Characters: Sheppard and McKay (no big surprise)
Genre/spoilers: Gen. Season 2.
Watching Sheppard work was like Chinese water torture ... driving Rodney slowly insane, one drip at a time.
What made it worse was that he knew Sheppard wasn't an idiot, despite Rodney's frequent claims to the contrary. He was well aware that most of the fault lay with him. He'd never been good at giving verbal directions. Even if he'd had any aptitude at all for expressing himself with words -- which he didn't -- he'd never seen any point in taking the trouble to distill his thoughts into a linear series of instructions when it was several times as fast just to do it himself in the first place. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, but as usual when he talked, the ideas that were so clear and bright in his mind turned into an impenetrable verbal tangle. Knowing he had to, in this case, didn't make it any either -- it just left him even more frustrated because he knew he was failing, and he loathed that feeling.
He could see that Sheppard was really hurting; the man's face was almost gray in the P90's flat light, and he kept steadying himself on the console. Unfortunately, Rodney was hurting like crazy himself, and pain and stress made both of them snappish. Even the console itself was conspiring against them; it refused to light up no matter what they did.
"Maybe it's just fried, Rodney," Sheppard said shortly after crossing two crystals and getting, as usual, no response.
"Yes, and maybe you fried it by completely ignoring my instructions a minute ago and hooking the secondary power coupling to the user-interface feedback channel."
"I wasn't ignoring your damned instructions, Rodney -- you told me to pick up the red crystal, and I can't tell which one's the red one because I'm effing blind! Colors don't help!"
"So you picked one at random, then? And that seemed like a good idea to you because ...?"
"Because every single time I've asked for clarification, you've only made it worse, that's why!"
"Don't blame ME when you're the one who can't understand a simple set of instructions!"
"They're only simple instructions in McKay World, population YOU!" Sheppard snarled, and then slumped against the console, turning an even less healthy-looking color. The P90 clattered to the floor, its light dancing crazily across the room.
Rodney moved without thinking, lunging forward to catch him, completely forgetting his burned hands. Forgetting, that is, until he made contact with Sheppard's arm -- the shock as the dry gauze dug into his burned flesh felt like he'd dipped his hand into acid. He recoiled with a cry of pain and then stood helplessly as Sheppard sank to the floor and leaned the side of his face against the console.
"Are you okay?" It was a stupid question and he knew it, but he didn't know what else to say, and he hated not being able to do anything.
Sheppard swallowed a few times, then mumbled, "Yeah, I'm good. You?"
Rodney snorted and slid down to join him on the floor, leaning his back against the defunct console. "I'm thinking we need a new plan."
"Okay," Sheppard murmured. "I'll just stay here while you think of one, then."
Rodney looked at him more closely, at the pale, clammy skin. "You ought to lie down. You might be in shock or something. In fact, you probably are, just because it would make my life even more difficult."
"I'm comfortable here. Moving makes me dizzy."
Rodney gave him another suspicious look, then sighed and nudged the P90 with his foot, rotating it to cast the light down the length of the room -- or at least as far as it reached -- and then back up the other side. Now that he wasn't able to distract himself by bickering with Sheppard, he was all too aware of his own physical discomfort. The pain in his hands, which had receded to a murmur, was now a scream; he kept wanting to rub them, to relieve it somehow, but all he could do was hold them awkwardly in front of his body. And he was lightheaded; his mouth felt dry. He was cold, too -- shivering a bit. Weren't those symptoms of shock? Didn't burns cause shock? Wasn't shock fatal? Whimpering a little, Rodney slid the rest of the way down the console until he was lying flat on the floor, staring up into the cavernous darkness of the room's ceiling. Now he was even colder, with his whole body in contact with the stone floor. When they told you to make a shock victim lie down, they didn't mention that particular problem. Which would kill you faster, hypothermia or shock? He couldn't help whimpering again.
"What's the matter with you?" The tired voice emanating from Sheppard's direction was so expressionless that it could be taken either as sarcasm or concern. Probably a little of both.
"I'm burned and in shock and hypothermic and dying. Yourself?"
Sheppard snorted, and then he began to hum quietly. When Rodney finally placed the tune, he turned to look at the Colonel in disbelief. Sheppard was still in the same position, propped against the console with his face pressed to it, although now he was smiling slightly. He was humming "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".
"Ha ha. Very funny."
The humming broke off; the grin grew a bit wider, turning into a smirk. "I knew you'd be a Python fan, Rodney."
Rodney closed his eyes. It was bad enough to be mocked without being smirked at, too. "Not by choice, I assure you. There's really no escaping it in college."
"I'm sure you'd have preferred to spend your Saturday nights locked in your room doing equations."
"That was how I spent my Saturday nights. Enjoyed it, too."
"You were a strange, pathetic teenager, Rodney. Of course" -- even with his eyes shut, he could hear the grin in Sheppard's voice -- "look how the end result turned out."
