A/N: Thanks to my betas Ashanome and Saclateri for their heroic and speedy endeavors.
The event horizon rippled as Sheppard stepped out of it. He took several steps forward, P-90 cradled loosely against his chest, and scanned the scenery in front of him.
Ahhh, Tree Planet Number 47... or is it 48? he thought with good humor. Having been stuck in Atlantis for the last couple of weeks, he was looking forward to a nice hike through the woods.
It was another heavily forested planet, at least in the immediate area of the 'gate. The stargate sat in a pasture only fifty meters at its widest at the base of two smallish mountains that dominated the horizons to the north and west. The land rose steadily, but not steeply. To the south and east dense woods filled the view.
Behind him he heard the liquid sound of his three teammates emerging from the wormhole. Teyla and Ronon immediately moved to either side and started their own scan. McKay, head bent over a pc tablet, continued a monologue that had started back in Atlantis.
" – according to Zelenka. Personally, I think he's entirely too optimistic. The energy signature the MALP picked up was too sporadic to – OOF!" Stumbling into the DHD brought the monologue to an abrupt end and blue eyes looked around in surprise. "Oh, we're here. Fine."
With the ease of long practice McKay managed to slip the tablet into the backpack, then pulled out a scanner. The stargate closed down with a soft rushing noise.
Sheppard crouched, looking at a patch of bare earth at the edge of the cleared space around the 'gate. A footprint was visible even to someone with his lack of tracking skills. "Hey, McKay, I thought the database listed this as a deserted planet. Teyla, Ronon, do either of you see any more tracks?"
McKay didn't look up from the scanner, torso twisting slowly from side-to-side as data scrolled rapidly across the tiny screen. "The database, as you know, is 10,000 years old. Someone might have moved into the neighborhood in the interim. These readings are very odd."
"That's why we're here," Sheppard reminded him, "the odd scanner readings."
Teyla came over and studied the footprint. Sheppard wondered what clues he had missed as knee-high grass was gently brushed to the side and the ground examined.
"They appear to be several days old. The grass no longer looks disturbed by the passage. I am sorry, but without knowing more about the local weather, I cannot give you a better timeline. The foot was clad in a soft-soled shoe and from the size I would say it is a man. He went in that direction," Teyla said, pointing toward the mountain in the west.
"The same mountain we're planning to climb," Sheppard said thoughtfully, squinting as he looked up the slope. "Great. Well, this will add a little spice to the walk. Let's keep a close watch out for the natives. I'd prefer that we see them before they see us. McKay! We're heading out now. Teyla, you take point."
The team started up the mountain. Teyla ranged ahead of the group. McKay, watched over by Ronon, was in the middle worrying loudly about the possibility of alien chiggers in the tall grass. Sheppard brought up the rear. He paused frequently to make a 360-degree scan of their surroundings, looking for any signs that the natives were nearby.
The climb turned out to be uneventful except for McKay's frequent complaints. After an hour of travel they came to a stream that would have to be forded and Sheppard called a brief halt.
Ronon and Teyla sat quietly, pulling out their canteens and continuing to watch the woods. McKay, red-faced with exertion, flopped to the ground and leaned back against a tree.
"Why is the unknown, possibly important, alien oddity always uphill? Why can't it be downhill for once?" was the panting complaint.
"It'll be downhill on the way home," Sheppard pointed out helpfully. He pulled the canteen off his hip and took a large swallow before offering it to McKay.
"You have a point," McKay muttered, gulping lukewarm water. "That's something to look forward to. At least the anomaly is holding steady in the direction were going."
"McKay, you do know it's not necessary to be scanning all the way there, right? Bingham and her team pinpointed the location of the anomaly when they were here day before yesterday. We've got another klick, klick and a half before we reach it."
"Well, why doesn't someone tell me these things?" McKay demanded grumpily. The scanner went back into the vest and a powerbar appeared. "If Captain Bingham and her team are familiar with the planet why aren't they the ones climbing this mountain? I'd be happy to pass on the privilege."
"You need to listen to the entire briefing, not just the parts that interest you. After Bingham and her team discovered the anomaly, they tried to find a place to land and investigate, but there is no place closer than the 'gate clearing. So they finished their survey and came on home. They were going to return yesterday, but Ronon cracked Sergeant Thomson's collarbone."
