The sound was a gash of colour across Rodney's dream, an arrow fletched raggedly, arcing through the illogical logic of his subconscious. Its momentum carried him back to his bed, blinking blind in the dark, hands coming up by reflex to protect his eyes, his elbows out, warding off. It wasn't until his own arrested breathing started again that he recognized the sound as a voice, and for a moment he thought it had been his own. Then he heard it again, a three-step tone rising from gut-deep bellow to scream to shriek and then cutting off as though the pain or the terror had gone off the scale and into the silence of absolute excess. He could see in his mind's eye the mouth stretched wide and soundless.
Snapping his own jaws shut like some kind of sympathetic magic, he bit his tongue and cursed softly as he lurched out of bed and toward the door. Around him, his room started to warm with glow-worm light, Atlantis responding to his movement, casting him in benevolent gold while his heart hammer hammer hammered in his chest and his fingers fumbled numbly at the touch pad.
Ford was in the doorway when the panel slid sideways. "Bring your gear," he ordered and was already walking away, feet bare and silent on the cool tile.
"Which gear?" Rodney shouted after him. The hand bracing him on the doorframe was already aching.
"The door-opening kind," Ford called, turned the corner. He came back and pointed over his shoulder. "Major Sheppard's in trouble and we can't get to him."
Elizabeth and Teyla were already in the hallway when Rodney and Ford arrived at Sheppard's quarters, Elizabeth in pajamas with her uniform jacket thrown over them, her headset already in her ear, Teyla dressed, but with the ties of her leather vest still loose. The Marines on either side of the door were in full gear, P90s aimed at the floor. It was bright in Sheppard's room, the panels of amber glass making a mosaic on the corridor tile and wall. The pattern broke Elizabeth into pieces as she stood with folded arms, her fingers white-knuckled on her elbows. But the light was blocked down near the bottom of the door--a shadow in the shape of a body slumped on the floor, like Sheppard had been leaning on it and had sunk downward, his knees giving out when the scream stopped spearing him upward, rigid in vibrating agony. Rodney could make out Sheppard's profile. If his fingers traced the curve of it for a second as he crouched to set down his equipment case and laptop, it was only to keep his balance.
Rising, he demanded, "What's going on? I heard him screaming." He got his fingernails under the edge of the panel beside the door and pulled. Behind it, the data crystals were still clear and unstained, unscorched. Not that kind of malfunction. "What--?"
"We don't know. Teyla heard him shouting. He wouldn't unlock the door." Elizabeth's words were measured and brittle with the effort of staying that way.
Rodney fitted his radio into his ear. "Grodin, patch me into the mainframe," he ordered, and waited a second for Grodin's confirmation that the network was connected. Clipping leads onto the primary crystal, Rodney reeled up the scanner from the case by the cords. "Sheppard didn't lock the door," he said, holding the readout screen close to his eyes and then shifting a lead to the subsystems crystal. "The system initiated a localized quarantine protocol." His fingers tripping over the touchpad, zooming in through the shells of nested code, he kept his eyes on the screen, and not on the shadow against the door. "Shouldn't Beckett be here?"
"We've already recalled him," Elizabeth said, her voice so close to his ear that he flinched. "He's thirty minutes out by jumper. Med team's on its way."
As if on cue, the four-person medical team turned the corner, the Marines sweeping into Rodney's space to make way. There was a clatter of equipment cases and the snapping of clasps as they unpacked efficiently and silently on the far side of the doorway, ready to respond the second it opened. In his headset he could hear Beckett asking for an update, Elizabeth answering that they knew nothing except that the Major was unresponsive. Distantly noting that there were a lot of people watching him, Rodney shifted closer to the control panel, hunched over the readout on his scanner as though he could physically crawl deeper into the sensor logs.
His fingers freezing stiffly above the touchpad, he stared at it while his heart started to hammer in his chest again. "If this read-out is right, Sheppard will be dead by then." He forced his fingers to bend and tilted the screen so she could see it. "According to this, Atlantis sealed the room because there's a Wraith in there."
John Sheppard died when he was nine years old. The moment in his memory tastes like wet wool and something like iron, rusty at the back of the throat. It's a jagged-edged brightness over his head, and spears of light, cast down past him, all around him, silver against black, and one hand in silhouette, fingerless in a mitten. He didn't breathe the lake--his body resisted--but it found its way inside him, anyway.
Elizabeth's head snapped up and her eyes were wide when they met his. She started to say, "What?" but he could see her not-saying it, knowing better than to make him repeat himself. Instead, she asked, "How is that possible?"
"It's not," Rodney responded, already back inside the ghosted boxes of code, one after another folding open. "If the sensors picked it up here, they should have caught it the second the Wraith set foot in the city." But Atlantis was adamant. There was a Wraith in Sheppard's quarters. There was no record of it moving through the corridors, in the jumper bay, the Gateroom. The Wraith had never keyed a door control or accessed a transporter. It was just there. "It's not possible."
