyebrow shot up and she flicked her gaze from the anxious parents back to him. He gulped. "Well, maybe... maybe Lorne has some space?" he suggested.
Five minutes later they were finally back up in the air and returning to the hill. Teyla, Ronon and Halling were in the cockpit with him, the two marines and the corpsman on the bench seats in the rear. Lorne's jumper was following behind, the major having declared it less stressful than worrying about McKay tailgating.
McKay tried to concentrate only on his flying. He knew that allowing his mind to multi-task was what brought out the little quirks in his flying style. He would start to think about an upcoming mission, or a project back in his lab, and the next thing he knew the jumper would be –
"Shouting doesn't help!" He got the jumper back on course and a few moments later the Ancient hill came into view.
He drew the jumper to a stop and stared at the scene in front of them. Immediately to the east of the hill the landscape had changed drastically. What had been a dense canopy of treetops had become a jumbled mess of tree trunks and limbs stretching over an area approximately the size of a football field.
"Dr. McKay?" Lorne's voice came over the comm. "Please tell me it looked like this when you left?"
"No, no it didn't," McKay's voice was amazingly calm as he stared, appalled, at the damage. He made the necessary changes to add Sheppard's comm to the group. "Sheppard, can you read me? Colonel, please come in."
Everyone listened intently, silently encouraging a reply.
"Colonel, can – "
"McKay," Sheppard's voice interrupted the renewed call, his voice hoarse. "Get down here. Now."
Sheppard listened as the sounds of the latest quake faded away. His flashlight had spun off into the room when he was knocked down; it was still shining through the dust-filled air. By its dim glow he could see Jinto and Wex huddled together on the far side of the console table.
"Hey guys," he called out, then had to pause as muscle spasms ran up his back. He rolled his forehead against the floor, gritting his teeth, waiting for the attack to ease. When it finally ended, the tension released from his shoulder and neck muscles and his breath escaped on a sob. He lay panting, coughing a little when the dust tickled his throat.
He lifted his head again and noticed that the boys hadn't moved. "Jinto? Wex? Are you two okay?"
It took a moment but the two boys got up, helping each other off the floor and then over to the lt. colonel where they sat again. The three contemplated each other in silence, until Wex whispered in a teary voice, "I fell on my arm again. It really hurts."
"Oh, man," Sheppard said sympathetically. "I know that must hurt a lot. I'm sorry." He reached over and squeezed the kid's knee, then looked at Jinto. "Did you hurt anything, Jinto?"
The boy shook his head, but then held out his hands, palm up. "I scraped my hands, but it is not bad."
"Bet it stings though, right?"
Jinto nodded. "Are you all right, Colonel Sheppard?"
"Oh, sure," he said, trying to put as much confidence into his voice as possible, "I'll be fine. Listen, you two: I want you to go sit next to the shaft opening and wait for McKay and whoever else comes to rescue us. You can take the flashlight with you."
"Should we not get all the dirt off of you so that you can come and sit with us?"
"No, I'll be fine until the rescuers get here. I really don't want you at this end of the room, in case there are any more quakes."
"Sheppard, can you read me? Colonel, please come in."
McKay's frantic voice sounded in his comm and he looked up at the boys with a grin and pointed toward his ear. "Hey, it's Dr. McKay. Excellent. Go on over to the shaft. Don't forget the flashlight."
He waited until the boys were across the room before he keyed his mike on.
"Colonel, can – "
"McKay," Sheppard interrupted, keeping his voice low so the boys could not hear his side of the conversation. "Get down here. Now."
"Oh, thank god, you're still alive. Are you all right? Are – "
"McKay!" he interrupted impatiently. "We're okay for now. But this facility is collapsing. The room we're in is probably going with the next quake. You need to get that hatch open ASAP."
"Hold on a minute, I'm repositioning the jumper."
There was silence for a few moments. Sheppard took the time to raise his head and wave encouragingly at the boys. When McKay came back on the comm he sounded rather flustered.
"Well, that was, uh, interesting. So, Colonel. Getting the hatch open is not the problem, as you yourself proved. The problem is keeping it open. So we're going to remove it."
"Remove it how?"