Sheppard smiled at the scowling Satedan, who growled, "It was an accident. He fell wrong."
"Yeah, that's what Thomson says, too. Anyway, since her team's short a man, and half the team on Mechich is down with that allergic reaction, I sent them to babysit the horticulturists teaching the locals about propagating fruit trees or whatever. And we came here."
"And a lovely planet it is, too," McKay said, leaning back and squirming to get comfortable against the tree. "I just don't understand why possibly-Ancient technology couldn't be hidden in plain sight, in the middle of a nice, flat field. Without any bugs, or snakes, or..." Hands flapped vaguely in the air. "Although, I really don't think it's technology. I'm not getting an actual power signature. Could be some kind of mineral or metal. But if it retains its scanner jamming abilities when refined that could prove very useful."
"Yeah, I can think of a few uses for that." Sheppard climbed to his feet. "I'm going to see if I can find a place to cross this stream without getting wet up to the knees. I'll be back within fifteen minutes."
He left Teyla and Ronon relaxed but alert and McKay starting to snore. He followed the stream uphill, looking for a place where it widened – a good indicator of decreased depth - or for some stepping-stones or maybe a felled tree to walk across.
Ten minutes later he was ready to head back downhill. He had reluctantly concluded that they were going to have to listen to McKay complain about hiking in wet boots. He was climbing up the bank from the latest rejected fording point when a movement in his peripheral vision had his head snapping to the right. The P-90 came up automatically, tracking with his head as he slowly scanned from right to left.
Movement within a dense thicket caught his attention and he took several steps forward.
There was a frantic rustling within the bushes and then a human figure burst out of it and sprinted uphill. Sheppard caught a brief glimpse of a figure with long, unkempt hair on top of a short, lean body clad in animal skins. The person held what looked like a cluster of sticks and did not look back even when Sheppard called out.
"Hey! We're just exploring. We're not here to hurt you."
He watched as the stranger disappeared into the tree cover and had to restrain himself from giving chase.
"Dammit," he muttered and keyed his mike on. "All right, guys, we are definitely not alone on this rock. I just flushed a local and they took off running. Keep your eyes peeled. I'm on my way back. Sheppard out."
When he rejoined his team a few minutes later, Teyla and Ronon were roaming the small perimeter. McKay was still seated but had the scanner out and was staring at the screen intently.
"You got extra life-signs on that thing?" Sheppard asked as he came to a halt.
"Just the one. He, she or it is moving at a fairly quick pace uphill. In fact, he – I'm going with 'he' unless you have something else to report? No? – he's heading in the same direction we – Hey!" McKay broke off in mid-sentence and made some adjustments to the scanner. Apparently this did not fix the problem because a palm was applied forcefully to the side of the device, accompanied by an impatient snort.
"Why are you beating up your favorite toy, McKay?" Sheppard came over and tried to peer at the screen, but McKay moved it out of his range.
"According to this thing, your local guy disappeared."
"Maybe he's out of range?"
"Please," McKay's eyes rolled in exasperation, "do you think I don't know how to read this thing by now? He was still within scanning distance. He reached the point where the anomaly is located and just disappeared."
"Well, what would make that happen? Do you think they have a cloak?"
"I don't have enough data yet, but I doubt it. Although... "McKay paused thoughtfully. "I'm not getting any energy readings in the area. Still, the anomaly isn't acting like your typical cloak."
"Okay," Sheppard climbed to his feet. He gathered the other team members in with a glance. "We're going to continue on to our original objective. The person I flushed acted like they were afraid of me. And he appeared fairly primitive. But we're going to be cautious. Ronon, I want you to take point. Keep your weapon on stun and don't shoot anyone unless they're threatening you. Understood?" He stared hard at the Satedan. Ronon still had a tendency to shoot first and worry about consequences later.
"I hear you, Sheppard," Ronon said, checking the setting on the blaster before shoving it back into the holster. The tall man crossed the stream in three large strides, apparently unconcerned about soaking leather pants to the knees. Teyla quickly followed.
McKay braced a hand on the ground as he prepared to rise. It was suddenly snatched back as the scientist yelled in surprise. Sheppard, sprinting forward, watched as McKay scrabbled to get away from the tree, heels digging into the spongy ground.