Rodney's eyes popped open; this was really too much. "You do realize that because of those Saturday nights, I'm now probably the only person in this galaxy capable of fixing the power supply and getting us out of --"
They both froze, and then turned, as one, to look towards the door -- Sheppard automatically turning his head in the direction of the sound even though he couldn't see. The hollow, metallic bang came again and Rodney scrambled up into a sitting position and scooted towards Sheppard.
"Is that what it sounds like, Colonel, do you think?" He hoped that the slight catch in his voice went unnoticed.
"You mean does it sound like a killer robot pounding on the door?"
The noise stopped, but was immediately followed by something even more unsettling: a horrific metallic screeching.
Rodney turned to look at Sheppard. "Claws," they said simultaneously, and Sheppard added, "Rodney, I think getting the power up and running has just become a priority."
"It wasn't before?" But Rodney was already scrambling to his feet, tilting a little as he got his own headrush this time. Beside him, he was vaguely aware of Sheppard painfully making his way up on his own -- dragging himself on the console was more like it -- but his attention was taken up by examining the room, trying to understand how the whole system fit together.
It wouldn't just power back up from the console. Obviously something important had blown somewhere -- a fuse, or something. If this place was wired like Atlantis, a single surge shouldn't do that, but then, with half the crystals in the equipment corroded together, there was no telling how much damage the overload had done.
Sheppard had swung the P90 to point blindly in the general direction of the door. The shriek of claws raking metal had stopped, followed by an even more ominous silence. "Any day now, Rodney..."
"Genius thinking here! Quiet!" His brain felt fuzzy, the pain in his hands making him lightheaded. And he was hungry and thirsty and tired, and scared, and this was just all so much easier in a nice warm well-lighted lab -- and there went his stupid brain again, running off in circles. Blast it! Okay, pretend this was Atlantis, and the power had gone out and he had to get it back on -- what would he do?
He could see two possible options. One was that somewhere, there would be a master control room that would be able to override the power shutoff. The other was the Earth solution: that the power was off because a fuse had blown, and so the thing to do was find the breaker box.
"Colonel, I need some light here." Then he realized that he was gesturing with a bandaged hand, which Sheppard couldn't see. "Uh, left. Your left. Um, your nine o'clock?"
Finally, he'd managed to figure out a system of terminology that Sheppard could actually follow, because the P90's light swung right where Rodney had in mind. Following Rodney's terse directions, he swung it slowly over the walls and then up to the second story catwalk. There was still nothing but a very ominous silence from outside the door.
"Stop!" Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed. "Up there!"
He looked around and spied a set of stairs leading up to the catwalk, started for them and belatedly realized that he was forgetting his companion. Looking back, he saw Sheppard following him, apparently tuning on the sound of his footsteps. Sheppard was limping badly, but seemed to be able to walk unaided.
"Just follow the sound of my voice, Colonel. There's a flight of stairs. Stop! Okay, you're on the first step. Come on up."
It was a good thing he didn't have to help Sheppard, because it turned out that he needed all his concentration for himself. Climbing stairs without benefit of hands turned out to be fairly tricky. He'd never really relied on banisters all that much, but what he did do, apparently, was use his arms for balance. With both hands held in front of his chest, he kept nearly overbalancing and having to hastily stifle the instinctive tendency to reach out and steady himself on something.
Sheppard, leaning on the railing, seemed to do fine on his own, so Rodney left it to him. Turning back at the top of the stairs, he said, "Follow me. Three o'clock. I mean, nine. I mean, left. Hey, can I get some light over here? Some of us have to see where we put our feet, you know."
Sheppard heaved a somewhat put-upon-sounding sigh and followed him.
Rodney's objective was what Zelenka, in Atlantis, insisted on calling an Ancient fuse box. They weren't fuse boxes, weren't even close, and Rodney attempted to point that out at every opportunity. However, he had to admit that the function was rather similar. It was a reset for the electrical system. Atlantis, being so large, had a number of them and most were well-secured, so that even with the ATA gene, they required an additional code in order to use. An understandable security precaution, in Rodney's opinion; he just hoped that this smaller facility wasn't quite so careful.
Looking around impatiently for his "hands", he found Sheppard making his way carefully along the catwalk, steadying himself on the railing. Feeling shaky and shocky and not at all well, Rodney wasn't in a mood for coddling slowpokes, even slowpokes with head injuries. "Hey, do you think you can get over here before the next Ice Age?"
The ghost of a grin touched Sheppard's mouth. "Usually it's me telling you to hurry up," he said, coming to rest against the wall next to Rodney.
"Welcome to my world, then." Rodney gestured to the panel in the wall, then grimaced at himself for forgetting, once again, that Sheppard couldn't see. "Okay, in front of you -- well, a little bit to the side of you -- there's a vertical panel in the wall, about as high as your head. The symbols on the front indicate -- but, right, you don't care about that because you're blind. There's a pad on the right-hand side that scans you for the gene. On Atlantis, you have to enter a code, but -- here apparently you don't," he finished as the panel popped open to reveal banks of crystals, all neatly labeled in Ancient script, and all dark.
