Word Count: 17,500
Pairing: light McKay/Keller
Season/Spoilers: Season 4, shortly after Trio but before Kindred.
Summary: Colonel Sheppard has been in the hands of the Nolari for just over six hours. They are not known for treating their prisoners well. When a rescue mission goes FUBAR, McKay and Keller find themselves racing a ticking clock to save Sheppard's life on a lethal, frozen world.
Notes: This is for astridv, who won my auction for livelongnmarry. She wanted Rodney/Jennifer friendship/UST/possibly more, preferably with h/c, preferably offworld. Thank you so much to sgatazmy and kodiak_bear for the lightning-fast beta and to derry667 for letting me poke her with medical questions. Remaining mistakes are mine alone.
Jennifer stumbled into the jumper bay, her eyes burning from lack of sleep, a heavy field pack dragging at her shoulders. Her body continued to insist that it was 4 a.m., and she realized that some part of her subconscious mind expected the jumper bay to be dark, empty, deserted. Instead, it bustled with quiet, purposeful activity. Military men and women in black clothes, bristling with guns, moved among the jumpers with silent, deadly intent.
Panting under the weight of the pack, swearing once again to get herself in better shape, Jennifer felt like a ping-pong ball as she bounced around the room trying to stay out of the way and looking for someone to give her instructions. Eventually she located several of the command staff -- Rodney, Ronon, Major Lorne -- gathered around Colonel Carter. Jennifer started to slip into position beside Rodney, but backpedaled at the last minute and took a place near Major Lorne instead.
Carter was pacing, her crutches tapping on the floor, and Jennifer winced as she noticed the colonel's leg, stiff in its cast, tapping along just as carelessly. Obviously Carter hadn't been listening to Jennifer's instructions not to let the pain pills lull her into an illusion of good health she didn't have.
"Colonel Sheppard has been in the hands of the Nolari for just over six hours," Carter was saying as Jennifer slipped into the group just behind Lorne's shoulder. "They are not known for treating their prisoners well. Our attempts to negotiate have been refused." Her lips twisted. "Their only response is that they do not negotiate with terrorists, and that Colonel Sheppard will be executed at dawn, as an example to us."
From her position in the semicircle of people, Jennifer could see Rodney's face, white against his dark uniform; she saw him flinch at Carter's blunt words.
"It's winter in the Nolari settlement, so the nights are long," Carter went on. "Their local time is just past midnight, and dawn is about eight hours away. That's your window. This is a simple retrieval, a grab-and-run. As the major has already briefed you, M5Y-PX7's Wraith defense system is Ancient-built, and equally effective against jumpers. We're gambling that a single jumper may be able to evade detection long enough to land.."
Her gaze swept over them. Jennifer couldn't read any expression on her face. This was a side of Carter she'd never seen; she was used to the open, friendly woman who always had a smile for her, not this brusque, deadly serious stranger. Jennifer felt suddenly adrift, the lone civilian in a room full of soldiers.
Well ... not quite the only one. Her eyes locked onto Rodney again, trying to figure out if he looked as scared as she felt. She wished she could catch his eye, but his gaze was fixed on Carter, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to see what would be in his eyes even if he did look in her direction. She hadn't spoken to him since their brief not-quite-date, and had the distinct impression that he'd been avoiding her.
"Minimize unnecessary bloodshed, but take whatever actions you deem necessary to accomplish your objective, while preserving your own lives and those of your teammates," Carter was saying. "If we haven't heard from you by one hour before Nolari dawn, 1100 hours Atlantis time, we will assume you've failed and scramble a heavy strike force." She glanced around at the grim-faced, black-clad men and women loading the jumpers.
"One more thing. The Nolari possess radio technology and know at least some of our frequencies. With Sheppard in their hands for the last six hours, we must assume that our codes have been compromised. Maintain radio silence if possible, and remember that the enemy may be able to hear any messages that you send." Carter turned her head, looking at Lorne. "Major, you're in charge. Good luck."
Jennifer's heart battered against her ribs as she followed Lorne and the rest of the strike team to one of the jumpers. Quietly she counted: herself, Rodney, Ronon, Lorne and four other Marines. Eight people and a bunch of gear were a tight fit inside the jumper, but seemed pitifully inadequate against an entire army.
I'm going into combat. A wave of shivering rolled through her.
"Ma'am?" one of the Marines said, and hands tugged on her medical pack. Turning, Jennifer found herself looking into the freckled face of a young man who barely seemed old enough to be out of high school. In the dead-black commando gear, he looked like a boy playing soldier at Halloween.
"Thank you," Jennifer murmured, relinquishing the pack into his hands and letting him stow it among their other gear. Her fear seemed suddenly petty and small; she clenched her fists and tried to remind herself that all she had to do was try not to get shot, while these people put their own bodies between herself and danger.
Lorne had taken the pilot's seat; Ronon swung into the co-pilot's without speaking, while Rodney settled behind Lorne. Swallowing, Jennifer glanced at the Marines settling themselves on the benches in the rear of the jumper, and then took the seat next to Rodney. She risked offering him a smile, but Rodney was engrossed in his tablet computer on his lap.
Even he's been in the field, been in combat, she thought, shivering again. The weight of the 9-millimeter Beretta felt cold and alien against her hip, buckled there just moments before in the armory by another young Marine, while she'd swayed against him, half asleep on her feet.