The others brought their weapons up and searched the ground where McKay had been sitting. After a moment they relaxed, examining the creature crouched next to the tree. It glared back at them.
"It's a frog," Ronon said and lowered the blaster.
"That's not a frog," McKay shuddered.
"A toad, then." Exasperated, Sheppard stepped to one side, exposing McKay to the creature's malevolent gaze.
The not-frog was the size of a dinner plate and covered in oily, grey-mottled skin. It began to hiss and a spiky ruff rose up around its head. Long, sharp-looking claws scratched at the ground.
McKay whimpered and backed away.
It reared up, claws waving. The large mouth opened, exposing a multitude of needle-like teeth. Without warning a blob of viscous liquid shot out. It struck McKay's leg, leaving a slimy trail as it oozed down.
The sound of Ronon's blaster echoed in the woods, almost drowning out McKay's terrified yelp. The not-frog's body struck a nearby tree and slid down the rough bark.
McKay's horrified stare took in the stained fabric. Gagging noises heralded a mad dash into the stream where agitated splashing soaked the man up to the waist.
"McKay, are you all right?" Sheppard demanded as he headed toward the water. Teyla reached the scientist just ahead of him.
"Rodney, are you injured?" Teyla grabbed McKay's hands to stop the frantic activity.
"That thing spit on me!"
"Yes, we all saw that," Sheppard said impatiently. "What we need to know is: did it injure you?"
McKay looked confused for a moment then seemed to give the question a moment of serious thought. "No. It doesn't seem to have hurt me. It's just so... so..." the expressive hands gestured as if trying to pluck the right word out of the air, "...yuck."
Ronon didn't bother to disguise a rumble of laughter. Sheppard shook his head, coughing to disguise a quick snort of amusement. He gestured for Teyla to go ahead and climb out of the water while he climbed in and herded McKay the rest of the way across.
"I don't suppose you packed another pair of pants?" Sheppard asked.
"No." McKay sighed, prepared to be miserable for the rest of the afternoon. "I have a shirt and an extra pair of socks and, uh, shorts that I packed for tomorrow." They had been planning to overnight on the planet before returning to Atlantis.
"Well, go ahead and strip and put on the dry stuff. We'll see how much water we can ring out of those pants."
A half hour later they finally resumed their hike uphill. McKay was miserably uncomfortable in the damp and incredibly wrinkled pants. Sheppard walked beside the scientist, who remained abnormally quiet except for frequent dramatic sighs. Ronon was fifty meters ahead of them, scouting the terrain. Teyla brought up the rear.
McKay had the scanner out – having thanked the god that had inspired the inventors of velcro and waterproof nylon – looking for life-signs. The screen remained clear except for the dots representing the Atlantis team.
They reached their destination within the hour. At Sheppard's signal they stopped, still within the concealment of the trees. A wall of rock, broken only by a waterfall, rose up in front of them in a rough semi-circle. The waterfall emerged from the trees that grew right up to the edge of a cliff. It cascaded over the cliff, dropping thirty meters down into a large pond that fed the stream they had crossed earlier.
"Well, McKay?" Sheppard asked. He glanced over to where the scientist was making frustrated noises.
"Give me a minute." McKay finally looked up from the scanner and waved a hand toward the waterfall. "That's where whatever is causing the scanners to go crazy is coming from. I guess it was a mistake to put on my dry shirt."
"Hold on," Sheppard said. He put up a restraining hand when McKay started toward the waterfall. "This is the area where the native disappeared, right?"
"Well, let's take a look around before bulling ahead, shall we?" Sheppard murmured, not taking his eyes from the view in front of them. "Ronon, you circle around to the right. See if you can get to the top of the cliff. I'm going to try to get closer to the falls, see if there's something behind them. We'll meet back here in twenty minutes. McKay and Teyla, I want you to stay here. Keep scanning and let me know if anything changes."
He watched as Ronon disappeared into the trees, and smiled when McKay hissed, "For God's sake, be careful." He turned and headed toward the stream.
This close to its source the water was deeper than where they had crossed earlier. There was no way to avoid getting soaked to the armpits unless he was willing to lose time backtracking. Resigned to getting wet, he unholstered his 9mm and unclipped the P-90 from his vest. They shouldn't be adversely affected by a short immersion in water, but there was no need to tempt fate.