"We're going to need light. I mean, I'm going to need light. Lean the P90 against the wall -- yeah. Now we need my computer. It's on the back of my vest -- I'm turning around, and if you drop it, you bought it, Sheppard."
"The SGC bought it, McKay."
Rodney could feel light tugging as Sheppard tore loose the velcro straps and opened the case. He turned back around.
"Set it on the floor and power it up -- um, fingers to the left -- yeah, that button. Now, there's a kit in my vest with alligator clips and everything else you'll need."
"Er..." Sort of embarrassing to admit that he didn't remember. "Left side, second one down. No, I guess that's not it. Um, try the next one up. I know it's there somewhere."
"You keep everything but the kitchen sink in here, don't you?" Sheppard complained as he sifted through Rodney's vest pockets. "Pencil stubs, string ... that feels like a broken Ancient crystal or something ... My God, what is this?"
Rodney risked a peek down; he'd been trying to pay as little attention as possible to the fact that Sheppard was seriously invading his personal space, albeit out of necessity. "Oh ... that. That's a -- a -- uh --" It was a bright purple and yellow knitted thing; one of the new science techs had made them for everybody in the lab, for no apparent reason, during her first week on Atlantis. Rodney thought perhaps it was supposed to be a pencil topper. He'd promptly assigned her more work, reasoning that she couldn't possibly have enough duties if she had that much free time, and he could have sworn he'd thrown the damn thing away, but he must have absentmindedly tucked it into a vest pocket instead. "Er, it's a -- soft-foam variable capacitor from P3N-584 I brought back to study and can you please keep searching because this is very uncomfortable for me."
"Right, Rodney, because it's a total picnic for me ... Is this it?"
"Yes, thank GOD. Now you'll notice that one end plugs into the back of the computer. You're going to do that and then bring up a program that will analyze the inputs and give you voltages. With this, you're going to identify which of the master control crystals are damaged and pull them out ..."
From time to time, while Sheppard worked, Rodney glanced down at the door, which remained closed, silent and dark. Although the underground room was chilly, he could feel nervous sweat running down his face, and kept dashing at his forehead with the back of his arm as he hovered behind Sheppard's head.
"I can feel you breathing down my neck, literally, Rodney. It's very distracting."
Under Rodney's instruction, Sheppard was now pulling crystals -- his nimble fingers ran down the row of crystals until Rodney snapped "Stop!" and then he tugged it and repeated the process. Rodney winced to see how many of the crystals were damaged, not just melted from their recent accident, but also laced with tiny cracks and threaded through with thin tendrils of mildew. No wonder the console had exploded. They were both fortunate to be alive.
"You know, when you do this, Rodney, I've always wondered how much of the time you're actually working, and how much time you spend just pulling out crystals and sticking them into other holes in order to look like you're working."
"I'm sure it would make more sense to you if we were banging on it with a hammer, but the Ancients were a bit more refined. Stop! Okay, down a row, left two, stop! Hang on. I need you to move one of the clips a few crystals to the right." He crouched down to study the computer. "It's still not getting a good circuit and I can't figure out why. I think we've found all the damaged crys--"
The lights came on, flooding the room and causing Rodney to throw his arm in front of his eyes with a mumbled curse. At the same time, hidden equipment somewhere behind the walls started up again with an audible thrum. Taking his arm away from his face, Rodney saw that the wall panel and all the consoles were lit up with a comforting blue glow.
"It worked?" Sheppard asked.
"We have full power!" Rodney crowed triumphantly. "Better than before! Who's a genius? -- Oh CRAP!" His eyes had fallen on the door -- which was now standing wide open.
"What?" Sheppard demanded, reaching for the P90 and fumbling until he found it. "Crap, what?"
"The door must've opened automatically when the power came back on. No no no no." Hastily he scanned the catwalk for any sign of door controls, only to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the door had to be closed from ground level.
"It's open? Crap ..." Sheppard echoed him. "Well, do you see the --"
"No, no -- it must be trying to find another way in, or else it's just lying in wait. On the plus side, now that the power is steadier I think we can probably close the door without killing ourselves. But the bad news is --"
"Don't tell me: we have to go back down there to close the door."
"Got it in one. But just to check, try to think shut as hard as you can." After a moment's pause Rodney said, "Well?"
"If I'd thought it any harder my head would have split open. No change?"
For a minute they both just stood there, Rodney staring towards the door and Sheppard holding the P90. Then Sheppard said, "Only one of us really has to go down. You stay put and tell me what to do from up here."
He was already limping in the general direction of the stairs when Rodney snapped out of his frozen shock and chased after him. "Sheppard, that's stupid even for you!"
"I'm armed." He raised the P90.
"Which isn't a damn bit of good if you can't see what direction to shoot! Good grief. And you just walked past the stairs, hero. Stop, turn. And for God's sake, try not to fall down them." Sheppard was looking unsteadier by the minute.