Beside him, the Marines moved between Elizabeth and the door, forcing her to step back to the other side of the hallway. They had their guns trained on amber glass, the ruby pinpricks of the laser sights jittering minutely in time with their heartbeats. The shadow at the bottom of the door was motionless.
"This makes no sense." Backing out a few layers, Rodney retraced his steps, narrowing in on the dataflow pertaining just to this room.
"Why wasn't there an alarm?" Teyla wondered aloud, voicing his own question.
The answer was there in a twist in the data, a red flare of contradiction in the orderly blue flow. "Okay, okay. This is it here." He tapped the screen, even though he was still hunched over it and no-one else could see--not that they could've read it, anyway. "The quarantine protocol responded to the presence of Wraith physiology in Sheppard's room, but all the other scans--and I mean *everything* from motion sensors to life signs to infra-red--come back negative. They say there's nobody in there but the major." In his peripheral vision, a laser sight wobbled as one of the marines shifted his weight a little, and the red dot was a blot at the edge of Rodney's concentration.
"So... you're saying..." He glanced over his shoulder to see Elizabeth's hands open in front of her, empty. "You're saying that Atlantis is, what? Confused?"
"Well, that's not exactly the technical term, but essentially, yes. There's a crimp in the data, two confirmations that cancel each other out."
Ford let out a grunt of frustration. "Well, is there a Wraith in there or not?" Somehow, he was in full gear too. Rodney didn't remember him leaving, or coming back.
"Do I look like the amazing Kreskin to you? I can't see through walls. Atlantis says no. And Atlantis says yes." Rodney pointed at the shadow at their feet. "Major Sheppard is unconscious and before that he was screaming. Something did that to him. That's what I know."
"Well open the door," Ford said, bringing his P90 to bear, adding another red dot to the agitation in the corner of Rodney's eye. "Open the door and we'll see for ourselves."
"I would love to, Lieutenant, but Atlantis has other ideas."
"Wait a minute. Just hold on." Holding out a hand, Elizabeth caught the beam of Ford's laser in her palm. "How can a Wraith move around the city and not be visible to the life signs sensors?"
"They don't show up as life signs when they're hibernating," Ford offered.
Rodney didn't bother to roll his eyes. "Right. So this one sleepwalked through the entire sensor net all the way to Major Sheppard's bedroom. I'd put that in the category of unlikely."
Chewing her lip, Elizabeth paced, two steps one way, until she came up against the Marines, two steps back. "Cloak," she said. "The Goa'uld have them, and they got them from the Ancients."
Rodney's fingers stilled over the touchpad. "Oh great. That's just great."
Elizabeth turned to Teyla. "Do you remember the Wraith ever using cloaking technology?"
She shook her head. "No. But they have had no reason to. They use their presence to terrorize. It is we who have wanted to hide from them."
"If there's a cloaked Wraith in there--" Elizabeth began.
"--we can't open that door, even if Atlantis would let us," Rodney finished.
"No way we can leave the major in there with a Wraith," Ford objected. "No way."
"If it gets out, it could go anywhere." Rodney took a step toward him, but stopped when the P90 rose up, not quite level with his chest, Ford's refusal playing out in an unconscious gesture of aggression.
When Rodney looked pointedly at the barrel, Ford lowered the gun again, but his obstinate expression didn't change. "Then we make sure it doesn't get out."
"How?" Elizabeth was working through the options and implications. If she'd been a general, Rodney would have called it risk assessment.
Ford's answer was confident. "The same way we took down Steve. Shock grenades to stun it, and then we grid pace the room until we trip over it. Then we shoot it. A lot."
There was a click in Rodney's earpiece as Beckett interjected from the jumper, "Shock grenades! I don't think so. If the major's condition is compromised, a shock grenade could have serious consequences. You're going to have to get him out of the room before you start throwing grenades around."
Keying her own headset, Elizabeth conceded, "Fine. We pull him out and then throw what we can at it." She looked at Ford, her mouth tight. "You have to be *sure* it doesn't get by you."
"It had better not," Rodney warned, as he turned back to the door panel, "because if it does we're going to be appetizers and everyone else is going to be lunch."
The lake was black, the ice perfectly clear under John's skates so that it was like there was nothing there at all between him and the grasses and fallen trees and the fish darting into shadows. Behind him, his strides were carved into the clean surface in interlocking arcs of white, each one made with a scraping whisper that set the ice thrumming like the taut surface of a drum. Ahead of him, the island was a mound of white with a gold fringe of broken reeds at its edge, the lone snag at the western shore leaning sideways, an outstretched arm against a robin's-egg-blue sky and bands of scudding clouds.
There was a chocolate bar in his pocket, a thermos in his backpack. He had to make it to the island and back to the cabin before his mother had the car packed and came looking for him. Then, it would be the airport and then back to the desert and no more ice for a year. So he was skating hard, bent low, each stroke long, powerful, like the speed skaters on tv. Like them, he kept one hand behind his back, the other swaying out in front of him and then around and back like he was pulling himself forward on the wind. He breathed in on the left stroke, out on the right. His throat was raw, and his scarf was sharp with frozen breath against his chin, and his hat had fallen off, and he was flying.