Ronon swiveled around in his seat, and tossed Jennifer a pair of gloves. He didn't exactly smile, but he gave her a brief nod and a twitch of his lips. She nodded gratefully in return, and pulled the gloves on.
Lorne said dryly over his shoulder, "You may notice, boys and girls, that we aren't exactly dressed for Arctic operations. Since we're a 'peaceful scientific operation' "-- Jennifer could hear the sardonic quotes in his voice -- "we're notably lacking in field equipment for different terrain, including Arctic camo or proper survival gear. We're going to stick out like a whole platoon of sore thumbs in the snow, and the only cold-weather gear we've got is too bulky -- can't move or fight in it. There are parkas stowed in the back, if it does come to a survival situation, but the plan is to get under cover as quickly as possible. Let's hope for a moonless night, huh?"
"Flight, this is Control," Chuck's voice came over the jumper's speakers. Even he sounded grim and subdued. "Ready to dial the gate, on your mark."
"Moving into position, Control." Lorne's hands moved across the jumper's controls; Jennifer didn't know what he did, but the jumper began to slowly rotate. "I'm taking it down manually."
"Roger that, Flight. Waiting for your mark."
Jennifer swallowed again, her throat too dry, and forcibly uncurled her fingers from the edges of her seat. As the jumper descended, darkness gave way to the gateroom in night operations mode, its corners cloaked in shadow and the gate techs' faces bathed in the light of the screens. Jennifer noticed Teyla at the top of the stairs, her arms wrapped around her pregnant body and her face blank, expressionless.
"We're cloaked," Lorne said. "Mark."
"Good luck," Chuck said, and the blue light of the gate washed over them.
Jennifer didn't mean to, but she closed her eyes as the jumper moved silently into the shimmering blue pool of the gate, and opened them onto a world painted in stark shades of gray and black. With the jumper's running lights shut off, it was almost too dark to see. Snowflakes swirled against their windshield as Lorne guided the jumper across snow-covered fields, lurching over a stand of conifers that almost scraped its belly and then sweeping across low buildings spangled with lights.
Lorne's knuckles were white on the controls. "Looks like we got lucky," he murmured. "Dark night. If the snow comes down heavier, it'll even cover our tracks--"
"Get us down, quick," Rodney hissed, studying his laptop screen. "They know something came through the gate. They're trying to lock onto us."
The jumper dropped into another stand of trees. Jennifer gasped involuntarily as a web of black branches, dotted with dull-gray clumps of snow, splintered and scraped across the windshield. Lorne spat something under his breath. The jumper bumped as it settled, and then was still.
"Inconspicuous." Rodney's voice was much too loud in the silence.
"McKay, shut up," Ronon growled.
Everyone was rising as if at an unseen signal, even Rodney. Jennifer nervously followed suit and accepted her pack from the same young Marine, along with a rubbery thing that she finally recognized, twisting it in her gloved fingers, as a Neoprene face mask.
Lorne moved past his men to the jumper's hatch, and planted his hand against it. Looking back at them, he said in a low voice that nonetheless carried, "It's damn cold out there. The plan is to get inside and out of the snow as quick as we can. The Doc, myself, and Airman Kleinberg here have remotes to unlock the jumper. If you're separated from the main group, especially if you're outside, scrub the mission and try to get back here; survival is your priority."
Wait, Jennifer thought wildly, but then the hatch lowered and Lorne jumped off into the snow. Ronon was a silent shadow on his heels, the others a tight knot behind. She was borne along with them: too late to change her mind, to turn back.
After the warm jumper, the night felt bitterly cold. The snow came up to the tops of her military-issue boots, and drifting flakes settled in her hair, on her shoulders. For a moment, the jumper's interior lights shone out across the snow, and then the hatch snapped shut and they were abandoned to the cold and the dark.
Well ... not entirely dark. A yellow-white glow reflected off the clouds above the trees, lending a soft luminescence to the snow: the lights, she guessed, of the Nolari defensive complex and the town beyond. Through the trunks of the conifers around them, Jennifer caught glimpses of those lights, probably the same ones they'd flown over.
And that, of course, was the way the soldiers went, jogging through the trees. She scrambled to keep up. At least Rodney looked as out of his element as she felt -- slipping and sliding in his boots, the tablet computer clamped under one arm and his face set in taut lines of misery. He wasn't wearing the face mask he'd been given -- she could see it clasped in one of his hands -- which reminded her that she was still holding her own, too. After fumbling with it for a moment, she resigned herself to the fact that she couldn't possibly put it on and keep up with everyone else, and stuffed it into a vest pocket instead.
Despite the cold air biting at her nose and cheeks, the combination of the heavy pack and the forced jog kept her warm enough. By the time they reached the edge of the trees, she was panting, and even her fingers and toes felt toasty.
Ronon fell back to whisper something to Rodney, whose only response was an irritated glare. Then Ronon slipped soundlessly to Jennifer, and lowered his head to murmur into her ear, "See the tree there? In case you have to find the jumper alone."
Jennifer followed his glance to a very distinctive-looking gnarled pine; it looked like a funny old man, crouching in the snow. Yoda, she thought, squinting at it, picking out the pointed ears and the squat shape. Looking back into the woods from the Yoda-tree, she tried to remember how long since they'd left the jumper. Five minutes, maybe? It seemed much longer, but she was barely winded, so either she was in better shape or they hadn't come far.
In case you have to find the jumper alone.