They descended the stairs slowly. Sheppard had his head cocked to one side, obviously straining all his senses. Rodney was jumpy as a rabbit, trying to look in all directions at once. They reached the floor without incident and Rodney nudged Sheppard in the direction of the nearest console. He couldn't help noticing something that was all too obvious from down here: deep parallel gouges scored in the metal door. It has claws that can cut through metal. We are so very dead. OH HELL.
Within the gloom of the corridor outside the door, something moved, glimmering in the blackness. "Sheppard!" Rodney's voice was a high-pitched squeak of terror.
"What?" Sheppard swung away from the console, bringing up the P90 and then swinging the tip around as he tried to figure out which way to point it.
"Killer robot!" Rodney squeaked, not even noticing that he'd slipped into Sheppard's terminology.
It was crouching in the doorway now -- a long gleaming black thing, all oiled joints and shining sharp edges. It had a head, or headlike appendage, which swiveled slowly from side to side. There were no visible eyes.
"Left! Up! No, down!" The P90's tip wavered around wildly in response to his panic-stricken jumble of directions. As the robot's head oriented on them, Rodney managed to clear his brain enough to yell, "Two o'clock! Now! Shoot it!"
Sheppard pulled the trigger and a spray of bullets flared across the door and wall and the metal surface of the thing, striking a cascade of sparks. It withdrew, sliding backwards -- impossible to say how it moved; it seemed to float on the surface of the ground, or perhaps it was gliding on small wheels.
Rodney lunged past Sheppard towards the console. "Don't stop shooting! It's still out there!" As another stuttering burst of P90 fire nearly deafened him, he bent over the console and stared at the screens. Now that everything was online, it was painfully obvious how to shut the door, except he couldn't push buttons -- or could he? Grimacing, he used the very tips of his elbows to tap the required sequence. I'm typing with my elbows. This is what I've come to.
He raised his head to see the doors swinging soundlessly shut. Seeing its prey about to be cut off, the robot made a swift lunge for the door and wedged one of its pincer-like appendages into the crack just as the doors closed with a soft clang.
Sheppard lowered the gun, cursing softly, and pulled another clip out of his vest. "Rodney, where is it? What's it doing? You'd better tell me you found some way to close the door!"
"Yeah, the door's closed, but --" There was a hideous metallic shriek as the trapped robot twisted its claw and the edge of the door began to give way. "The robot's stuck in it," Rodney finished weakly.
"Oh, that's great," Sheppard groaned. He dropped the spent clip and loaded the new one by feel, in a single practiced motion. "I'm guessing that sound is it tearing itself free."
"Yes." The word emerged as a whimper, which turned into a squeak of terror as Sheppard actually started limping towards the door. "Where are you going!"
"Tell me warm or cold." Sheppard, clearly orienting by sound, had the P90 trained on a point a few degrees to the left of the robot, which was twisting its claw and slowly enlarging the opening.
"Right, turn right, little more, yeah, now!" What else could you do but humor a crazy person? As Sheppard opened fire, Rodney found that he was actually moving towards the man's back, though he wasn't sure why -- it wasn't as if he'd be any use to Sheppard at all. It just seemed good survival policy to stay close to the man with the gun.
The bullets pinged off the metal claw -- Rodney hoped that they didn't kill themselves with the ricochet -- and then there was a sizzling sound and a great burst of sparks as the Colonel apparently hit something vital, maybe a hydraulic line or electric line at the base of the claw. The robot made no sound, but it withdrew rapidly and the door finished swinging shut, although that particular panel was slightly bent at the edge. Sheppard fired another burst and bullets sprayed across the door, scarring the metal.
"Stop! You got it!" Rodney's jubilation vanished as there was a deep metallic CLANG! from the door and he caught a glimmer of black metal through the small gap in the damaged panel. It was still trying to break in.
Sheppard checked the P90's clip lightly by touch. "I suggest we fall back to a more defensible position."
"If that's military parlance for 'flee', then I'm with you."
They beat a hasty, manly retreat across the floor to the stairs. Sheppard, following Rodney by sound, missed the stairs entirely and ran into the wall with a soft grunt. Rodney turned back -- he was already halfway up -- and jogged back down to impatiently offer Sheppard an elbow to guide him.
They paused at the top of the stairs. The clanging from below had changed into the familiar and ominous metallic shriek as it attempted, apparently with some success, to pry open the door.
"We're screwed," Rodney moaned. "More screwed than before, I mean."
Sheppard's head turned as if he was scanning the catwalk -- maybe just trying to will himself desperately to see. "Tell me what's in front of us, Rodney."
There was a short, loaded pause. "I need to know what's up here so I know what we have to work with, McKay."
"I thought you meant literally and you've already walked into a wall once in the last five minutes, so excuse me for making the mistake." Rodney gritted his teeth and forced himself to stop hyperventilating. "Yes, yes, I know: focus, focus. Don't have to tell me twice. Or once. Okay, we're standing near one end of a very long catwalk. The panel we just fixed is about three or four meters in front of us. Ceiling's still pretty high above -- uh, ten meters maybe."