He eased down the bank then stepped forward, dropping into waist-deep freezing water. His breath escaped with a hiss. Another step and the water was at mid-chest. He held the weapons over his head until he reached the far bank, setting them down briefly as he climbed out.
While he waited for the water to sluice off his body, he scanned the remaining distance to the waterfall. He had come this way because there appeared to be a way to walk right up to the waterfall on this side. It was rocky and uneven, but the closer he got to the fall the more a path stood out from its surroundings.
He got as close as he could without actually leaving the protection of the trees. Crouching, he studied the path and the point where it disappeared behind the cascading water.
"McKay, anything showing up on the scanner yet?"
"No, nothing," McKay reported, and then continued enthusiastically, "I need to get some soil and rock samples. This is really fascinating. I've never seen – "
"Hold that thought," Sheppard broke in. "Ronon? Anything?"
There was a brief pause then the former Runner's voice rumbled out of their comms, "No. I'm almost to the top and haven't seen any movement."
Sheppard stared out at the waterfall for a few more moments. "Okay, I'm going to break cover and move closer to the falls. Teyla, you cover me."
"Understood, Colonel," the Athosian replied quietly.
"Do you really think that's wise, Sheppard?" McKay asked nervously.
"I'd like to try and make contact. If the locals object to our collecting samples, I'd prefer to know it now."
"Just... just be careful."
"Always am," Sheppard replied cheerfully.
"Since when?" McKay snapped.
Chuckling, Sheppard stood up and walked the few meters to the edge of the tree line. When he passed the last trunk he stopped. He waited, studying the bushes and the dark shadows behind the waterfall, but there was no movement. He walked forward.
"Stop! Stop!" McKay shouted over the comms. "I've got six life-signs behind the falls and... crap! Ronon there are – "
"Sheppard, I've got movement up here," Ronon announced in a calm but intense tone. "Three – no, four natives have crawled out of a cave. They have slings and one of them has a spear."
Sheppard could see several faces glaring out at him from behind the falls. He took a step forward and raised his left hand in greeting. "Okay, let's not panic here, guys," he said to his team. Then raising his voice, he spoke to the people concealed by the waterfall, "Hi. My name is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. My team and I are here to – "
With a whisper of sound – ffft, ffft – two arrows struck him in the chest.
They impacted the Kevlar vest, but didn't penetrate it. The force of the blows, however, knocked him backwards. His heel caught on a root and he fell, rolling into the pool at the base of the waterfall.
Over his comm he heard the voices of his team. He didn't try to sort out the jumble. "Everyone fall back!" he yelled. "Teyla, McKay start back to the stargate. Now! I'll wait for Ronon and we'll be right behind you. Move!"
He kept his head below the level of the bank as he waded back toward the tree line. The occasional arrow whistled by overhead. He could hear Teyla urging McKay to start moving.
"Argh! Dammit!" The enraged bellow was heard moments before the Satedan ran out of the woods on top of the cliff and jumped from the edge to the pool below. Sheppard watched with relief as Ronon came back to the surface and started swimming strongly toward the stream entrance.
Sheppard continued to scan the cliff and the base of the waterfall, but no one else emerged from their hiding spots. He fired a few rounds, blind, into the falls. It seemed to intimidate the locals as the arrows stopped. He loosed a few more rounds toward the cliff, but it did not stop rocks from sailing over the top. Several struck Ronon on the back and another on the head, but they failed to slow the man down.
When the former Runner was only a few meters away, Sheppard decided it was time to get out of the water. He turned and grabbed hold of a tree root for leverage. He had one leg up and was reaching for a new handhold when he came face-to-face with a not-frog.
The animal was already in full defense mode, reared up on its hind legs and ruff extended as it hissed at Sheppard. Before he could duck, a heavy stream of liquid struck him in the face. It hit his nose, splashing into his eyes and mouth before he could get them closed.
He coughed and spit, dropping back into the stream and ducking under the water to wash it off. He could feel it tingling in his nasal passages and on his lips and tongue. The worst, however, was the burning that began in his eyes.
He came back to the surface still spitting, trying to get the acrid taste off of his tongue. He tried to open his eyes. Reddish light flared, sending pain pounding through his eyeballs. His eyelids slammed down.
Somewhere nearby he heard the sound of Ronon's blaster and then Teyla's P-90.
"Come on, Sheppard, let's get out of here."