Ronon had already moved back up to rejoin Lorne. Jennifer shivered and moved closer to the group, trying to take comfort from having them around her. It wasn't much comfort. Even Rodney had a P90, resting across his chest next to the computer.
Ahead of them, an expanse of fresh, trackless snow stretched to a tall mesh fence -- Jennifer estimated it couldn't be less than twelve feet high -- with razor wire, or at least what appeared to be the local equivalent, running along the top. On the other side, the buildings began, low and square and utilitarian. There was a guard tower at the corner of the fence that she could see. Floodlights lit up the snow and cast inky black shadows between the buildings. The place made her think of maximum-security prisons that she'd seen on TV.
There was only one item that didn't fit -- a slender tower just visible over the tops of the blocky, concrete buildings. It was graceful and reflective, and clearly Ancient in design.
Jennifer saw that Lorne had dropped back to whisper in Rodney's ear, pointing at the tower. Rodney nodded impatiently. He'd brought out his computer again, shoving the P90 to one side, and stripped off his gloves one at a time, jamming them into a pocket. Jennifer watched as he crouched down to balance the computer on his knees, along with an Ancient scanner, stringing wires between them.
Now that she was no longer moving, the cold began to seep through her inadequate clothing -- crawling up the legs of her pants, creeping under her jacket and vest. She stood and shivered, feeling useless and left out. My part doesn't come yet, she told herself. I'll be useful later. But it didn't help much, especially since she hoped with all her heart that she wouldn't be needed. They'd find Sheppard healthy and whole, they'd make it back to the jumper intact --
The floodlights and the lights of the buildings winked out, leaving them with only the faint luminosity of the snow. "Go!" Rodney whispered loudly, but the strike team was already moving. They were shockingly silent, their passage marked only by the whisper of their boots in the snow and the occasional click of a buckle or moving part on one of the guns. Jennifer trotted along with them, thrashing through the snow in her unfamiliar combat boots, feeling clumsy and inept. Her breath came in harsh gasps, no matter how hard she tried to breathe quietly.
They stopped at the fence. Individual lights began flickering among the buildings, and Jennifer heard shouting from somewhere ahead of them. Lorne drew his combat knife as he reached the fence, but Ronon pushed him to one side, and pulled out the sword from the sheath on his back, with a soft shwing! of scraping metal. It glimmered in the reflected light off the snow, like a bar of starlight in his hands. He cut the mesh fence with three sweeps: two down, one across.
"Show-off," Rodney muttered in Ronon's direction, with no particular animosity. Jennifer saw Ronon's teeth flash in a quick grin as he put away the sword.
Several sets of gloved hands peeled back the mesh. Jennifer cast a quick look back to the comparative safety of the woods and then, setting her teeth, stepped through. The snow on the other side was churned up in stiff ridges by other people's feet; she stumbled repeatedly as she followed the Marines into the lee of the buildings. Ronon paused to bend the wire back into shape, more or less, and then brought up their rear. It seemed fairly useless to Jennifer -- their tracks stood out plainly behind them, like a big arrow pointing in their direction. The snow had begun to fall more heavily, though, softening and blurring the edges of the all-too-clear trail.
"How long will the blackout last?" Lorne was asking Rodney in a tense whisper when Jennifer caught up to them.
"I don't know! Depends on what sort of sorry excuses for scientists they've got, and how long it takes them to figure out how to get their computers online again. We can't have more than minutes, though." Rodney's idea of a whisper carried piercingly to all the dark, silent buildings around them. Jennifer winced, and shifted from foot to foot in the snow. Somewhere nearby, she could hear shouted voices, echoing between the buildings.
"Did you manage to get any schematics before you shut down their computers, Doc?"
Rodney aimed a withering glare at him. "Yes, in a file clearly labeled Maps of Compound for Use by Armed Invaders, with a big blinking arrow: Prisoner Located Here."
"I take it that's a no."
Rodney curled his lip and then jumped when Ronon whacked him in the arm. "Focus, McKay," Ronon murmured at him.
"I think I've lost all feeling in my hand," Rodney retorted, rubbing his arm.
The bickering, Jennifer supposed, was their way of distracting themselves. Their teammate was somewhere in the all-too-large compound, condition unknown, with a death sentence hanging over his head. She could see Lorne's impatience with it, though.
"Clock's ticking," he said. "We split up, then. Three teams, each with one person who's got the ATA gene and a remote to the jumper. Kleinberg, you think you can fly it if you have to?"
Kleinberg, a lean woman with her dark hair tucked up under a beret, hesitated and then nodded in silence.
"You're on Ronon's team, Casey along with you. Yohiro, Dussendorff, with me. Sergeant O'Hara, you get doctor-sitting duty."
"Now wait a minute," Rodney began stiffly, and then clapped his mouth shut when a stranger in a long gray coat jogged around the corner and skidded to a halt. The look of surprise on his face was almost comical. He didn't even have a chance to raise his odd, three-barrelled gun to his shoulder before two of the Marines shot him at cross angles. The P90s barked, fire sputtering from their muzzles; the man jerked and crumpled in the snow without making a sound.