"Any doors? Openings? What's at the end of the catwalk? Is there a railing?"
"Yes on the railing; it's about chest high." Rodney tried desperately to shut out the sound of screeching metal from below. The noise had changed to a deeper timbre; a quick glance over his shoulder showed him that the door panel was very slowly being bent backwards like the lid of a sardine tin. Hastily he yanked his eyes back up to the catwalk. "Er, ah, no doors that I can see. At the far end, it wraps around to the other side. There's not really much of anything up here."
"What about the ceiling?"
"At the risk of sounding like an idiot, what do you mean? It's a ceiling."
"The ceiling is obviously meant to open. Do you think we could open it?"
"Well, not from up here ..." Rodney trailed off, head tilted back. He hadn't been able to see it from below, but the vertical seam in the ceiling actually was open a little bit, as if perhaps the rock had shifted over the millennia and had skewed the huge hangar-bay doors a little bit out of alignment. It might be big enough for them to wriggle through, but he didn't think the robot would fit.
"Rodney? What is it?"
"There's a hole in the ceiling -- a gap between those huge doors up there. We might be able to get through, but not the robot. But ... Sheppard, like I said, it's ten meters above us and way out above the middle of the floor. We can't possibly get to it."
"We could with a grappling hook."
"Yeah, but where are you going to get a -- oh."
Letting the P90 dangle from its vest clip, Sheppard was pulling a collapsible hook and a coil of rope out of his vest.
"And you said I had everything but the kitchen sink?"
"Including foam capacitors. Foam capacitor, my ass," Sheppard said as he opened the tines on the grappling hook. "What was it, really?"
"I told you what it was; it's not my fault you don't believe me." Rodney trotted down the catwalk to the open panel, where his laptop was still hooked up. Thankful that Sheppard couldn't see this, he managed to unhook the alligator clips with his teeth and then shoved the whole assemblage -- laptop and case -- down the catwalk with his feet.
"Rodney, what the hell are you doing? I need you to help me aim."
"Retrieving my computer, that's what I'm doing. I'm going to need you to pack it up for me."
"If we have time." Overriding Rodney's indignant sputter, Sheppard asked, "How's the robot doing?"
Rodney cast a quick glance down. "Oh, it's doing great. We're not looking so good, though." One of the claws was now entirely through the door, and it was trying to wedge its body in the opening.
Sheppard took a deep breath and stepped forward cautiously until he touched the railing, steadying himself against it. The rope was played between his fingers with the grappling hook dangling loosely from his right hand. "Rodney, I need to know exactly where I'm aiming."
"Straight ahead of you. Ten meters up, about, oh, twenty in front of you. Sheppard, I don't know if you could do that with your eyes open."
"I'll make it," Sheppard said softly, although he sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. Rodney hastily got out of the way as he whipped the grappling hook around in a circle and flung it.
It actually came remarkably near the target, though it fell short and dropped with a loud clatter to the floor below. Reeling it in, Sheppard said, "How close?"
"Close. Three or four meters this side."
"Gotcha." He paused for a minute, as if visualizing, and Rodney realized that he probably did this sort of calculation in his head all the time. What else did a pilot do but gauge spaces and distances?
The sound of rending metal had stopped for a moment when the grappling hook clattered to the floor; now it started up again, louder than before. The robot was forcing itself through the hole in the door. Rodney choked down the impatient words on the tip of his tongue. He could see how hard Sheppard was concentrating and didn't want to jeopardize that.
The grappling hook sailed through the air. This time it actually tapped the edge of the opening, but didn't quite get a purchase, and slipped free to clatter, again, to the floor.
"Close!" Rodney cheered. "You almost got it in! Another one just like that."
Sheppard's next throw fell short again, though, by even farther than the first one. "I know, I know," he said immediately at the sound of the clatter below them, reeling in the line. "I let go early. I think I've got a feel for it."
"That's good, that's excellent." Rodney cast nervous glances at the robot -- which now had two appendages through the door and reminded him of nothing so much as an oversized cockroach crawling through a crack. He nudged the laptop around with his foot and felt about as useless as he ever had in his life.
And the next throw went in. Sheppard's face broke into a broad grin as he tugged on the line -- changing to dismay when the hook slipped loose and fell again. "Didn't have a good hold. But I think I can get it on the next one."
And he did, giving it a few sharp tugs and then tying off the line on the railing. "Okay, Rodney, you go f--"
"Laptop!" Rodney snapped, trying not to stare at the drop below them and contemplate what he was going to have to do in a minute.
"Do the words 'your laptop or your life' mean anything to you?" But Sheppard was already kneeling and groping around. Rodney hastily shoved it within his reach and turned around so that Sheppard could re-attach the case to the back of his vest.
A final groan of protesting metal reached them from below, and then the much-abused door panel fell into the room with a tremendous crash.