*Adagio*, Rodney thought, and the word looped around and around in his head like a mantra. It was smooth, rising in the middle with a gentle slope at the end, a rhythm he could use to keep his brain from racing ahead of his hands. His fingers were too slow, the interface between the Earth computer and the Ancient mainframe was practically glacial, and he pictured the Ancient dataflow on the other side of the wall, eddying, churning slowly while the information trickled through the narrow gap of the laptop's buffer. In his head, he was already three shells beyond the one unfolding on the screen, but inference wasn't enough; he needed confirmation. *Adagio*, he repeated, mostly unconsciously, while the laptop parsed the data, turned it into a readable graphic representation. Ancient logic wasn't linear, wasn't true-false, wasn't yes-no--and even three dimensional representation on a two-dimensional screen was comically inadequate. There was something lost in translation. Not for the first time, he wished he could plug the mainframe directly into his brain, and damn the *The Outer Limits* and *The Twilight Zone* and their cautionary tales.
The door frame was digging into his spine and his butt was numb, but it was the steady ruby dots on the door beside him that were the greatest distraction, even though he couldn't see them from this angle. The dots hovered right above the shadow.
Beckett was ten minutes out. Elizabeth had been banished to the control room, out of the line of fire. Teyla stood like a statue with her arms folded across her utility vest--somehow she'd managed to gear up while he was eye-ball deep in subsystems--while Ford stood still but somehow managed to be as irritating as if he were pacing. On the other side of the doorway, the med team had given up trying to get a response from Sheppard and the four of them were sitting on their heels, watching Rodney work. For his part, Rodney's feet were cold--he'd forgotten socks when he'd stepped into his boots. The data flowed like silty water. Too slow. *Adagio adagio*. Fuck.
The pressure crack came from behind him, a low *whummmm-wh-wh-wh-whummm* like some massive creature was stirring under the ice, writhing past him, sleek and fast.
John was in the middle of the lake.
On the shore, his mother was calling. Her voice was a thin blade of sound in the cold air, slicing through the huff of his breathing and finally lost in the groaning of the ice as it buckled between his feet.
He went down on his shoulder, skidded in a slow circle and came to rest on his back, panting, the thermos pressing its bruising shape between his shoulder blades. Raising his head, he looked between the toes of his skates at the gleaming water seeping up along the serpentine crack all the way back to where his mother was waving on the shore. He rolled over onto his knees, wincing a little, bit at his mitten, the wool prickly with ice crystals, pulled it off and spat it out. He wiped his eyes with the side of his fist, and then his nose on the cuff of his jacket.
Then the ice opened like toothy jaws and swallowed him whole.
Whoever the Ancient programmers were, Rodney thought, they weren't just technological geniuses; they also had a pretty damn fine grasp of human nature--or maybe Ancient nature, and that was a difference he'd have to think about someday, when there wasn't a Wraith snacking down on somebody three feet away. In any case, the programmers had designed the quarantine protocol knowing that one day there would be someone like Rodney sitting outside a locked door with a friend on the other side. They must've known that somebody very, very motivated would be trying to find any tiny wrinkle in the protocol, any place where the interlocking systems came together imperfectly, someplace where he could get his fingernails into the cracks. But the protocol was as smooth as glass, beautifully, pristinely perfect. He had to admire it. He wanted to throw the laptop against the wall.
"C'mon, Rodney, stop thinking like a human," he muttered to himself.
"I didn't know you'd started."
Sheppard's voice was thick, phlegmy. His shadow changed shape as he rolled his head on the door. Rodney was on his knees, the laptop clattering onto the tile. He laid a hand on the glass--not glass, either, but some Ancient alloy stronger than bullets--but he couldn't make out Sheppard's profile anymore.
"Beckett, he's conscious."
"That's a good sign," Beckett responded, as usual putting a shine on things. "See if you can get him to describe his condition. Ask him concrete questions."
"And the Wraith--" Elizabeth added from the control room.
His mouth suddenly dry, Rodney licked his lips. "Major, you need to tell us what's going on. Atlantis indicates that there's a Wraith in there with you. Can you confirm that?"
The shadow jerked and there was the blur of something else, maybe a hand rising, falling again; Rodney couldn't tell. After a long pause, Sheppard answered, "Well, I'd have a better chance of knowing that if you'd turn on the lights in here."
"What?" Ford said softly. Rodney grimaced at him and he turned aside and keyed his headset. Rodney heard him telling Beckett that the Major was blind.
Crouching down beside Rodney, Teyla nodded encouragement.
"Okay," Rodney said finally. "We'll work on that. In the meantime, can you... I mean, has the Wraith, if there is a Wraith, has--"
"Has it started sucking my life out? Geez, McKay, now's not the time for beating around the bush."
Rodney closed his eyes. One hand fumbled for the laptop and closed around its edge tightly. "Okay, sorry, sorry."