Jennifer flattened herself against the side of the building and tried desperately not to do any of the stupid things that she wanted to do -- scream, throw up, run. She'd seen Teyla kill the Bola Kai on New Athos, but somehow there was something about this that felt so much more ... real. She'd spent the whole Bola Kai thing floating along in a haze, half convinced that she was on the set of some kind of weird movie or tripping on drugs. Attacked by barbarians -- it just didn't happen. But this guy was just a soldier, albeit a soldier in an unfamiliar uniform with a weird-looking gun. A person like me, said some deep-down little part of herself. Or he had been. Now he was just a dead thing, sprawled in blood-splattered snow while the Marines briskly patted down his pockets and took a large, ungainly-looking walkie-talkie off him.
"Well, that did it," Lorne said grimly. "Ronon, left; I'll go right; O'Hara, see if you can get McKay to a computer terminal and get us a damn map. Stay moving, stay alive, break radio silence only if absolutely necessary -- and don't reveal your position if you do. Signal the rest of us if you achieve mission objective. Meet at the jumper. Go!"
Jennifer saw Ronon slap Rodney lightly on the shoulder, and then he took off with his Marines. Lorne went the other way, and O'Hara -- who turned out to be the same freckle-faced kid who had taken her pack in the jumper -- hustled them down an alley between two of the blank-faced concrete buildings.
"Stop, stop," Rodney protested, trying to put his gloves on while juggling the computer and the scanner. "Quit manhandling me, you -- ow!"
O'Hara had unceremoniously slapped a hand over his mouth. "Shh." He reached his arm back across Rodney's chest to nudge Jennifer flat against the wall of the building, just before several Nolari trooped past, the light of the lanterns in their hands dancing across the snow. Pressed against the side of the building in the shadows, Jennifer held her breath, sucked in her stomach and tried to think flat, tiny, silent thoughts.
The Nolari soldiers vanished behind another building and Jennifer let out a long, slow breath.
"Get your hands off me, you ... you grunt," Rodney said in a fierce whisper, making brushing-off motions. O'Hara scowled at him and drew his arm back, releasing the two of them. Jennifer gave him an apologetic smile.
Ignoring them both, Rodney whipped out the scanner and squinted at it. "Okay. Get me to a computer. I need to find a terminal and find -- you know --" His voice faltered; he looked up and saw O'Hara still standing there, frowning at him. Drawing himself up, he snapped, "Come on, chop chop. That's your job, isn't it?"
"Any suggestions as to how we might go about that, sir?" the soldier whispered back in a tone heavy with sarcasm. "And I'd suggest you keep your voice down."
"Don't preach to me. How old are you? Can you even drink yet? I've fought Genii and Wraith, I've been tortured by better enemies than these thugs, these Ancient wannabes --"
"Rodney." Nerving herself, Jennifer grabbed his arm. He stilled, and turned to look at her; in the dim light, his face was a white mask with dark holes for eyes. Jennifer cleared her throat against the sudden lump -- her own fear seemed to fade next to what he must be feeling, with Sheppard God knows where and now, Ronon gone too. "Rodney, you need to tell us what to do," she said gently. "We're waiting for you to tell us where to go."
Rodney seemed to shake himself a little bit. Taking a deep breath, he looked around and pointed at the glassy tower rising above the buildings. "Get me to that. I'm not sure if they've built their headquarters around the ruins of an Ancient facility, or if we're standing on top of a buried one, but either way -- well, what are we waiting for? Move!"
From building to building, they made their way through the luminous snow. Occasionally enemy troops stampeded past, singly or in groups. Most were male, but Jennifer couldn't help noticing a few women among them, wearing the same shapeless gray uniforms as the men. Once, a burst of P90 fire erupted from somewhere else in the compound, along with low gutteral barks that must have been the weapons of the Nolari. It ended quickly, and Jennifer swallowed hard, told herself that they'd be radioed if any of the other teams needed her assistance. If anyone was still alive to do it...
The Ancient tower, a graceful structure of metal and glass, rose from a complex of squat gray buildings that clustered around its base like mushrooms. Jennifer, Rodney and O'Hara crouched in the shadows, looking across an expanse of trampled snow to the well-guarded door.
"Up there," O'Hara whispered, and pointed up. Jennifer looked. The buildings in the area were mostly two-story, and several of them were connected to the complex around the tower's base by slender catwalks.
I might have known, she thought miserably, as she and Rodney followed O'Hara deeper into the shadows along the building's base; it's always high places in this galaxy, isn't it? Sinkholes and rope bridges and catwalks. This galaxy hates me.
O'Hara unwound the mask from his face, wrapped it around the butt of the P90 and knocked the lock off a side door. Inside, stacks of crates loomed out of the darkness. When Jennifer pulled the door shut behind them, the darkness was almost complete; only a few thin rays of starshine gleamed dully through a window high above them.
A sudden beam of light cut through the gloom. Jennifer squinted and looked around as O'Hara and then Rodney switched on their P90-mounted flashlights. Stacks of crates leaped into stark black-and-white relief. Looking up, following her companions' gaze, Jennifer saw a high ceiling of naked girders and a catwalk circling the inside of the building.
It was marginally less cold inside the warehouse. Jennifer rubbed her half-numb arms to warm up, and followed Rodney while O'Hara came behind her, guarding their rear. They climbed a set of bare metal stairs to the second-story catwalk. A heavy door blocked their way, but it wasn't locked; Rodney cracked it open, and snow swirled around him and blew into Jennifer's face.