And that was when the truly horrible thought occurred to Rodney. He should have thought of it immediately, but he'd been leaping from one crisis to another, unable to stop for a moment and think their plan through. "Sheppard. I can't climb a rope. I can't use my hands."
Sheppard froze, turning his head in Rodney's direction. "Oh ... hell. I didn't even think of that." Toying with the end of the rope between his fingers, he said, "What's the robot doing?"
Rodney looked down and dropped his voice. "Just standing in the doorway. I don't think it knows for sure where we are." He looked back up at the gap in the ceiling, so near yet so far, then over at Sheppard, only to see, with horror, that his teammate was untying the rope from the railing. He swallowed and took a deep breath. "Listen, I can't get up the rope, and I think we both know it's pretty obvious that I'm going to have to --"
"Have to have me lift your heavy ass up, yes, I know," Sheppard interrupted. "Get over here and let me tie the rope around you."
"I, uh --" Too startled to put up a fight, Rodney stood unresisting as Sheppard knotted the rope around him in a loose harness. "Can you do that?" he asked, taking in the pale face and the shakiness in Sheppard's hands.
"Do I have a choice?" Sheppard gave the rope a final tug and stepped back. "There's one big drawback for you, which is that you're going to have to anchor the rope on this end while I climb up. I can't leave it tied to the railing because you wouldn't be able to untie it."
Rodney felt like a leaf in the current, buffeted by events beyond his control. "Okay," he said numbly, and then, looking down, he added in a terrified undertone, "Robot in the room. It's kind of hunting around. Sheppard --"
"I know, we're out of time. Brace yourself," Sheppard said and grabbed hold of the rope. Rodney gasped in startlement and pain as the Colonel swung himself over the balcony and his whole weight dangled from the rope. The makeshift harness bit into Rodney's hips, waist and shoulders; the weight dragged him forward and suddenly he found himself flattened against the railing, with his injured arms crushed in front of him. The pain made him cry out. Sheppard cast a quick, automatic look backward -- not that he could see anything anyway -- but didn't hesitate in his hasty scramble up the rope. "You okay?" he yelled over his shoulder.
Gasping, his eyes swimming from tears of pain, Rodney struggled to turn his body so that his arms weren't taking the brunt of the pressure. Darkness narrowed his vision down to a tunnel. Somewhere he found enough air to shout back: "Just hurry up, dammit!" Don't FAINT -- he used the hated word as a whip to spur himself out of the beckoning blackness. Panting, he got himself twisted around so that the harness was taking the weight again. Flattened to the railing, feeling lightheaded and detached, he stared over the edge at a far-too-close view of a creature out of nightmare.
The robot's design was obviously patterned after a scorpion or some similar, alien creature. It had a long low body, eight arms with razorlike claws -- one of which now trailed, broken, after being half-severed by Sheppard's P90 -- and even a scorpion-like tail curled over its back. Rodney still couldn't see what it used for a means of propulsion, but as he watched in horror, it reared up onto its backmost set of claws, its baleful attention focused on Sheppard as he climbed the rope. He was high above it -- no way can it jump that high, Rodney thought, and then, Can it jump at all?
His question was answered a moment later when it gave a short burst from some sort of propulsion jet, and launched itself at least six meters into the air, coming even with Rodney at the railing -- and perilously close to Sheppard -- before dropping to the floor with a crash. Rodney stared, open-mouthed, as it did it again. This time the snapping claws whipped within a hairsbreadth of Sheppard's exposed legs.
"Rodney, what the hell just happened!" Sheppard yelled down the rope.
"Robot! Jumping!" The rope harness was crushing all the air out of him. Sheppard had better get to the top soon or he really was going to fai-- collapse. If he'd been able to support himself with his arms, this would have been easier -- but, well, that was the crux of the problem, wasn't it?
"It can jump?"
"Beats the hell out of me, too!" Rodney yelled back, and then had to save his breath for not fainting.
The robot got in one more swipe at Sheppard before he vanished into the hole in the ceiling. This time Rodney heard him make a startled sound, but he couldn't tell if it was because one of the claws had connected or just because Sheppard had felt it come too close. Then, mercifully, the pressure was off the rope and he leaned against the railing, gasping, while spots danced in his vision.
Sheppard's voice came down faintly from the opening in the ceiling. "McKay? You all right?"
"I'm just great! Never better!" he gasped, a bit hysterically. That pain in his side -- it had to be a cracked rib. Or maybe just a stitch, because it seemed to be going away. "You?"
There was a brief pause. "I got a bit nicked. Don't worry about it. Get ready to climb over the railing; I've got the rope."
"A bit nicked? What does that mean? Knowing you, it probably means your leg's been torn off! How many legs do you have right now, Colonel?" At least there wasn't a giant pool of blood on the floor, at least not that he could see.
Despite the raggedness of Sheppard's shouted reply, Rodney could hear humor in it as well. "Just jump, McKay, for crying out loud!"