He felt a hand grab the back of his vest and he slammed into the bank. Keeping his eyes closed he managed to climb up the bank. He fumbled his canteen free of his belt and took a mouthful of water. He swished it around, spat it out and then repeated the process.
"What are you doing?" Ronon asked. "We need to get out of here. I don't think they're gonna stay hidden."
"I know, I know," Sheppard ground out. The burning in his eyes was getting worse and had been joined by a stabbing, needle-like sensation. Although he knew he shouldn't, he ground the heels of his hands against his eyes, hoping the pressure would relieve some of the growing pain.
"What's wrong with your eyes?" McKay demanded
Sheppard's head turned in the direction of the voice and his eyes automatically tried to open. A harsh cry escaped him as the pain sharpened. He caught his breath, trying to control his breathing. "I thought I told you to head for the 'gate?"
"You did, but we decided to wait for you and Ronon," Teyla said calmly. He felt small, cool hands on his, pulling them away from his eyes. "What has happened to you?"
Even the soft light filtering through the canopy of leaves was too bright against his closed eyelids. He clenched his jaw and his voice was harsh, "One of McKay's not-frogs got me right in the face. It got in my eyes, nose and mouth. I've rinsed it off."
"We need to rinse your eyes."
He hesitated briefly. They needed to be moving, but if this would help him to see... "All right, but hurry," he said. "The locals can regroup and be after us any time now. We're going to be slow enough with me not seeing well."
"It will only take a moment," Teyla replied. "Ronon, you keep a watch. Rodney, see if you can find one of those animals. Dr. Beckett will wish to see one."
"Me?" McKay squeaked. "Why do I have to be the – "
"McKay," Ronon growled in warning, "just look for it. If you see it, yell and I'll come stun it for you. Don't go toward the waterfall."
"Fine, just fine," McKay mumbled, moving away. "Send the brilliant, irreplaceable scientist to capture a dangerous alien not-frog."
Sheppard was urged to sit. He felt his head being tilted back and then his lids were pried apart. He clenched every muscle in his body, fighting not to jerk his head away. The cool wash of water over first one and then the other eye provided a brief relief. The process was repeated once, twice and then a third time.
He felt Teyla move away. "Does that feel better, Colonel Sheppard?"
Muscles relaxed and his breath released raggedly. "Um, yeah, a little."
"How is your vision?"
He forced his eyelids open. He could feel tears streaming down his face as he looked around carefully. Where before the light had flared too brightly, now everything was shadowed. It got darker even as he watched. He closed his eyes again.
"Bad," he said reluctantly. "Getting worse. We need to get moving while I can still see."
McKay returned and squatted next to them. "I couldn't find one of those nasty things. If we don't see one on the way back to the 'gate we can pick up the one Ronon shot earlier. It was still intact – mostly."
"They're getting brave again." Ronon's announcement was quickly followed by the sound of the blaster discharging twice.
"Let's go," Sheppard said getting to his feet. The pain in his eyes was fading almost as quickly as it had started. And that scared him more than the pain had because his sight was failing at the same pace. "Teyla, you take point. Ronon, you're on our six."
He felt McKay at his side. He reached up and gripped the other man's shoulder and felt McKay's hand on his back. "Just a warning: I always stepped on toes in dance class," he joked.
"Ha-ha," McKay murmured. "First I'm a not-frog wrangler and now I'm a guide-dog."
"Just don't walk me into any trees, okay?"
McKay turned out to be a poor guide-dog. Being the only one who could use the scanner to keep track of life-signs proved too much of a distraction. After the first few dozen meters they managed to stop tripping each other up. But Sheppard's shoulder connected with several trees. Each time he was knocked off balance and ended up on his knees. The fourth time he fell over a root, he had to fight a desire to snap at McKay. It was more important that McKay keep an eye on the life-signs detector.
They had only gone a few hundred meters when his sight faded completely. He refused to worry about the blindness. He had every confidence that Beckett would find something that would counteract whatever the not-frog had spit at him. He concentrated on trying not to slow down his team any more than he already was. Getting them home was the most important thing.
He listened as they spoke back and forth to each other. McKay's voice was calm – for McKay – and clear while reporting the positions of hostile locals. This was usually followed by the sound of Ronon's weapon firing.