Jennifer peeked out over Rodney's shoulder, blinking and squinting against the snow. For no longer than they'd been out of the storm, she was surprised to see how much worse it had gotten -- or maybe it just seemed worse now that they were no longer sheltered by the buildings at ground level. The catwalk in front of her looked like a slim thread, with snow and wind sweeping over it. Below them, Jennifer caught glimpses of soldiers milling about.
This galaxy really hates me.
Rodney didn't look any happier with the situation. "Maybe we can find another way in," he whispered.
"I only saw the one door below, Doc, and it's pretty well guarded," O'Hara whispered back. "No telling what's on the other side of this, but I'd say we oughta take advantage before they figure out their back door isn't guarded. I'll take point and signal if it's clear."
Jennifer managed to squeak out a feeble "Wait!" before he was gone, jogging across the catwalk as if he wasn't twenty feet in the air with death below him. None of the soldiers looked up; he vanished through a door at the far side without a sound.
"You know what I hate most about the military?" Rodney said, very quietly, between his teeth. "It's when they do stupid, heroic, self-sacrificing, idiotic things like that."
Jennifer glanced at him, realizing that she had no idea what had happened, no clue how the Colonel had come to be in this situation. She hadn't even known their team was offworld; all she knew was that she'd been awakened after less than three hours of sleep by a Marine telling her to come with him for a rescue mission.
From the grim, set look on Rodney's face, she didn't think now was a good time to ask.
No gunfire erupted from the other end of the catwalk, and a moment later O'Hara appeared, waving them across.
Crap, Jennifer thought.
Rodney's face was as pale and terrified as she imagined hers must be, and he didn't make a move to set foot on the catwalk, either. The realization came to Jennifer slowly -- first that he was as frightened as she was, despite his brave words earlier, and second, that there was something she could do for him, something that might help.
She could go first.
Without speaking, Jennifer placed her foot on the metal grille. It was even worse than she'd feared -- not just cold metal, but icy metal, slippery under the insensitive soles of her boots. There was nothing to hang onto but a single cable strung between the two buildings.
Rodney made a little squeaky sound behind her. "Come back here!" he whispered.
She didn't dare answer, didn't trust herself to answer. I can do this. I can. One step at a time, her hand on the cable going numb even through the glove, praying that the guards didn't chance to look up at that instant and see her silhouetted against the sky. One step, and another, placing her feet one in front of the other on the slick, snowswept metal, while the wind tore at her and the heavy pack on her back made her balance even more unstable.
And then she was there, she was across, and O'Hara's hands were helping her into a room that was blessedly warm, if dark. She caught herself on the wall, gasping, trying not to sob in reaction and relief. Turning her head, she saw O'Hara catching Rodney as he'd caught her. He was right behind me, she thought in amazement; he might have even been able to catch her if she'd slipped and fallen.
Or maybe she'd just have dragged them both to the snow and the soldiers waiting below. Bad thought.
"We are not going back that way," Rodney's tense whisper came out of the darkness.
"Dr. McKay, I thoroughly concur," Jennifer whispered back, a bit shakily, and she felt his shoulder brush against hers in the dark. Then he moved around her and away; Jennifer heard a soft thump and a muttered curse as he bumped into something.
"Where are we?" Rodney asked briskly, presumably talking to O'Hara. Trying to follow him, Jennifer felt her hip bump against some kind of furniture; she touched it and found that it was a table or shelf of some sort.
"I think it's a lab --" the soldier began, but just then, with a click-hum, the lights flickered back on.
It was indeed a lab, Jennifer thought, looking around at her startled companions and the room surrounding them -- a chemistry lab of some kind, perhaps; the glassware on the long worktables looked more appropriate to the 1800s, but she recognized distillation equipment amid the bottles and beakers.
"That was about the best-case scenario," Rodney said smugly, brushing snowflakes off his shoulders. "I didn't do much but crash their computers. If it took them this long to get them back online, then they have very little idea of what they're doing at all; they're just piggybacking on the Ancient tech with no real understanding of the underlying princi--"
"Get down!" O'Hara barked as a soldier in a gray uniform appeared in the open doorway of the too-bright lab. Lunging at Rodney, who was the nearest person to him, O'Hara knocked him to the floor; Jennifer caught a brief glimpse of this as she jumped at the shout and the sudden motion, then completely overbalanced with the weight of her pack and went crashing to the floor underneath one of the lab tables.
Thrashing around in panic, she heard gunfire but couldn't see a thing until she managed to get her hands and knees under her, and poked her head up far enough to see Rodney standing, rigid, with the P90 in his hands.
"McKay?" she whispered. "Where's --" Then she got her head up over the lab table and saw O'Hara sprawled on the floor, with the enemy soldier slumped in the doorway.
"Oh God," she said, and scrambled to O'Hara's side. She could immediately see that there was nothing she could do. His eyes were open and staring, the side of his head revealing glistening skull fragments in a sea of blood.
"He -- I thought he just got winged, but I sat up and -- you see --" Rodney babbled helplessly. Blood spattered his pale face. "He shot the other guy, and then I shot the other guy because he was still trying to shoot me, and -- uh -- is he dead?"
The other guy. Jennifer stumbled across the room to the enemy soldier, spilled on the floor in a spray of blood. He was still breathing, his chest rising and falling jerkily with blood bubbling on his lips. Jennifer knelt next to him and began to pull his uniform back from his chest.
"He's kind of the bad guy, you know," Rodney said, hovering over her and shifting the gun around as if he had no idea where to point it. "Oh my god, I shot a person."