"I hate this," Rodney whispered, as he tried to worm his way over the top of the railing without using his hands. Halfway over the edge, he looked down at the robot poised underneath him and his eyes grew huge. "Colonel, I can't do this! The minute I jump, that thing down there is going to turn me into hamburger!"
There was a pause. Then Sheppard called down, "Rodney, don't move a muscle until I say go. Then jump, and don't hesitate! But absolutely do not jump until then."
"Why? Wait! What are you doing?"
To his alarm, the rope went slack. There was utter silence, broken by a sudden claw-snap right in front of his face as the robot got tired of waiting and leapt. It nearly got a couple of claws over the railing but fell back to the floor. Rodney peeked over to see it gathering itself for another leap. A small whimper escaped him.
Then there was a loud clatter from the far end of the room. Rodney's first, horrifying thought was that Sheppard had actually jumped down from the ceiling in some sort of idiotic kamikaze ploy, but looking in that direction, he saw nothing.
There was another clatter and the robot skittered off in that direction. Rodney's every instinct was simply to run, but he drew deep breaths and tried to have faith in Sheppard, until suddenly the rope went tight again and the Colonel's voice shouted, "Jump!"
He jumped. For an instant he was in freefall, plunging towards the floor -- I'm going to die -- and then the rope jerked tight, feeling as if it had severed his arms and legs in the process. Sheppard had carefully tied the harness so as to avoid Rodney's injured hands, but that was very little consolation to the remainder of his throbbing extremities as the harness cut off circulation. Also, as he jerked his way slowly up to the ceiling, he began to spin gently around in circles, making him dizzy and nauseous to add to the fun.
In the rotating glimpses that he caught of the floor, he got flashes of fast-moving black robot. "Sheppard! Hurry! Whatever you did, it's noticed meEEEEEK!" That was a manly shout of fear, not a girlish scream of terror, he told himself, numbly watching the robot drop back to the floor after coming almost close enough to take off a lock of his hair.
There was no answer from Sheppard. The rope continued to haul him towards the ceiling, far too slowly, to his way of looking at it. The robot leapt again, and Rodney, reacting on pure instinct, kicked at it -- he actually felt his foot glance off a claw before it dropped back down.
"Sheppard! I'm engaged in hand-to-hand combat down here, and I don't have hands! This is not good! Are you listening?"
His slow spinning had rotated him so that he couldn't see the robot, but an instant later he felt a fiery trail of pain blaze down his ribs. "Sheppard!" he shrieked, kicking out wildly against empty air. He could feel something wet trickling down his side. It had gutted him, gutted him like a fish, and he was going to die --
Then his head vanished into the crack in the ceiling, followed by the rest of him, and Sheppard's hands were on him, pulling him over the edge as he struggled and flopped in a vain attempt to help without the use of his hands. He sprawled on cold metal, gasping and shaking.
"Rodney?" Sheppard was kneeling over him, a blur in the dim light. "Are you okay?"
"No," Rodney managed to say. Darkness spun around him, trying to suck him down into its embrace. But he'd made it, he was safe, Sheppard was here to take care of things, and he could fai-- pass out without guilt.
"Oh, okay," Sheppard said, and something in the way he said it -- trailing off into a whisper towards the end -- made Rodney look up, just in time to completely fail to catch him when Sheppard keeled over.
"Colonel!" He sat bolt upright, swayed as a wave of dizziness washed over him. Sheppard was crumpled in a heap, his pants leg dark and sodden with blood that was rapidly forming a pool under him. Nicked, hm? You call that nicked? "Colonel, answer me ... please."
He knelt beside Sheppard, feeling the tickle of blood running down his side, watching the dark pool widen under Sheppard's leg. A tidal wave of frustration welled up inside him. He wasn't going to sit here and watch them both bleed to death all because of his damned hands!
He could see that Sheppard's pants had been slashed diagonally from the hip to the inner side of his knee. Nudging gently at the cloth with his elbow, he peeled it back, but all he could see was that the thigh underneath was a mess of blood. It wasn't spurting out ... if it had been, Sheppard would probably have already bled to death, rather than bleeding out slowly in front of Rodney's eyes. He didn't have anything to use for a bandage and couldn't have manipulated it if he had. For that matter, they'd used up most of the gauze from the first-aid kit tending to their earlier wounds from the exploding console. But he had to get that bleeding stopped somehow ... Rodney's eyes dropped to the gauze on his hands.
This is a stupid, stupid idea. But it might work. Sheppard had swathed his burned hands in gauze until he felt like a mummy. Rodney carefully lay down on his side -- still wrapped up in rope; there was no way he could remove that without help -- and laid his arm, elbow to wrist, across Sheppard's thigh, following the slashed fabric to estimate the location of the underlying injury. Then he bore down with his body weight.
The pressure on the burn made him hiss in pain, and there was no telling what all that blood was going to do to his damaged hand, but between the gauze and his jacket sleeve, it should be almost as absorbent as a bandage. Not sterile in any way, but given the choice between infection and bleeding to death ... well, Rodney was a great believer in the power of antibiotics.