"I initially thought about using the C4 you had brought, but seeing as things are a bit unstable I'm glad I rejected that idea. Lorne brought a pair of plasma torches and a couple of marines to use them. We're going to cut through the hinges. It should be open within thirty minutes."
Sheppard's breath caught as he felt a vibration come up through the floor. He waited tensely but didn't hear anything to indicate more of the facility was collapsing in on itself. He looked over at the boys, but they did not appear to have noticed.
"Try to shorten that if possible, McKay. I can still feel some shaking going on."
"Believe me, Colonel, with Halling and the other boy's parents – whose names I can't recall right now – standing over them, the grunts are getting plenty of encouragement to hurry."
"Colonel Sheppard?" Jinto called from across the room.
"You tell them I said to hurry, it's an order. Hold on, McKay. Yes, Jinto, what's up?"
"Your light is getting dim. Should I turn it off?"
"No. I have some more batteries." He tried to lift his chest far enough off the ground to reach into one of his vest pockets, but a muscle spasm had him dropping back down with a pained cry. His hands scrabbled at the dirt, jaw clenched as his waited for it to end.
"Sheppard, are you okay? Sheppard!"
It was Jinto's worried voice, more than the panicked demands from McKay that had him replying. "I'm okay, Jinto. Stay where you are." He managed to wedge a hand between his vest and the floor and wiggle the pack of batteries out of the velcro-ed pocket. He slid them across the floor toward the boys. "Here you go. Do you know how to change them?"
"Yes, sir. I have seen others do it."
"Good. Dr. McKay says we should be out of here very shortly. Your parents are in the jumpers waiting for you."
He listened to the boys' excited chatter with a smile that disappeared quickly when McKay came back on the comm.
"Okay, I waited patiently while you helped the kid. How badly are you hurt? Don't bother to deny it. We all heard you gasping in pain."
"I got hit on the back during the last collapse, probably wrenched it real good. I've had a couple muscle spasms."
He looked back nervously at the dirt filled doorway as he felt and heard another rumble. The boys fell silent. A small avalanche of dirt started down the mound holding him to the floor. He saw that a corner of the ceiling had begun to droop.
"Oh, crap. McKay! Tell them to hurry. The ceiling is starting to give way in here." He tried to keep his voice low and calm, not wanting to scare the boys. By the dim glow of the flashlight he could see them huddled together again. "Hey, Jinto, better get those batteries changed, it looks like it's about to go out. Be sure to have the new batteries ready to pop in."
The light flickered and died. There were some nervous giggles and he heard things being dropped.
"Okay. We need about ten more minutes, Colonel. Samuels has finished cutting a hole and inserted a hook so the door doesn't go tumbling down the shaft once, uh, Papa-something-Greek finishes cutting through the hinges. He says he needs ten more minutes," McKay repeated nervously. "Oh, very well. The corpsman wants to talk to you. Here."
"Chief Horner, sir. You said you were struck on the back? And you're having intermittent muscle spasms now?"
"That's correct, Chief."
"Can you move your arms and legs? Are you having any tingling or numbness?"
Sheppard winced as he heard the solid thunk of the rubber-coated flashlight hitting the ground again, accompanied by more giggles. "You guys stop playing with that flashlight before it gets broken," he yelled across the room and then stopped in shock. Oh, god, I sound like my father, he thought. He shook it off. "I'm sorry, Chief, where were we? Oh, right. No problem moving my arms, no tingling or numbness. My legs are under a big pile of dirt right now, so I can't move them. But there's no pain."
"Hmmm. How's your – "
"Wait, wait, wait," McKay interrupted. "What do you mean you're buried under a pile of dirt? When did this happen? And when were you going to mention it?"
Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Sorry, I kept getting distracted. The ceiling in the hallway collapsed as we were running back to this room. I didn't get out of the way fast enough. I meant to tell you that someone is going to have to come down and do a fast excavation to get me out."
The flashlight flared back to life at that moment. It was closely followed by a clanging noise emerging from the shaft, along with a wash of light. Over the sound of the boys' happy screams he could hear McKay's relieved exclamation.
"Yes! Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon will be down there in one minute."