"The answer is maybe. I don't know. I feel kinda weird."
"Are you wounded, major?" Teyla asked, gently pushing Rodney out of the way. He sat down again with his back against the door frame and stared at the code on the laptop screen. "Is there blood?"
"I don't think so." There was another long pause. The silence was filled by Sheppard's slightly gurgling breathing, and something else, a barely audible sound like something... slithering. "Are you guys gonna open the door? 'Cause if there *is* a Wraith in here, I wouldn't mind getting the hell out of Dodge."
On Rodney's screen, a window opened up, the circle indicating Sheppard's life signs blinking regularly, if somewhat more faintly than was strictly acceptable. Beside it, for just a moment, a second circle winked on, fluttered from white to red, and disappeared.
The water didn't feel wet, and it didn't feel cold. It felt like *pain*. Like knives, razored teeth gnawing through bone and into his marrow. From beneath, the ice wasn't black but blue-white, ghosted over with bluer shadows. It wasn't smooth underneath, but rolling, an inverted landscape. John fell and fell away from it in slow motion, fell through the spears of light, silver against black. They shot past him, caged him. Over his head, the sky glowed white and wavering through the jagged hole. He stretched out his hand, black in his mitten, and it blotted out the world.
This is what it felt like to die. This is what it felt like when the water took him. When he was infiltrated. When he was standing in front of his mirror in the alcove in his room in Atlantis, and the thing had taken him like the lake opening up between his knees, black water swallowing him. He drifted deeper, unconsciousness like dreaming, like drowning. He was being frozen from the inside. His blood slowed. His mouth tasted like wet wool and ice, and the light shot past him, spearing through the darkness as he fell.
"What was that?" Beckett asked, his voice breathless in Rodney's earpiece. He was running, obviously keeping an eye on the same readout Rodney was looking at.
"I don't know. Hang on." Rodney scrolled back in time, isolated the right index and replayed the moment recorded by the life signs sensors. It was there: a second set of life signs, momentarily human, then Wraith, then gone. "Okay, that's interesting."
"I have a theory," Beckett said, his voice doubled in the radio and in Rodney's other ear as the doctor rounded the corner in full hazmat gear with his helmet under his arm.
Rodney glanced up at him and then returned to the screen. Only one circle flashed steadily on the field. "What's with hazmat?"
Kneeling in front of him and looking at the readout upside down, Beckett explained. "You said that there was no record of a Wraith moving through the city, right?"
A few feet away, Sheppard moaned.
Rodney nodded. There it was again, a flash of red and then nothing.
"Okay, so what if the Wraith physiology the city detected isn't Wraith at all, but something similar, and what if it didn't enter on its own? What if it was carried in--inside Major Sheppard?"
Rodney raised his eyes. "You mean like... what? A parasite of some kind?" He shook his head. "No, that won't work, either. The city's sensors would've picked it up."
Turning on his knee to nod at Lt. Ford, Beckett disagreed. "Not necessarily. Like the Lieutenant said, the Wraith don't show up as life signs when they're--
"--hibernating." Rodney met Ford's gaze for an instant in acknowledgment but didn't get an "I told you so" look in return like he'd expected. "So, this thing was dormant and then it woke up and--" He tapped the screen again where the second circle winked on, red, then white, then was gone. He leaned his head back on the wall as the realization hit him. "The bug. The Wraith bug. It didn't kill him because it was implanting him."
Elizabeth broke in. "So it's not a Wraith then?" Rodney was glad that she didn't sound too relieved.
Beckett's eyes went distant as he responded. "We're guessing here. But it helps to explain a few things." He tapped Rodney's screen. "But it doesn't make it any less dangerous for Major Sheppard. We have to get him out of there."
Rodney gave him his "no shit" face and went back to the business of convincing Atlantis to do what it was told.
"You know," Sheppard said from inside his room, "Maybe you guys can, I dunno, open the door?"
While he was talking, the circle on Rodney's screen dimmed and the second lit up, flaring bright red and then settling into a strong white. When Sheppard lapsed into silence again, the light went out. That slithering sound was there again, too, coiling along Rodney's nerves and making the hairs stand up on his arms.
"I'll be damned," Beckett said.
Sinking. Sinking. It was almost like flying, this slow glide into darkness. He knew he was supposed to be doing something, something with his arms, his legs, something that had to do with the light over his head, but his arms and his legs wouldn't move, were heavy and dead, and the light was in his eyes, blinding. He wanted to call out but his mouth wouldn't open. Then the circle of light was shrinking, collapsing into itself until it was just a pin prick.
And then there was noise, a rushing of sound and he was being drawn up, hauled out. A hand was twisted in the collar of his jacket. The teeth of ice dug into his legs and broke off against his jeans. The cold air scoured his skin and his eyes refused to open. He didn't know what it meant when a voice said, far away, muffled, "Don't worry, Major. We're very close. We'll have you out of there any minute now."
My mother isn't Scottish, John thought bemusedly, just before the world crashed in. Amber light, the floor hard against his shoulder blades and his tailbone, a weight on him, suffocating, a sound like serpents....