Of course, it meant he had to lie here with all his weight on his arm and with his face practically in Sheppard's groin, which wasn't improving his day at all. And it meant he had nothing to do except look around, giving him his first opportunity to examine his surroundings.
He appeared to be at the bottom of a vast shaft, lying precariously upon one of the two great metal doors that would no doubt open to let spacecraft in and out of the hangar. The dim light coming through the narrow gap in the doors illuminated a vast dusty space that reminded Rodney of ventilation ducts or the utility space within a suspended ceiling: it had that same forgotten, dusty, utilitarian look to it. The walls of the shaft were rock, or so he presumed from looking at them, and over time had sloughed and crumbled in mini-avalanches that covered the edges of the metal doors with drifts of rubble and loose rocks. This didn't give him a whole lot of confidence in the stability of the remaining rocks; tilting his head back to look up into the blackness above him, Rodney wondered with a shudder just how far up the shaft went, and how likely it was to collapse on them.
Something dark glistened on the metal hangar doors, winding in a spotty, uncertain trail down to the far end. Blood, Rodney thought, and suddenly he realized how Sheppard had distracted the robot -- he'd gone down to the end and thrown down some of those loose rocks.
Speaking of the robot ... nervously, Rodney raised his head far enough to lean over the opening and look down. All he could see was a sliver of floor. He tried to reassure himself that they were safe here -- trapped, yes, but safe. Even if the robot could climb up the wall, it couldn't possibly get through the narrow opening, and these doors were far too large and heavy to force apart.
Or so he kept telling himself. It was a lot easier to be optimistic when he was having to fend off Sheppard's idiot cheerfulness, than when Sheppard was lying next to him (or, at the moment, under him), pale and bleeding.
The gauze on his arm was soaked -- warm and heavy. He was also still bleeding down the side; he had no idea how badly he was hurt and no way to find out. He dealt with it in the only way available to him: by pressing his free arm as tightly as possible against his side, and then trying not to think about it. Of course, ignoring the presence of discomfort and fear was not one of Rodney's strong points, and he knew it.
"I'm bleeding to death here, I think," he told Sheppard conversationally. "Just thought you'd want to know. Thank you for being so helpful, by the way, laying there and all. That's sarcasm, in case you couldn't tell. Of course, you did save my life earlier, and I suppose that might go at least partway towards excusing the fact that you're currently about as useful as a screen door on a spaceship. Oh, good grief, I can't believe I just said that. Does shock make a person lightheaded? Because I'm feeling fairly lightheaded. Hazy, almost, and kind of dizzy. I'm also cold. And thirsty. And I think the Tylenol's worn off completely, because my hands hurt like crazy and I have the mother of all headaches. I can't even unwrap a powerbar, so I expect to be in a hypoglycemic coma anytime now. Also, did I mention my arm is falling asleep? Because of you?"
He raised his head and looked hopefully at Sheppard, but there wasn't even a twitch of annoyance on the frightfully pale face. He couldn't even check for a pulse -- at least not without using his lips, the only unburned part of his body that had enough sensitivity to detect a pulse, and he wasn't anywhere near that worried yet. Besides, he thought he could see the Colonel's chest rising and falling shallowly, and that was good enough.
"So, Sheppard," he continued after a moment. "I'm wondering if you have a plan for getting out of this shaft? Because I'm coming up with a big fat zero myself. The way I see it, you're probably not capable of lowering me down at the moment, and I certainly can't climb down by myself. Climbing up also seems unlikely and unwise. Now, you could go down and get help, but that means finding your way out of a maze infested with lethal robots without your eyesight, and frankly, that probably means that you'll die and I'll just stay here, expecting rescue, until I starve to death. Which should occur fairly quickly, considering that I'm not presently capable of feeding myself. Actually ... I take that back ... thirsting to death is far more likely. How long can the human body go without water, anyway? When we get back, or rather, I should say, if we get back, I have to remember to ask Beckett about dehydration symptoms so that I'll know what to expect if this ever happens again. How are you doing down there, Colonel? Not very talkative. Me, I'm about like I was the last time I mentioned it. Still cold, uncomfortable, and bleeding to death. Oh, that reminds me, there's something I don't think I've mentioned yet, which is really an oversight on my part considering how many near-death situations we seem to encounter on a regular basis. Given the choice of various interment options after my, you know, passing, I'd really prefer to be cremated. Now, I'm well aware that I probably won't care, being dead and all, but something about the idea of being shut up in a tiny coffin for all eternity gives me the creeps. What if I'm not really dead and they put me in there anyway? I don't trust doctors to be able to make that sort of diagnosis. They could be wrong, you know, and then you'd wake up and that's really -- not worth thinking about. Where was I? Right. Cremation. All in all, a much more sensible option, and cheaper too. Besides, since I'm likely to die of dehydration here, I should be nice and dry and burn readily --"
"McKay." The voice was little more than a dry whisper.
Rodney's head snapped up. "Colonel?"
Continue to Part 3