He dropped his head back down on the ground with a smile, listening to the boys' crazy antics as they danced in and out of the beam of light coming from the shaft. "Guys, don't play in front of the opening. People are going to be coming out of it in a minute." It was less than a minute before he saw rope ends dangling from the shaft opening, followed quickly by the forms of Teyla and Ronon.
The boys swarmed the two newcomers.
Sheppard let it go on for a few seconds then cleared his throat loudly. "I think your parents will be even happier to see you. Go ahead and get them topside, Teyla, Ronon," he ordered. As he felt another round of vibrations start up, he added, "Hurry!"
The two team members worked quickly to get the boys into harnesses. A little over a minute later the boys waved to him as first Wex, and then Jinto were hauled up the shaft. Ronon and Teyla immediately approached him, producing camp shovels and attacking the mound of dirt covering his legs.
"Hey guys, good to see you."
"It is good to see you also, Colonel," Teyla said, polite as ever, as she tossed dirt to one side.
Ronon simply grunted and shoveled faster as the ground trembled again and the walls creaked.
"Yes, yes, we're all happy to see each other," McKay's voice sounded impatiently in all their comms. "Let's just get the colonel dug out before we get all touchy-feely, shall we?"
"Calm down, Rodney," Sheppard said, amused. "Amazingly, they can shovel and talk at the same time. It's called multi-tasking, something you claim to excel at."
Another figure momentarily blocked out the light from the shaft. As tall as Ronon, this man was more heavily muscled.
"Chief Horner, I presume?" Sheppard asked, recognizing the former SEAL.
"Yes, sir," was the cheerful reply. "Be with you in just a sec."
A large kit and the pieces of a rescue stretcher made their appearance in the shaft. Horner grabbed his equipment and trotted over to the excavation. He crouched next to his commanding officer and started checking vitals while watching the dirt fly to either side.
"Can't this wait until we're topside?" Sheppard muttered, flinching when a miscalculated toss had dirt flying into his face. "Hey, watch where you're shoveling that, Ronon."
"Have to wait for Ronon and Teyla to finish digging you out, so we might as well get this taken care of, Colonel," Horner said matter-of-factly, packing his blood pressure cuff back in his kit and pulling out a cervical collar. "Did you hit your head at all?"
"No. Is that really necessary? It's going to make it difficult to climb out of here," Sheppard said grumpily as he was strapped into the collar.
The corpsman rolled up a hand towel and slid it under Sheppard's forehead to keep his face up off the ground as his view narrowed to the floor under his nose.
"Shut up, McKay."
"'Fraid you're going up as a passenger, sir," Horner said, amused by the byplay. "I know you've been moving your head and neck. This is just a precaution in the case of possible spinal injuries. I'm going to be strapping you to a backboard before we get you into the stretcher, too. Can you feel this?"
"Feel what?" Sheppard answered before he thought about what he was being asked. His breath caught, and all the background noise stopped.
"How about this, sir?"
Sheppard blinked hard, staring at the floor. "No," he said quietly.
"What? What's going on?" McKay asked, a touch of panic creeping back into his voice.
No one answered and he did not repeat the demand for information.
Sheppard felt a hand squeezing his shoulder.
"Don't worry about it right now, sir. It can be a lot of things," Horner said calmly. "Let's get you turned."
Sheppard did his best to cooperate, which in this case meant doing nothing as the corpsman got Ronon's and Teyla's help in getting him turned over and laid out on the backboard.
"That's a nasty looking gash on your side, Colonel. Hmm. It's stopped bleeding. I'm just going to put a couple layers of gauze on it until we get up to the jumpers."
He tried to clear his mind, to think only of what was immediately happening. But the reality, the loss of feeling, the paralysis kept screaming through his mind.
He stared up at the dark ceiling – I can't move my legs – answering in monosyllables when spoken to.
He didn't react when another minor quake occurred and Horner crouched over him to protect him from falling debris. I'm paralyzed.
The trip back up the shaft was an exercise in terror. Strapped into the rescue stretcher, unable to move, he was not even able to put out a hand to keep from banging against the wall. The stretcher finally emerged into the open air. He was tipped from vertical back to horizontal and then the familiar walls of the jumper were around him. The stretcher was laid on the floor and he watched as people wandered in and out of his view. My legs. McKay. Corporal Hanks. Sergeant Dimopolous. They all spoke to him and he must have answered, because they gave relieved smiles before disappearing from his periphery.