At one point he heard the blaster firing and was startled at how far away and muffled it sounded. He frowned, concerned that Ronon had fallen so far behind. Before he could say anything, Rodney pulled him to a stop.
"Are we waiting for Ronon to catch up?" he asked. As he waited for a reply he noticed how quiet the forest had gotten. And then he realized that McKay, whose shoulder was under his hand, was speaking to him. Whatever was being said was faint and oddly distorted. Okay, this might take Beckett a little longer to fix than he had first thought. He took a steadying breath. "My hearing is going. I can barely hear you," he said, praying he wasn't shouting. He raised a hand and touched his face around his nose and mouth. His tongue felt thick, as if he had gotten a massive dose of Novocain. "My face is getting numb."
After a moment he felt McKay lean in so close he could feel the man's breath on the side of his face.
"Don't worry. We're only a kilometer from the stargate."
From the tone and the gusts of breath against his ear, he could tell McKay was shouting. But he barely heard it. He nodded to show he understood.
They started moving again. There was someone on either side of him now. Judging from the looming presence, the second person was Ronon. Although he worried that there was no one actively watching their flank, he was grateful for the extra assistance. Now, whenever he tripped over a root or stuck his foot in a hole, Ronon's hand would tighten around his arm and hold him up until he got his feet situated again. They were able to make better time.
They did stop several more times, but only briefly. And once he felt a hand on the back of his neck pushing him down. He obediently dropped to the ground. So he knew that they were still being chased.
He wished that he could convince them to leave him. He was slowing them down too much. But he had taught them the lesson of 'never leave a man behind' too well.
He started to have trouble controlling his arms and legs. Finally, after another stumble, he couldn't get back to his feet. He could feel Ronon and McKay supporting him, but couldn't move his own legs to help hold his weight.
He started to think that maybe Beckett wouldn't be able to fix this. He didn't think they were going to get back to Atlantis in time.
He tried to speak. He should say something. Good-bye? Take care of each other? Thank you?
"It's been fun, guys," he said quietly. At least, he hoped it was quiet and not shouted. Had he actually said anything? He could no longer feel his face; he couldn't tell if he had spoken or not.
He did feel Ronon wrestle him into a fireman's carry. One moment he was upright, the next his body experienced an odd whirling maneuver and he was hanging upside down. The pressure of Ronon's shoulder digging into his abdomen, the difficulty breathing, the queasiness from the disorientation – he welcomed all of these sensations.
And then, one by on, they faded away.
He was left with nothing to hold onto. Nothing but his own thoughts.
Was his team safe? Had they reached the stargate? It disturbed him that he had slowed down their retreat. Anyone one of them – or all of them – could be injured or dead because of him.
He knew it worried them that he did not include himself in the 'never leave a man behind' dictate. It more than worried McKay, it actually seemed to irritate the man, Sheppard thought in amusement.
It wasn't that he wanted to be left or that he felt he wasn't worthy of being rescued. He was the commanding officer. It was his job to be the first in and the last out in any situation. His responsibility was to make sure his people were safe. If a sacrifice had to be made, he was a logical choice. He had accepted that a long time ago.
Not that he didn't expect an effort to be made if it didn't put other lives at risk – risk as in Wraith, or Genii, or arrow-shooting natives chasing them. Which was not the case now.
Surely they had reached the 'gate by now? They couldn't have been that far from it when he had fallen the last time.
Had it been minutes or hours?
If only he had paid attention to where he was placing his hand. He had known those not-frogs were around.
If only he hadn't tried to make contact with the natives. The first one he saw had run like a scared rabbit. When was he going to learn that even a rabbit would bite you if cornered?
Maybe he should have put the mission on hold as soon as it became apparent that the planet was inhabited? But that wasn't really an option. They couldn't just back off whenever they encountered a new cluster of humanity. They would never have made any of their alliances if that had been their attitude. And they had friends on many worlds, despite the jokes and rumors that floated around the City.
No, he hadn't been wrong to try to meet the people here.
Maybe if he... He threw a block in front of that thought. Maybe. If only. There was nothing to be gained from second-guessing himself now. He might have to explain his decisions to his superiors, but they had all been made based on accepted rules and practices. They would stand up to scrutiny.
Still... thoughts of what he could have done differently insisted on running through his head.
It must have been hours since he had lost all sensory perception. If they had made it through the 'gate Beckett must be working on a cure to the not-frog spit by now.