Then, he heard himself say, "It's about time."
Clawing his way out of darkness, he found the surfaces of consciousness to be slippery, and he could barely keep his head above water. There was no-one there, after all, to hold him up.
"Right, and then we get to eat," his mother said, only this time, she was more peevish than Scottish. "You made me miss breakfast, Sheppard. You so owe me."
He was freezing, cold slicing into him, running like a blade between muscle and bone, and the breath he sucked in felt like broken glass. It stuttered inside him when he gathered up enough energy to heave himself to full consciousness and finally was able to focus on the thing crouched on his chest. When it turned its eyeless face toward him and said, "C'mon, McKay. You're just pissed off because you're not the top of the food chain around here," the bottled breath burst out of him as a scream.
Rodney's arm shot up to shield his face as if the scream were some kind of explosion, while Beckett sat back on his heels and the marines took a step closer to the door, the muzzles of their P90s inches from the panels. Beside Rodney, Sheppard's shadow thrashed. He screamed again, raggedly, and threw himself against the door, twisting wildly and bouncing away so that he was no longer visible.
"Open the door, McKay," Ford demanded evenly, but his eyes were a little wild.
"I'm trying." Rodney split the screen so that he could dive through the layers of the quarantine protocol while keeping one eye on the life signs readings. He looked at Beckett. "Make him talk," he ordered.
"Just make him talk. Make him concentrate." Beckett looked toward the door and back at Rodney. With a frustrated scowl, Rodney leaned his head close to the panels and said clearly, "Why should I open this door, major?"
"What--?" Ford began, but Teyla waved him to silence.
Nothing, and then that slithering again.
"If there's something bad in there with you, I don't know if we can risk it. You're going to have to talk to me, if you want me to help you." Rodney's heart was hammering in his chest again. On the screen, one white circle pulsed evenly. "Maybe Atlantis has a point, y'know?"
"Damnit, Rodney," Sheppard said, very calmly for a man who had just been screaming his head off twenty seconds before. "Just open the door."
"Then talk to me."
"No. God," Sheppard replied, this time his voice tight, like he was speaking through clenched teeth, very much like a man who had just been screaming his head off twenty seconds before. "No talking, McKay. Just--" The words were lost in a growl of pain.
Then: "Open the door, Rodney," Sheppard told him, anger vibrating beneath the calmness now.
There, next to Sheppard's waning white circle, another flashed, red, white, red and settled on white, flickering unsteadily. Then it went out.
"Damnit," Rodney spat, his fingers flying over the keyboard. He'd found the crack in the perfect surface of the protocol, but he needed more. "I can't open it. I can't, Sheppard. I'm sorry."
"Can't or won't?" The slithering sound intensified. Sheppard's voice was insinuating, cajoling. "If you get me out of here, Rodney, I will so make it worth your while. You know what I mean, right? You won't be sorry."
Rodney flicked his gaze over the crowd in the hallway and went back to the protocol. "Can't do it."
"Rodney, please," Sheppard begged, barely coherent. "Don't let it--" The rest of his sentence was cut of by a sharp, aborted groan.
"If you don't open this damn door, McKay, I'm going to kill you, do you understand me? I can do it slow, too."
Hunching lower, Rodney followed the crack along the surface of the protocol. "You can't kill me if you're stuck in there, now can you?" The two circles were pulsing in time with each other, both human. The sensors and the quarantine protocol were in agreement, finally. As far as Atlantis was concerned, there was no Wraith in that room. "Get ready," he whispered to Ford.
He put his virtual fingernails into the crack and pulled, just as two voices, both Sheppard's, roared, "RODNEY, OPEN THE GODDAMN DOOR!"
John couldn't move. The effort of getting the thing off of him had taken everything he had and he lay flat on his back now, staring at the ceiling. It was all he could do to heave the air into and out of his lungs. Rolling his head to the side, he could see his hand lying open on the tile, fingers slightly curled like some kind of drying sea creature. Sucking in another breath, he held it and raised his head a little to look between his bare feet.
The thing was there, crawling toward him, dragging itself forward with spindly arms, rudimentary legs trailing behind it. Each time it moved, its scales whispered across the tiles. Its face was turned to him, held up only a few inches above the floor, jaw thrust forward with determination, mouth toothless, eyesockets empty. When it reached his feet, it flowed over them bonelessly and onto his legs, long, too-flexible fingers curling around his calves, his knees, his thighs as it pulled itself along the length of John's body until it was stretched out on top of him. Although every muscle was singing with tension, John couldn't even turn over to try to dislodge it. Far away, his hands lay still and useless.
Settling heavily onto his chest, the thing opened its obscene mouth and John could see right inside of it, right into the pasty-deadflesh-white of its gullet. It gave off a sweet, cloying odour, like flowers on the verge of rot, and it glistened wetly across all of its surfaces. John didn't close his eyes.