Jinto and Wex, each still being clutched in relieved parental arms, stared at him worriedly. He made a special effort to smile and make a joke about worrywarts that had them giggling. I'm paralyzed.
And then Horner was there, kneeling at his side and wielding an IV needle. "I'm just starting this up as a precaution. Just a little prick. I'm going to look at your side again now."
Sheppard rolled his eyes around. He hadn't seen... "Teyla? Ronon?"
"They're in Major Lorne's jumper, sir. It's a little crowded in here."
"Okay," he whispered. As he spoke he felt a change in the jumper's drives and realized that they were moving. His eyes slammed shut and his breath caught in a pained gasp. I can't fly. They won't let me fly.
"Sir, are you in pain?" Horner asked.
Sheppard opened his eyes, seeing the corpsman's concerned face above him. Wex and Jinto were in the background, perched on the bench seat across from his stretcher. He forced a smile and said, "No, I'm fine."
Horner looked at him skeptically, but didn't argue.
He closed his eyes again, shutting out distractions, and thought I will walk, I will walk, I will walk.
The sound of the engines changed again and he knew they had reached home. The jumper landed with the barest of bumps and the ramp lowered.
"Well, it was a pleasure being your EMT, sir," Horner joked, stuffing the last of his equipment back into his kit. "You weren't nearly as impossible to work with as I had been led to believe."
Sheppard waved a hand, the only part of himself he could move. "I was a captive audience, Chief. Thank you."
Per protocol injured personnel were first off. Everyone stayed in their seats – except McKay – as Beckett's team swarmed on board. Sheppard watched as the doctor smiled at him encouragingly then turned to speak with Horner. His stretcher was lifted and placed on a gurney. I will walk. I will fly again.
He watched the lighting fixtures and other architectural points on the ceiling flash past as they traveled through the corridors of Atlantis. He heard the voices of his team following behind: McKay's hyperactive chatter, Teyla's soothing tones and Ronon's quiet rumble. It didn't matter what they were saying, it was good to know they were there. And a new, horrible thought overrode the others.
The gurney made the turn into the infirmary and came to a momentary stop.
"No, you lot need to stay back here," Beckett said, and Sheppard knew the doctor was talking to his teammates. "I need to take some x-rays and do some scans. I'll let you know as soon as he's in a bed. You should go get cleaned up, get something to eat, check on Wex and Jinto."
"In a real hospital," McKay muttered, "we'd be allowed to, uh, offer emotional support while he was having tests done."
"Not in the x-ray rooms, you wouldn't," Beckett snapped back. "I'll have you know –"
"Doc," Sheppard interrupted, "can I talk to them for a minute?"
Whether the doctor approved or not the three team members crowded around the gurney, spacing themselves so that he could see them easily.
"Is anyone else nearby?" he asked quietly.
McKay's eyes shot up to someone standing near the head of the gurney. "You there,' he snapped, "go away."
"Rodney," Teyla admonished him quietly while Ronon chuckled.
Sheppard bit back a smile. "Please tell me that wasn't Beckett?"
"No," McKay replied casually, "just some nurse. But before he comes back, what did you want?"
Sheppard looked up at them and tried to appear confident. "This isn't permanent. I'm planning to walk again."
Ronon and Teyla both nodded in agreement.
"Well, of... of course you will," McKay stuttered, suddenly looking uncomfortable but trying to be encouraging. He flashed a quick thumbs-up.
Sheppard smiled wryly. "You need to work on the pep talk, McKay." He licked suddenly dry lips. "If it's not temporary, or if they decide I need extensive rehabilitation, they're going to want to ship me to Earth. If I'm sent back, there's not a chance in hell I'll ever be able to get back to Atlantis. I don't want to go."
He looked at each member of his team in turn, making sure that they understood his determination in this. "I don't want to go."
They all nodded. No more words were needed.
The next morning McKay stood in the doorway watching as Sheppard talked to the two little boys who had started all the excitement. The lt. colonel was doped to the gills with steroids, muscle relaxants and pain meds and obviously in need of sleep. But he had insisted he wanted to talk with Jinto and Wex, who was sporting a neon orange cast, when they stopped by before returning to the mainland.