What the hell was taking so long?
He wanted to yell and throw something substantial. He wanted to get up and pace off some of this frustration. But he could do neither and that frustrated him even more.
He felt as if he had OD'd on caffeine, as if he had enough energy to run a marathon but no way to expel it. Which was odd – to be feeling – when he had no body to apply it to.
Hours must have passed by now. God, it may have been days.
He remembered seeing a movie when he was a teenager in which a man remained too long in a sensory deprivation chamber. At the time, he had thought it would be a cool experience.
There was nothing entertaining about this. He felt trapped even though there were no bars surrounding him, no rope binding him. He was trapped in his own mind.
He needed something to think about besides his present situation.
He reviewed the Mensa exam. He was surprised at the number of questions he remembered.
The operating manuals for all the aircraft he flew provided a good diversion. He remembered errors and corrections that needed to be made to them and wondered who he could contact about having it done.
He decided to write his autobiography.
His earliest memory was of standing at a screen door looking outside – he couldn't have been more than two or three – and hearing a tugboat whistle in the background. It must have been a family vacation, because he couldn't remember his father ever being posted someplace like that. He covered everything: chipped tooth on bicycle handlebars when he was six; his first kiss – so awkward; voice changing at fourteen; his first car; his first love; the first time he flew solo – the thrill and terror of every second; graduating from the Air Force Academy; every helicopter he ever flew; Afghanistan...
He stopped, not wanting to go there. Still, memories sprang out at him, unbidden.
How much longer could this go on? It felt as if days had passed.
He tried to play prime/not-prime with himself.
This had gone on too long.
He was dead. And this was Hell.
He'd always known that if there was a Heaven he'd never be allowed in.
So this was Hell.
No demons with pitchforks.
Just complete and utter nothingness. Nothing except thoughts and memories and an eternity to contemplate your sins.
He was wrong. There were his personal demons.
And they pursued him.
He recognized the too familiar smells and sounds of the infirmary. He wondered if he was actually alive and awake. Or was this just another scene in his ongoing nightmare. Was his fickle mind drumming up this image to torment him with a hope of home?
He noticed a physical discomfort. And there seemed to be a dim light glowing behind his closed eyelids.
Maybe he was awake.
He decided to see if it was so and took a breath preparatory to speaking.
He couldn't breathe.
He tried again. And failed.
This was a continuation of the dark nightmares.
He panicked. One hand reached toward his face, the other flailed out, searching for... something.
Both were caught in cool, strong hands. His eyes flew open and saw Teyla leaning over him. "Colonel, you must calm down. You have a tube in your throat to help you breathe."
He didn't understand. If there was a tube to help him breathe, why couldn't he breathe? He fought against the hands holding him.
"Ronon, come hold him while I get Carson," Teyla demanded.
And then Ronon was above him, dreadlocks falling over the saturnine face. "Good to see you awake, Sheppard. Thought you were gonna to sleep 'til tomorrow. Here's Doc."
Sheppard didn't care. He couldn't breath.
He heard Beckett telling him to try to relax. He closed his eyes to concentrate but the darkness only increased his anxiety. They flew back open and his body shook with the effort of not struggling against the choking sensation.
"Colonel, I'm going to remove the airway," Beckett said calmly. "On the count of three give me a big cough. One. Two. Three."
The sensation of the tube being tugged up his windpipe and sliding across the base of his tongue quickly turned the weak cough into gagging. Thankfully the basin that made an appearance under his chin was not needed.
Nasal cannula were slipped into place and Beckett began checking his vitals. He lay quietly as his temperature was taken, his blood pressure checked and his lungs listened to.
Maybe he was alive.
He looked at Teyla and Ronon who had retreated to the nearby visitor chairs. "Are you guys okay?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.
"Yeah, we're okay," Ronon replied despite the evidence of a forehead marred by a large bruise and a cut closed with butterfly bandages.
"He has a small cut," Teyla corrected the statement. "Other than that, we are fine."
"He is sleeping over there." Teyla indicated the far side of his bed. "He was wounded by an arrow, but Carson says he will be just fine."
He turned his head and noticed the privacy curtains had been drawn. Beyond them, he could hear the quiet huff-ing sound of McKay sleeping.