He ground his teeth down on a scream as a hand fumbled across his chest and down his side and into the wound under his arm. His eyes rolled up in his head for a moment as he felt those fingers moving under his skin and he remembered suddenly the feeling of that wound opening up, tearing wide from the inside, the thing unwinding from around his ribs, stringy, unformed, and then taking shape even as John fell into that cold lake, between the jaws of ice. He groaned as the freezing began again and his body disappeared, lost in the sinking and the blackness, and something like a bloodless tentacle uncurled with knowing dexterity in his mind. Spears of light shot across his vision when he refused to close his eyes. He wasn't letting go this time.
When the door slid open the thing slithered closer to John's face and, in John's own voice, warned, "I can kill him, John. I will."
Rodney rolled over onto his hip and sheltered his equipment with his body as the Marines bolted into the room. He was just getting to his feet when the air crackled with a burst of P90 fire punctuated by a roaring scream and then another barrage. Shoving him out of the way, Ford went in, Teyla right behind him. Only a moment later, Teyla was backing out of the room dragging one of the Marines.
"Oh fuck," Rodney muttered with dull resignation when he saw his wizened, aged face.
"The Major!" Beckett shouted over his shoulder as he helped pull the Marine farther out of the line of fire.
For a timeless moment, Rodney stood in the middle of the corridor and wondered why Beckett was talking to him. Then the sound of gunfire jolted his brain back into motion. Neither Teyla nor Ford was bringing Sheppard out of there. Gulping down rising panic, Rodney edged to the corner of the door and looked in.
In his headset, Elizabeth was shouting for a report and Beckett was giving her a play-by-play in rapid-fire sentences. To Rodney's ears it was gibberish. In fact, everything his senses were telling him seemed like gibberish. He suddenly felt a little more sympathetic toward Atlantis.
The thing in front of him made no sense. It was a person, and it wasn't--bloodless white and smoothly unformed. It was straddling Sheppard, its clawed hand pressed to Sheppard's chest in a familiar and so not good way.
"Oh crap," Rodney muttered. "We're gonna need more Marines."
And then something like a face--blank eyesockets and a mouth opening wide--turned him.
"Rodney," it said in Sheppard's voice. It sounded sympathetic. The head cocked to one side. "If they stop, I'll kill him quickly, so he won't have to watch."
Swallowing down a throatful of bile, Rodney whispered, "Shut up. Just shut up shut up shut up." He clutched the edge of the door so tightly that the metal bit into his hand, and even that pain was too distant to anchor him.
Sheppard's arm was outstretched toward him, fingers straining, shaking. Sheppard wasn't making a sound, but his eyes were on Rodney's, wide, their light brown surrounded by bloodshot white. Blood was leaking out of his nose, and the side of his shirt was black with it, gaping open to show the thing's other hand moving along Sheppard's ribs, under the skin.
Rodney's muscles went liquid with horror.
"Let me go, Rodney," the thing said, twisting to look at Ford and Teyla who stood on either side of the crumpled husk of the Marine. The ruby dots of their laser sights slipped across the thing's slick whiteness, unwavering. It started to straighten on crazily thin, wiry legs, stepped across Sheppard, toward them.
"Kill it," Sheppard rasped.
"Kill it!" Rodney shouted.
Teyla and Ford opened fire.
Rodney never saw anything move that fast. Even on those spindly, malformed legs it was able to dodge bullets, enough of them, anyway, to keep itself in one piece. And each time a bullet tore into its spongy flesh, the wound closed up almost immediately, so quickly that there was no blood at all.
Dropping to his knees and sheltering his head with his arms, Rodney began to inch toward Sheppard as Ford and Teyla started to corral the thing in the far corner of the room. He was almost there when, over the ceaseless cacophony of gunfire, he finally heard the alarm. No longer masquerading as Sheppard, no longer motionless in the room, the creature was finally registering in the sensor net as a definite threat. Whipping around, Rodney just caught a glimpse of Beckett's face and the shapes of two more Marines as the door to Sheppard's room slammed shut, locking out reinforcements.
"Oh no," he said weakly and spun back toward the thing, only to find it gone. "Where--?" He followed the aim of Ford's gun, craning his neck upward.
The thing was, amazingly, absurdly, clinging to the ceiling, its empty face cocked to one side, watching as Ford dropped to one knee and started to reload. Before he could get the magazine slapped into place, the Wraith launched itself down on him, knocking him on his back on the floor and pinning him with one taloned hand. Teyla slashed at it with her knife, but the thing swatted her away easily and she hit the wall with an audible crunch. The thing was well and newly fed. It was feeding again. It was strong and invulnerable and Rodney was paralyzed as it raised its eyeless face to him.
It couldn't have grinned. But it seemed to.
"Rodney," Beckett called to him. His voice was incongruously calm in Rodney's headset.
The thing was looking at Rodney, and Rodney stared back, captured by that blind gaze as surely as Ford was pinned by its clawed grip.
"Mckay." Sheppard's whisper was perfectly clear in the sudden silence. "You have to move."