The three were having an uproarious conversation, frequently breaking into laughter, with much poking and shoving between the two boys. McKay shuddered, happy that he had not been the one to fall down the shaft if that was what Sheppard had been subjected to while awaiting rescue.
He heard someone stop beside him and looked over to see Elizabeth Weir.
"He looks more relaxed than he did earlier," she murmured quietly. "I don't think I have ever seen him so worried about just himself before."
Jinto and Wex suddenly threw themselves on Sheppard, as well as they could without actually climbing onto the bed.
"Those two are going to pop the stitches in his side if they're not careful," McKay said, having to restrain himself from going in and pulling the kids off. The fingers of his left hand rubbed together nervously as he watched Sheppard patting the boys on the back. He looked over at Weir. "He's still worried. Spinal cord bruising that may or may not resolve itself favorably. Possible full or partial paralysis, both of which could end his military career and keep him from flying again – or at least keep him from flying the craft he wants to fly. But what he is most worried about, Elizabeth, is that you and Carson will decide he has to go back to Earth for rehab."
He watched her face closely as he spoke and could tell that this was something that had already been discussed.
"You know if he gets invalided back to Earth, they'll never let him come back to Atlantis."
"Nonsense," Weir protested, crossing her arms defensively. "He's the ranking military officer here."
"They'll replace him in a flash."
"I've already made it perfectly clear to the SGC that I – "
"Yeah, after you shoved him down their throats last time they're not going to give you a chance to do it again. There'll be a replacement on the next Daedalus flight out." McKay leaned toward her, his hands gesturing emphatically. "Don't send him to Earth."
Jinto and Wex were calling final 'good-byes' as their parents escorted them out of the room. Sheppard returned the wave cheerily then relaxed back on his pillow and closed his eyes.
Weir shook her head. "I would never force him – "
"Yes, you would," McKay interrupted. "If you think it's the best thing for him, then you'll send him to Earth. But what you don't realize, Elizabeth, is that it'll never be the best thing for him."
He paused, trying to decide if he should tell her. He took a deep breath and looked her in the eye. "Before any tests had been done, before there was a prognosis, Sheppard told us he didn't want to go to Earth." Weir opened her mouth to reply, but he held up a restraining hand. "Teyla and Ronon are already working on a plan to, uhm, hide him if necessary. I'm going to help them. I just thought it was something you might want to consider."
He shoved away from the jamb. "Now I'm going to check on that damned ice blanket he's laying on. He hates it, and he never lets us know when it's warm. But Carson says he needs it to help the bruising and swelling, so... "
Weir stood with arms wrapped tightly across her chest, lower lip caught firmly between her teeth. For several minutes she simply watched the comfortable interplay between the two men, the irritable arrogance of McKay and the brash humor of Sheppard. Then she turned to go find Beckett and discuss alternatives.
Two weeks later
"Faster, Ronon! I thought you were a Runner. Do you want to bring the wrath of Nurse Ratchet down on our heads?" McKay panted as he led the sprint down the corridor.
"This thing'll only go so fast," Ronon growled as he wrestled the recalcitrant wheelchair around a corner. It's passenger let loose an excited "Whoops!" as the chair momentarily tipped up on just the left-side wheels and then he laughed maniacally.
"Quiet!" McKay snapped. "Trying to not be discovered, remember? Oh, crap. Hide!"
He slapped a hand on the nearest door controls and they all crowded inside. It turned out to be a small room that the maintenance staff had appropriated to store cleaning equipment and supplies.
"This is a lot of fun so far," Sheppard commented with a laugh. He rearranged the contents of the duffle bag sitting on his lap, trying to decide what they were by touch. "I can't wait to see what the main show is."
"I can't believe I let you talk me into doing this. Carson is going to make me pay, I just know it." McKay flicked a fulminating glare over his shoulder then pressed his eye back to the small crack between the door and the jamb. "Jeez, is there a parade we weren't told about?"
Sheppard was happy to be out of the infirmary. He was always restless when confined there, but it seemed to be so much worse this time. Intellectually, he knew it was because of the uncertainty hanging over his head. But knowing the reason doesn't always help resolve the problem.