Probable pneumothorax, Jennifer thought, need to get him into surgery -- Except there was no surgery nearby, not here, and she had no idea of the state of this planet's medical facilities. She applied a pressure bandage from her pack and slashed away more of his coarsely woven uniform shirt so that she could see the extent of the damage.
"You should be helping our guy, the kid, what's his name, O'Brian --"
"O'Hara," Jennifer said, "and he's ... he's dead, Rodney." She pressed a morphine injector to the Nolari soldier's upper arm.
"Then why are you helping him?" Rodney demanded in what Jennifer was rapidly coming to recognize as the particularly peevish tone he assumed when he was desperately terrified and trying not to show it. "He shot O'Hara --"
"Rodney, do you want him to die?" Her own terror had receded now that she had a patient to focus on.
"No," Rodney said in a small voice.
The Nolari soldier's eyelids fluttered. "Hi, there," Jennifer said in the most comforting tone she could muster under the circumstances. "I've done what I can, but you're badly hurt. You need medical attention. Is there a doctor here?"
"Never mind about that, where's the prisoner?" Rodney leaned over Jennifer's shoulder, invading her personal space. "You're keeping a prisoner here. Where is he? In this building?"
The Nolari soldier coughed weakly. "Heathens," he mumbled, "invading the sacred City, attacking us ... hope you all die ..." Then he passed out again.
"Thanks for nothing!" Rodney snapped at him. "We could've left you to bleed to death, you know --"
He fell silent, and it took Jennifer a minute to hear what he'd heard -- pounding feet and voices, not too far away.
The gunfire must have drawn more soldiers. Jennifer looked up at Rodney and saw her own fear written on his blood-splattered face. He glanced back towards O'Hara's body.
"We -- we can't --" Jennifer swallowed, and realized that she was speaking to herself as much as Rodney. "We can't carry him, and run -- we'll have to ... to leave him here."
"I know." Rodney took a few quick steps to the body and knelt beside it. He took the radio, and O'Hara's P90. Though his hands were shaking, his movements were quick; Jennifer wondered if he'd been in similar situations before. Again, she was acutely aware of the gulf of experience between them. As militarily incompetent as he could sometimes appear, Rodney had been going out in the field for four years.
And now he was thrusting the P90 into her hands. "Oh no," she protested, "I can't, I don't even know --"
"It's not hard. Just, you know, point and squeeze the trigger. This is the safety. It's ready to fire now." Rodney swallowed, and looked up at the gaping, open doorway. The sound of running feet drew closer.
Jennifer glanced across the room at the door they'd come in through, and beyond it, the catwalk. "Should we -- should we go back?"
Rodney's face was white, but set. "Sheppard's here," was all he said, and he went to the open doorway, peered out.
Jennifer snatched a dust cover off one of the tables and used it to cover the Nolari soldier. His breathing sounded worse, but there wasn't anything else she could do. With a last, miserable glance at O'Hara's body, she joined Rodney in the doorway.
Together they darted out into the corridor. After sneaking around in the dark for so long, the flickering yellow lights seemed much too bright. There was another door across the hall; by mutual consent they headed for that one, since the running feet sounded like they were about to round the corner just ahead of them. It opened easily at Rodney's touch and they found themselves in another lab, similar to the other but darkened. There were more doors set into the far wall. As the sound of running feet pounded by outside the room, they crossed to the other side, peered into the hall and let themselves quietly out.
A few more minutes of working themselves through a maze of passageways and labs found them far from the place where O'Hara had died and, in Jennifer's case at least, utterly lost. At least they hadn't run into anyone yet. The hallways were alive with soldiers -- they'd had to duck into labs several times to avoid being seen -- but there were no scientists about anywhere. Nighttime, Jennifer thought. By day, these labs would certainly be staffed. So far, they hadn't entered the Ancient tower at all; the Nolari had built a rats' nest of their square, concrete buildings all around its base. Just when Jennifer thought they must surely have reached the tower by now, they'd be diverted by a dead end, or open a door and find yet another bare concrete hallway.
"Should we call Major Lorne?" she whispered, after they barely managed to avoid another group of Nolari soldiers. "Maybe he can tell us what we should do."
Rodney shook his head. "Radio silence," he whispered back, his mouth set in a grim, crooked line.
All of the labs they'd found so far were simple chemistry or biology labs. One contained rows of cages with little lizardlike creatures that were obviously this world's equivalent of lab rats; Jennifer wished she had time to stop and look more closely. None of them, however, contained any technology that would have looked out of place in 1900. But at last they got lucky, and stumbled across a lab with a large, antique-looking computer terminal in one corner. "Aha," Rodney crowed, "keep a lookout," and sat down at the keyboard.
"Lookout -- lookout for what?" Jennifer's hand on the P90's unfamiliar trigger was slick with sweat. She had to wipe it off on her pants. "I don't think I could shoot anybody, even if I had to."
"You'd be surprised," Rodney muttered under his breath, and then made a little happy sound when the terminal lit up in front of him.
They'd left the lights off in the lab; the only light came from the glow of the terminal and the yellow light shafting into the room through a small window in each of the room's several doors. Jennifer leaned her hip on one of the worktables and tried to divide her attention between the doors, glancing at Rodney every so often.
He was singlemindedly engaged in his work, the tip of his tongue poking from the corner of his mouth. Jennifer couldn't help grinning at that. The green glow from the monitor outlined his face and those long, improbable eyelashes.