"Well, Colonel," Beckett said, tucking the stethoscope into a pocket, "I'd say you're doing very well. I'm sorry you had to experience the airway removal; I know it's an uncomfortable feeling. I had just been coming to take you off the vent when you woke up. The last blood tests show the venom is almost completely neutralized. Any remaining numbness or weakness should pass within a day or so. I'm going to keep you here in the infirmary until your blood work is clear, though. Just to be on the safe side."
Sheppard grimaced, but nodded. He glanced over at his teammates and then back to Beckett. "They're all right?"
The doctor smiled gently. "Aye, they're all fine. Some bumps and bruises. Rodney has a minor wound on his arm from an arrow. He's just sleeping off the pain medication. I'm going to discharge him in the morning. Now I'd like you to get some rest."
He stared up at Beckett in confusion. It sounded as if less than a day had passed. "How long has it been?"
"It's been less than ten hours since Ronon carried you back through the stargate," Beckett said, understanding Sheppard's confusion. "From the timeline I was able put together, you came in contact with the venom approximately two hours before that."
"Lucky I didn't have to carry you more than the last hundred meters," Ronon supplied helpfully.
"We had to put you on the vent about an hour after you got here. Shortly after that we finished producing an anti-venom, using the specimen Rodney brought back. What a charming-looking creature. You've been steadily improving since then."
"I thought it had been days... At least that long," Sheppard whispered.
Beckett looked at him with sympathy. "I know the sort of sensory deprivation you experienced will distort your sense of time. But it really was just a few hours, lad. Now, try to sleep."
"I just woke up after being trapped inside my head for what felt like days, Doc. I don't think I'm going to want to sleep anytime soon."
"I understand, Colonel. But your body has been through a pretty traumatic time of it today. I don't think you'll have much say in whether you sleep or not. But I'll help you along if need be. You need to sleep to heal." Beckett patted him on the arm and stepped away from the bed, then looked at Teyla and Ronon. "And you two – you've seen him awake. You can go sleep in your own quarters now."
They both came over to say good night to Sheppard before leaving.
"Thanks for being here when I woke up," he said. He glanced over at the privacy curtain and then up at Teyla. "Would you open that before you leave?"
"Of course, Colonel." Teyla pulled the material back toward the wall with an understanding smile. "Good dreaming. We will see you in the morning. Ronon?"
"Night, Sheppard." Ronon slapped a hand against the bed rails in a show of manly camaraderie before leaving the infirmary.
Sheppard listened to their footsteps fading in the distance. It was so quiet in the infirmary at this time of night. Too quiet.
He felt his body tugging him toward sleep, but fought it off. Taking an inventory of all the medical equipment attached to his body helped for a few minutes: IV – check; the dreaded nasal cannula forcing oxygen into his body and drying out his sinuses – check; EKG – check; chest not shaved before EKG leads applied, again – check; and finally, the ever popular catheter – check, dammit.
But he knew he was alive – even in Hell there wouldn't be catheters.
His eyes were springing back open for the third time when he heard McKay shifting around in the neighboring bed. He rolled onto his side, automatically gathering up various wires and tubes and taking them with him. He saw that McKay was awake and staring at him.
"You okay?" Sheppard asked with a yawn. "Want me to call Carson?"
McKay blinked sleepily and was slow to reply. "No. I think I'm going back to sleep." There was a long pause while they blinked at each other. "You okay?"
Sheppard thought about that seriously for a few moments. "If you had asked me that before I woke up earlier, I probably would have said 'No,' but now I think I will be. I just have to convince myself it's okay to sleep." A large yawn threatened to crack his jaw. "I think I'm getting there."
They each fell silent, waiting for sleep to come.
Sheppard's eyes refused to open, but it didn't bother him this time. "What?" he mumbled.
"Those 'final words' of yours?"
He thought hard, trying to remember. Oh. "Yeah?"
"Too much Kirk," McKay managed to say while yawning.
"Sorry?" Kirk? He didn't understand, but was too close to sleep to care.
"'s okay. We'll work on it when we're awake." McKay promised around another yawn.
Smiling, he allowed dreams to come.
Summary: The Team exploring another lovely forested planet, enjoying the flora... but the fauna? Not so much. This was written for the Sheppard_HC community at LJ, Challenge #2, my muse chose the sensory loss prompt and ran with it.