Sheppard's voice somehow unlocked Rodney's brain and it leaped forward like someone had slipped the reins. "Seawater!" he shouted.
"Yes, of course!" Beckett agreed. "The bug--the one on the jumper--reacted to salt water."
The thing tilted its head almost quizzically. It started to unfold from its crouch over Ford. Behind it, Teyla was struggling to her feet, her P90 swinging from its strap, one of her hands bracing her on the wall.
"Teyla," Rodney said loudly and waited a second for her eyes to focus blearily on him. He pointed behind her, jabbing his finger at one of the hydrothermal conduits that ran through every one of Atlantis's rooms and corridors. "The conduit! Blow the conduit!"
To her credit, she didn't stop to demand explanations. She just turned, raised her gun, and fired a short barrage into the exposed glass. The bullets made starbursts in the surface, but the conduit remained intact.
The thing was standing as erect as it could on its skeletal legs, its head still cocked in that curious way. Between its feet, Ford was curling into a ball on his side, hands clutching at his chest.
Then, the starbursts each sent out a webbing of cracks, like sun rays in a kid's drawing, and the fracturing glass made a sound like crinkling tinfoil.
"Oh yeah," Rodney breathed and found himself grinning for a second before it occurred t him that the water behind the glass was likely pressurized. "Teyla! Watch out!" he shouted and spun on his knees, scrambled the last couple of feet to Sheppard and threw himself on top of him. Craning to look over his shoulder, he had just enough time to see the creature raise a warding hand, Teyla airborne as she dove over Sheppard's unmade bed, and Ford, tucked in like a headgehog, clutching his hat with both hands, his head almost between his knees. Then, Rodney buried his face in Sheppard's shoulder and threw his arms around Sheppard's head.
He didn't hear the sound the thing made when the conduit blew and the seawater exploded outward in a high-pressure spray. He barely felt the fragments of the conduit that lanced into his back and his legs, or the heat of the scalding water as it rained down on him, but he did feel Sheppard under him, the tendons of his neck taut as wire against Rodney's cheek, his body vibrating with what must have been a scream.
Then Sheppard went slack beneath him and he pulled Rodney down with him into blackness.
"Seawater," Weir was saying in a tone somewhere between admiration and disbelief.
"We'll call it the Dorothy Gale Gambit," Rodney said with a sort of sour self-satisfaction and shifted awkwardly in his chair, first to one hip and then the other. Finally he conceded defeat and stood up. "And I'm glad you find it all so exciting. I, however, am never going to be able to sit down again."
"Well, now you know what it's like living with a real pain in the ass," John remarked dryly from his bed. Beckett snickered, but Weir had the good grace to hide her smile behind her hand.
"Oh, very funny. Let's all make fun of the man with half a pound of shrapnel in his butt. That's very mature, given that I got it saving your ass."
"My ass is very grateful," John replied. "And Ford got a quarter pound of shrapnel in his ass and he's not complaining," he pointed out.
"Yes, well, what good is stoicism if nobody knows how stoic you're being?" Rodney countered, obstinacy taking the place of logic in his argument.
Steering her way clear of the debate, Weir asked, "So, is this going to be our solution to the Wraith problem?"
Snorting, Rodney shook his head. "We should be so lucky."
Beckett looked rueful. "Unfortunately, we're not that lucky. The seawater definitely impaired it, but I think it was the several hundred bullets Teyla shot into it after the fact that really put the end to it."
"So, the Dorothy Gale Gambit isn't going to be our last resort then." Weir sighed resignedly and turned to go.
"Ah, no." Beckett brightened a little. "But it does open up some interesting avenues of investigation, not only for defense, but in terms of our understanding of Wraith reproduction."
John really, really didn't want to think about Wraith reproduction and was relieved when Beckett and Weir took the conversation out into the corridor. He waited until they were out of earshot before throwing back his covers and carefully levering himself up into a sitting position.
"Wait a minute," Rodney protested. "What are you doing?"
"I'm making a break for it." He tried hard not to wince as he twisted around and got his feet onto the floor. Not a terribly swift break, admittedly. If they sent, say, a 90-year-old in a walker after him, he was done for.
"That's not a good idea."
"Yes it is."
Coming forward, Rodney put a hand on his shoulder, gently pushing him down onto the bed again. "Somebody who's just been eaten by a monster space bug gets more than three days bedrest. Believe me, I'd take it. I only got two for ass-shrapnel."
Pushing his hand away, John used Rodney's arm to pull himself to his feet. "McKay," he said as he straightened stiffly. "If I have to lie in that bed thinking for one more minute I'm going to lose my mind."
Relenting, Rodney stepped back to give him room. He even helped him pull his hospital shirt off over his head.
"Yeah, dwelling on the being eaten part, well, I can see where that can be a problem."