She still hadn't had a chance to talk to him about their "date". And, really, even she could recognize that while under enemy fire and searching for a missing and possibly tortured Colonel was not the time. He didn't seem to be acting too awkward with her -- at least not any more so than normal. She wondered, yet again, if he'd really been avoiding her for the last few days or if he was simply being Rodney McKay -- workaholic and socially clueless.
They'd had a nice time -- at least, she'd had a nice time. A couple of beers each from the six-pack of microbrew her dad had sent in his last care package; an unexpectedly pleasant conversation on a nice neutral balcony located halfway between their respective rooms. They had talked about her childhood, and Rodney's two PhDs, and (to her own surprise) what had happened with Ronon -- or, as the case may be, hadn't happened with Ronon. "Because if a jealous caveman comes storming out onto this balcony and throws me over the railing, I'm not going to be happy," Rodney had said.
"There's nothing going on with me and Ronon," she'd said, and she was mostly sure that was true. Was it just her imagination, or did men on this expedition have considerably less than even the usual lack of social clue? She and Ronon had shared one slightly awkward almost-kiss, and she'd waited for him to make another move for weeks, and then finally gotten forward enough to ask him about it. "Thought I was ready," he'd said. "Guess I'm not."
At least he was willing to discuss it. Jennifer wasn't sure if Rodney even realized they'd had a date -- considering his comments about his inadvertent breakup with Katie, she thought he might not. Or maybe he just didn't know you were supposed to call a girl the next day. Or maybe he did know and hadn't enjoyed himself, or maybe he wasn't ready either --
"Oh, hello there," Rodney said happily.
"What? Did you find something?" Jennifer leaned over his shoulder, discovering as she did so that he had a nice smell -- soap and shaving cream and a tangy hint of maleness. Her handful of previous boyfriends had all possessed their own flavors of that particular smell.
There was also a dark streak of O'Hara's blood on his cheek. She'd seen him try to wipe it off the last time they'd stopped to catch their breath, but mostly he'd just managed to smear it around, and now, with her face inches from his, she had an up-close and personal view. Jennifer's warm romantic feelings dropped down to her toes and trickled out, leaving behind a chill of fear and the all-too-intense awareness of their desperate situation.
"Oh yes, come to papa," Rodney murmured. "Schematics. Looks like the whole place is in here. I didn't think they'd actually be stupid enough to have a map lying around, but, well, here we are." He gave a soft, humorless laugh. "And I was joking about the big arrow, but, well, look at this." Raising one finger, he pointed at the screen.
Jennifer squinted. "Um, I can't read that."
"What? You can't? Oh, sorry. It's Ancient script. You really can't read that?"
"Guess I missed that class in medical school," Jennifer said through her teeth. She'd picked up a few Alteran medical terms, here and there, but for the most part, there were computer programmers to decipher and interpret the database for the medical staff; there simply wasn't time to learn a language she didn't need to know, not with everything else she had to do.
"Oh. Well, then. That one says 'interrogation'. I'm pretty sure we're, um, down here somewhere --" He waved a hand vaguely across part of the screen. "So we need to find this big corridor over here. Shouldn't be too hard. We won't have to enter the tower at all." He sounded regretful about that, but gave a sigh and hit some more buttons. Jennifer heard the disturbingly loud clatter of what was obviously a printer across the room. "Go get that," Rodney said, eyes trained on the screen.
At any other time, she'd have objected to being ordered around like one of his lab lackeys, but it seemed a petty complaint right now. Jennifer retrieved the papers from a weird, medieval-looking contraption that made her think more of an automated typewriter than a printer.
"How are we going to get past the guards?" she asked.
"Working," Rodney snapped. "Ah. How about this?" He pressed some more keys; the lights went out again, plunging them back into familiar darkness, and a moment later, a siren began to wail.
Jennifer fought the urge to cover her ears. "What did you do?"
"Told the Ancient facility to trigger a quarantine lockdown." In the darkness, Rodney sounded smug. "All their defensive capabilities are now completely offline and they're physically locked out of whatever's left of the Ancient facility -- the original core part, I mean, not where we are right now. And they're totally locked out of their computers too. Maybe they can get them back up, or find a workaround, but I think we're looking at a timeframe of weeks, not hours, especially considering the apparent skill level of what passes for programmers around here."
"Nice," Jennifer said, and meant it.
Rodney sighed, and his tone shifted to one of vague unhappiness. "I just wish I'd been able to get more information to take back with us. I mean, something must be powering this place. They might even have a ZPM -- it'd be mostly depleted, judging by the state of the lights, but we could --"
Jennifer had been groping around in the darkness until finally she found his arm and gave it a tug. "Not now," she said.
Rodney broke off in mid-ramble. "No -- no, not now -- more important things --" He trailed off, muttering to himself, and flicked on his flashlight to study the printed maps. The siren continued to wail.
"Is that thing going to shut off anytime soon?" Jennifer asked.
"What? No, probably not ... okay, we go this way. I think," he added in a small voice.
The claustrophobic darkness and the wailing of the siren created a sense of impending apocalypse as they blundered around in the corridors. From the intensely panicked sound of the voices they occasionally overheard, Jennifer could tell that the Nolari had no idea what was going on; for all they knew, some kind of self-destruct had been activated. Actually, for all she knew, a self-destruct had been activated -- and that was a bad thought, and she wasn't going there.