Fifteen days. Fifteen long, heart-numbing days. Beckett and Weir had come to him the day after the injury occurred. They told him they would not insist on sending him to Earth for rehab only if the paralysis resolved itself and if he cooperated fully with the therapy regime Beckett worked out. He had agreed, of course.
He did not tell them that he had no intention of returning to Earth even if he remained paralyzed.
And so far there had been no change. Fifteen days without voluntary movement of his legs. The stitches had been removed from his hand and his hip. The bruises on his back were fading, the swelling was nearly gone. And he still couldn't wiggle his toes.
And he was bored. So he had talked McKay into a prison break.
"All right, it looks clear," McKay said, looking around. "It's just thirty more meters to the transport chamber. If we can get there without being seen, we should be home free."
"Less talk, more movement," Ronon said, rolling the wheelchair back and forth as if revving it's engines.
"Okay, here we go!"
The door slid open and they were racing down the corridor. They reached the transporter and piled inside, slowed down only momentarily when they had to lift the chair over the threshold. McKay slapped at a location on the wall map and the doors closed.
Their final destination was over a kilometer away once they exited the transporter. They were quiet for a short distance. McKay finally broke the comfortable silence.
"Oh! Did you hear that Zelenka finally tracked down a reference to that facility on the mainland?"
"No, I haven't heard any news on it. Please don't tell me that it's another viral laboratory," Sheppard begged, only half in jest.
"No, thank god, nothing deadly this time," McKay said, gesturing in relief. "Except for the whole collapsing on your head thing, of course. Anyway, it seems the Lanteans were expanding. That was the beginning of a new city. They had set up a small geothermal generator to power the place while the foundation was laid. But they were only able to complete a couple corridors before the war with the Wraith began. Construction was stopped and it was never restarted. Zelenka thinks it was just old age that made it collapse. It couldn't take the vibrations from the generator restarting after all this time."
They had reached a bank of stained-glass doors which opened as they approached. McKay waved an arm like a game-show hostess displaying a prize and announced, "Tah-dah!"
Sheppard stared at the view on the other side of the doors and grinned. "You've been holding out on us, McKay." He put the duffle on the ground, waved off his chauffeur and pushed himself out onto the balcony.
"Radek and I found it when we had exploration duty. We've just been waiting for the water temperature to get in a comfortable range."
This was not the usual enclosed balcony. There was a roomy flat area, enough for several blankets to be spread in the warm sun. It then sloped gradually down into the ocean, allowing waders to stroll out nearly twenty meters without getting above knee-level in the clear blue water, before it dropped off.
There was a blare of music and Sheppard looked around to see McKay fumbling with the controls of a small boombox. The mystery duffle was a deflated mound beside it and a pile of CDs. The volume lowered drastically and he recognized the Beach Boys singing about a Little Deuce Coupe. He grinned happily and rolled further into the sun, tilting his head back and enjoying the heat. It always seemed cold in the infirmary.
Teyla arrived carrying a large, covered basket. "Good morning, Colonel. It is good to see you outside of the infirmary."
He smiled in return. "It's good to be seen outside of the infirmary. What have you got there?"
"Rodney asked that I be in charge of getting the... picnic... as he needed Ronon's help with the escape."
"Oh, good, the food's here," McKay clapped his hands together as he came over to rummage in the basket. "Normally, I'd send Ronon for the food because the kitchen staff loves him. What did you bring? Did you get some of those fruit rolls?"
"No," she said removing the basket from his reach, taking it to one of the blankets and starting to unload it. "There were none to be had. I was told that they had all been eaten during breakfast," and she glanced meaningfully between McKay and Ronon.
Sheppard stretched as the warmth soaked into his shoulders. His head suddenly snapped up and looked around to where Ronon was crouched on one of the blankets.
"Hey, Ronon, let me have a knife," he said, pulling off his scrub top and exposing the fading ugly yellow and greenish bruises on his back. By the time his head emerged from the fabric a small, four-inch blade was being held out to him. "Thanks."
He grabbed the fabric covering his left knee and started cutting. A few moments later the material was pooled around his ankles. "Perfect."