"No," John snapped and then regretted it as the pain flared across his ribs. "That's not it." Raising his arm slowly, he cupped a soothing palm over the stitches that ran from his armpit almost to the curve of his hip. The wound wasn't too deep, but it hurt like hell. He glanced up to see Rodney's grimace on a suddenly pale face, Rodney's arms wrapped tightly around himself. He lowered his arm and turned away to get his sweatshirt out of the drawer by the bed. "Getting eaten isn't--" He shook his head in frustration. "You know, it's happening to us every day, every minute." Grinding his teeth, he managed to get the sweatshirt over his head and pulled it down. "I'm not crazy about it, but I get it. Dying is inevitable--usually sooner than later for guys like me. The Wraith--and Wraith-bugs--they're just Time with teeth."
The exertion of dressing himself was making him dizzy. He wondered if this jailbreak idea might not be such a good one. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, he felt around with his feet for his boots.
"Guys like you?" Rodney asked.
John waved a hand, including in the gesture himself and all the other military personnel in the city. "Soldiers."
Nodding, his mouth turned down in a thoughtful frown, Rodney wouldn't let it go. "Then what is it, exactly?"
"Nothing. Forget it."
Kneeling down beside John's feet, Rodney reached under the bed and retrieved his boots. He did the John the favour of not offering to help him put them on. "You can't do that because now I'm curious. I'm congenitally incapable of putting curiosity away. It's a condition. Existential musing aside, what could possibly be more crazy-making than being eaten alive?"
He sat on his heels and looked up at him, and John could actually see him putting things together in his head. After a moment, he frowned as the pieces clicked together. John looked away and stuffed his foot into his boot. It was cold. He wondered if he would ever feel warm again, or, worse, if cold would ever just be cold again, or if it would always feel like a blade slicing his life away from him.
"It wasn't you," Rodney said. Standing, he lowered over John like he did when he was trying to bully somebody into being smarter. "It wasn't even going to be you. It barely had a brain, or at least not one that Carson has been able to find. It's a case of bio-mimicry--admittedly on a very sophisticated level--but that's all. It's just owl-eye--"
"Owl-eye spots on a moth's wings. I know. I got that." John looked up at him and his voice went hoarse. "You show me a moth that can get into the owl's head. Show me one that can use the owl's own voice to threaten someone he--to threaten his friends while he's totally helpless to do a damn thing about it and maybe then I'll find that analogy a little more comforting."
Rodney's eyes widened a little the way they did when he hit on an elusive solution, and more pieces visibly fell into place. John couldn't look away this time, captured by the way that Rodney's face always reflected so clearly what was going on in his head. He was unfiltered, unshuttered. John had noticed this before--it was hard not to--but now he saw that, instead of just prickly arrogance and impatience with any kind of obfuscation, it meant something else, something open and vulnerable.
"I knew it wasn't you," Rodney said. After moment he added with a verbal sneer softened a little on the edges, "It wasn't that clever. That Time with teeth thing? The bug could never come up with that."
John snorted out a soft laugh. "It's nice to know that you think I'm smarter than a bug."
"Well, this bug, anyway."
Using Rodney's arm again to haul himself to his feet, John added, "And I'm prettier."
"Yes, major, you are prettier than the slimy, faceless bug monster."
"Alright then. You can stop cheering me up now."
"Good, because it's not really my forte."
Looking back to contradict him with a grin, John caught the fading glimmer of real anxiousness in Rodney's eyes, and his smile widened. Turning away--his only defense against his own transparency--Rodney flushed up the neck all the way to his ears.
Letting him off the hook, John whispered conspiratorially, "Come on, get me out of here before Beckett comes back and starts clucking."
"We could stop by the mess hall. All this talk about eating is making me--"
"Of course it is."
"It's a condition," Rodney whispered back with the vehement woundedness of the tragically misunderstood.
"I'm aware. Let's go."
Rodney went the edge of the curtain and poked his head around it. "You know," he said softly, waving John past him, "the teeth thing is troublesome."
"What do the Wraith have teeth for? It's not like they chew their food."
John paused and raised an eyebrow. "Well, yes. That is a thinker." He didn't want to think about it.
Rodney took point again and checked the hallway, then crooked a finger at him, slipped out the door and headed toward the nearest transporter.
"So, tell me," John asked as they stepped inside and Rodney turned to the city schematic on the screen. When the doors closed, John put is hand on Rodney's wrist before he could tap a destination.
"When did you realize it wasn't me?"
Rodney glanced at him sidelong. "It was just about the time you propositioned me in front of a whole hallway full of personnel, actually."
"Oh." Rodney reached for the screen and John tightened his grip on his wrist. "Well, that isn't like me at all."
His mouth turning downward, Rodney nodded. "Of course not, because--"
John took a step closer and leaned in a little so that his mouth was close to Rodney's ear. "Because, when I do that, it'll be in private," he asserted, his voice low.
Rodney blinked. "Oh," he said softly, "Right."
John waited there until he could see the flush rising in Rodney's neck again. He could almost feel the heat of it, and, for the first time since waking up in the infirmary, he could imagine being warm again. When Rodney's ear turned red, John squeezed his wrist, let go, and faced the doors.
After tapping their destination, Rodney stepped up beside him, ducked his head and smiled.