"Heating system's out too," Rodney said, a trace of smugness having crept back into his tone. "By the time they get things back online, they're likely to have some badly burst pipes and water damage. I'm Canadian; I know how to commit sabotage in a northern climate. Just let the weather do it for you."
Something had been bothering Jennifer more and more as they wandered about in the dark, and she finally nerved herself to bring it up. "The Ancient security system was their Wraith defense system, too, wasn't it? Is it really ethical to turn it off?"
The hesitation before he spoke let her know that she wasn't the only one having similar thoughts. "They attacked us," Rodney said at last, a bit sharply. "Not that I don't have at least a little sympathy there -- heck, after dealing with the U.S. military for the last ten years, if they want to picket I'll help them make the signs -- but this is self-defense. We're trying to survive."
"But there's a town on this planet. Kids and old people."
"Don't," Rodney snapped. The harshness in his voice, as unexpected as the way he handled the gun, left her silent.
"Self defense," Jennifer said, mostly to herself. Chippewa Falls seemed like such a terribly long way from here. The worst thing she'd feared in her old life was some junkie going nuts in the emergency room. And now, look at her. She tightened her grip on the P90 until her fingers ached.
Rodney stopped her with a hand. "Hey, hold on."
He paused and studied the maps again, cupping his hand around the flashlight to minimize the reflected light. "I think this is that big corridor -- right here, through that door."
Jennifer squinted at the pages. It was fairly obvious on the schematics -- a long, wide corridor, perhaps a remnant of an older building, running along one side of the complex surrounding the tower. At one end was the area Rodney had said was labeled "interrogation"; he'd scribbled a heavy black circle around it.
"How are we going to get in?" With the siren's racket, they no longer had to whisper -- in fact, couldn't really whisper and still be heard.
Rodney tried to smile at her; it was more of a stiff grimace. "I don't suppose you have a plan."
For a moment they just stared at each other in the flashlight's dim light. Then Rodney ducked his eyes away and snapped it off, plunging them into darkness again. As her vision adjusted, Jennifer became aware of a faint glow coming under the door in front of them.
Rodney's dark bulk moved against the light. He cracked the door open, and they both peeked out. The light was coming from a door at the end of the long, wide corridor -- a warm, flickering light, the sort that comes from a flame rather than the more impersonal light of electricity. Well, Jennifer thought, they were bound to have some candles or lanterns around.
"I have a couple of flashbangs," Rodney said, and, at Jennifer's blank look, "Small explosives, make a bright light and noise. I got them from the -- the body. From O'Hara. I know how to use them; a -- well, you might call him a friend ... showed me once, years ago. But I don't know how many people we're going to have to subdue."
"We could call Lorne. Rodney, maybe we should call Lorne." Jennifer worried at her lower lip until she tasted blood. "What if we screw this up? We don't know how to do this."
"I -- we can't." He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. "If they're listening in, then they'll know right where we are. Lorne and Ronon will walk into a trap."
"We don't know that they're listening," she argued.
"You want to gamble Ronon's life, and everyone else's, on the slim chance that you're right, Doctor Keller?"
"You want to gamble our lives, and Colonel Sheppard's?"
They were almost nose to nose, both breathing hard. In the small amount of light coming in through the door, Jennifer could see Rodney's eyes glittering; she could smell the sharp reek of fear-sweat on him. And, damn it, he was right. She backed down and ran a hand over her face, touching the slickness of her own sweat.
"I'm sorry, Rodney. I just -- I don't know if I can," she admitted. "Can't we wait? Maybe they'll evacuate, bring him out, or something. We don't even know if he's in there; we're just guessing."
"And we also don't know what they're doing to him while we wait. You -- you could stay here." He swallowed hard. "I can do this. You just wait for me to come back."
Jennifer stared at him. "And you'll take on heaven knows how many heavily-armed soldiers by yourself? Is this some kind of -- of misguided attempt at chivalry, or something? No." She shook her head vigorously, trying to quell her trembling. "If you go in there, I'm going with you."
After a moment, he said quietly, "You don't have to."
"Yes, I do," she said as firmly as she could manage, "and please don't try to talk me out of it, because you'll probably succeed and you might need me in there."
He took a deep breath, and let it out in a long, shuddering sigh. Jennifer felt something cold pressed into her hand. "This is a flashbang. This is the trigger, and this is the locking pin. Feel it?"
She nodded, running her hands over the object in the semi-darkness. "It's ... like a grenade?"
"Yeah, kinda. I'll go first, and use mine. You use this one if we need it -- but, uh, warn me first if you can, okay?" He offered her another of those small, grimacing smiles. "I've had 'em go off and blind me, and believe me, it's not fun."
Jennifer managed a small, tight nod, and tucked the object into one of her pockets, where it sat like a particularly dense and heavy can of hairspray. "Okay. Should we, um, have a code word? For when we're going to use it? I could say, I don't know, Sesame Street."
"Sesame Street?" Rodney echoed, some of the fear in his voice giving way to sarcasm.
"Don't start," she retorted. "I have many happy childhood memories of that show."
"All right, whatever makes you happy. And," he added, "don't shoot me."
"I'll try." She made the best attempt at a smile that she could manage. "Don't shoot me, either."
"I'll try," he said with a feeble attempt at a laugh, and pushed the door open.
Continue to Part Two.