McKay stared at the improvised cut-offs and sighed, "Carson really is going to kill me."
They all took a few minutes to get more comfortable. Teyla was wearing one of her sleeveless vests, but rolled up her pant legs. McKay followed suit. He also took the time to smear all of his visible skin with sunblock. He offered it to the others, but was ignored. Ronon pulled off his shirt then contemplated his leather pants, finally giving a shrug and rolling up the legs. They all removed their boots and socks.
When an offer was made to transfer Sheppard to a blanket so he could stretch out he eagerly accepted, but grimaced at the actual process. He draped an arm over Ronon's and McKay's shoulders, while they linked hands behind his back and under his knees and lifted. A moment later they lowered him gently onto the blanket. He muttered his thanks, hating this helplessness.
It was as McKay was pulling the remains of the pant legs off of Sheppard's feet that he noticed the change.
"Stop!" he yelled, holding up a hand.
"What?" Startled, McKay almost dropped the foot he was holding up while removing the stubborn material.
Sheppard pointed a shaking finger at his foot. "Pinch me."
All movement stopped.
He looked up impatiently. "Someone pinch me."
Ronon was the first to move, reaching over and squeezing the end of his right big toe.
A slow grin spread across his face as he looked up at his expectant team members. "I felt that," he whispered hoarsely.
Smiles bloomed on all of their faces. A quiet "Yes!" escaped from Ronon.
"Are you sure?" McKay asked anxiously, still holding up the foot. He pinched a small amount of skin on the back of Sheppard's calf. "Did you feel that?"
"Yeah." Sheppard closed his eyes and ran a thumbnail the length of both his thighs. He opened his eyes. "It still feels kind of numb, but I can definitely feel it."
"Can you move your feet, Colonel?" Teyla asked.
They all stared at his feet again, him hardest of all. After several seconds he blew out his breath and leaned back on his hands, determined not to be disappointed.
"Looks like not yet. But if I can feel again, then I'm going to walk again."
Everyone nodded agreement to this.
"I suppose we should cut the picnic short and take you back to Beckett so that he can check you out," McKay said reluctantly.
Sheppard looked around, taking in the company and the scenery. "No, we just got here. This can wait another hour. Let's eat. Teyla, since Ronon and McKay ate all the fruit rolls for breakfast, what were you able to squeeze out of the mess crew?"
Three hours later he was sitting up, his hands to either side of his hips and his legs stretched out in front of him. His teammates were scattered around him, kneeling or crouched, and staring intently at his feet.
"Do it again," McKay demanded, rocking impatiently on his knees.
"Jeez, Rodney, I'm starting to feel like a freak show here," Sheppard laughed.
"Just do it. Just to be sure."
"Do it, Sheppard," Ronon urged.
"Please, Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla asked, her small hand squeezing his shoulder. "Just once again?"
"Okay, last time," Sheppard said with mock reluctance.
He stared at his own feet. After a moment, first on the right and then on the left, the toes curled slightly and then relaxed.
There was a moment of silence and then a happy babble broke out. McKay hummed happily, sat back on his heels and thrust two thumbs-up into the air. Ronon shouted "Yes!" and drummed his hands on the decking. Teyla gave a peal of laughter and patted his shoulder.
The sound of a throat clearing startled them into silence. They looked up to see Beckett and Weir standing in the doorway. All tried to display at least a degree of guilt at being caught, but none lost their large grins.
"One of the conditions of your not being sent to Earth for treatment, Colonel, was that you were to show up for each and every therapy session. You are two hours late for today's hydrotherapy," Beckett said as sternly as he could while a huge smile stretched across his face. "But I think in honor of the occasion, you can skip this once. Elizabeth?"
"Yes," she agreed easily, her eyes shining happily, "I think that would be a fine idea."
"Don't stay out here too long and tire yourself, Colonel," Beckett ordered.
"I won't, I promise," Sheppard said, watching as Weir and Beckett turned and walked back inside the city. He called after them, "And thanks!"
Then looking around at his team, his friends, he repeated, "Thanks."
Summary: The team goes to the mainland to help search for some missing boys. Do things ever remain that simple? Whumpage, some h/c, and little angst.