Panting for breath after running for far too long, in his opinion, Rodney stood now, eyeing the path ahead with much trepidation. It was close to the edge of a cliff with a raging sea pounding beneath it. No fencing to stop someone slipping over to a watery grave, and with the path being so muddy, it was surely a treacherous situation just asking for pain and death.
There was no way he was walking along that path.
"There is no way I'm walking along there," he said, loudly and stridently, earning himself an annoyed look. "I'm bound to fall," he continued, ignoring the look. "You're not seriously suggesting this?"
"McKay," Sheppard said quietly, "We don't really have much of a choice here. Or do you want to turn back? In case you've forgotten, there's a pack of large, snarling dog-like creatures with lots of sharp teeth between us, the village and the gate. Large, snarling dog-like creatures that are heading our way."
"I haven't forgotten that, Colonel, but this is madness!"
"Well, feel free to head back if you want..." Sheppard trailed off, waiting for his reply. Rodney grimaced, looking back as a loud howl went up.
"Oh crap, they really are following us! I wasn't sure they were..."
"Yes, Rodney, they are. It's probably what they do."
"Like wolves?" he said suddenly, clicking his fingers rapidly. "They follow their prey for long distances, and when it tires, they attack. Oh crap, they're not going to let up, are they?"
"Probably not," Sheppard agreed.
Rodney turned back to the cliff path. The ground at the side of it was boggy, making the compacted rock and dirt path muddy and treacherous even on a fine clear day like today.
Damn it, why did these things keep on happening to them? It was supposed to be an easy mission. Just greet the locals and reaffirm their trading agreement, but no, he had to find an energy signal, didn't he? And, of course, Ronon and Teyla stayed behind in the village while Sheppard and he went to investigate - only to run into the dogs from hell. Well, one dog from hell, but it hadn't been long after it had run off that he'd picked up howls approaching them in the distance. Chalk one up for sentinel hearing, he thought glumly.
Sheppard took the lead, moving cautiously onto the pathway, and with a deep sigh, he followed slowly.
"If I fall..."
"You won't fall," Sheppard stated optimistically.
"You can't know that!"
"You won't fall if you pay attention to where you're walking and stop freaking out."
"I am not freaking out. This is so not me freaking out."
"Riight. Maybe you should stop talking so you can concentrate on where you're walking?"
"I am perfectly capable of multitasking, unlike some military types I could mention."
"McKay," Sheppard said in exasperation.
"Fine, fine. Shutting up now."
He tried not to look at the drop to the side of him, tried to concentrate instead on putting one foot in front of the other - and on not slipping. But he couldn't help himself as he pushed his hearing out gently, gauging the distance to the ocean below. Five, six hundred metres? A hell of a long way to fall. He didn't dare use his sentinel eyesight - he really didn't need to see the fall; hearing it was bad enough.
He needed to think about something else. Forget about the horrible death that lay to one side of him, just waiting for him to stumble or slip. But his mind had other ideas, and he wondered idly if it would hurt when he hit the bottom or if death would be instantaneous? Maybe he'd get caught on a ledge and survive, only be horribly injured instead? Maybe paralysed... or brain damaged! Oh crap, not that! Anything but that!!
Damn it! It wasn't working!
Just whose crazy-assed idea had it been to put a path so close the cliff's edge in the first place? Really, it didn't make sense to put it this close... unless it was erosion. Maybe there'd been a landslip, causing the path to end up right on the edge? Oh crap, what if there was another one, while they were on it?
No, don't think about it. Not thinking about it. La, la, la, la, la. See, not thinking about landslides and muddy paths and deathly drops into a raging sea...
A long and loud howl rang out behind them and he winced, bringing his hearing back to normal. That had sounded close. Far too close, even taking into account his heightened hearing. He hadn't realised they were closing in that fast. They'd been a good couple of kilometres off when he'd first picked them up, but now they were much, much closer.
"I heard. Just keep moving."
His chest was still heaving from the run they had taken to get here, feeling like it was on fire, and oh hell, he really didn't need his sense of touch to play up right now. Not thinking about touch, no, just thinking about keeping one foot in front of the other.
"It's okay, the path's moving away from the edge," Sheppard called back to him. "We'll be able to move faster then."
"Not fast enough," he huffed out, his hearing reaching out again, the sound of paws padding rapidly over the ground coming to him, accompanied by the heavy panting of several large animals. Too close, much, much too close. They weren't going to make it. "They can't be more than a hundred metres behind us now, and gaining really fast."
"Damn it." Sheppard stopped. "Get behind me."
"What? Oh no, no, no, no, you're not going to be able to take on all of them..."
"Get behind me," Sheppard repeated, and he knew that tone well. It wasn't one to argue with - military commander combined with one pissed off guide. Damn it.
"Okay, okay. I'm behind you. Sort of," he said, standing behind but to one side of Sheppard, his own sentinel protective streak raising its head. Let his guide die protecting him? No way. No way in hell.
The dogs came at them and they prepared to fire, only for the ground to start violently shuddering and shaking, causing Rodney to fall on his ass, losing his gun in the process.
Then most of the cliff path fell away, taking the dogs with it. Blood thirsty howls turned to cries of fear amid the roar and rumble of falling rocks and dirt. Mere moments later and it was over. The land settled, with just a few final bits of mud pattering down and the sound of the sea rising up.
The dogs were gone.
"Oh crap, that could have been us," Rodney said in shock, as he climbed back to his feet.
"But it wasn't."
"No, no, I guess we were lucky."
"I'm not so sure of that," Sheppard said.
"What? Didn't you see the size of those things?"
"Yes, but look, the path is gone. We're cut off."
"Oh, that's just great!" Rodney moaned. "Even our good luck is bad! This is so not fair."
"Teyla, Ronon," Sheppard tried to contact them over the radio.
"We're too far. Remember, interference in the atmosphere? Okay over short distances, but not this far from the village?"
"Right." Sheppard looked worried, checking out the bog to the side of the path, and then ahead, where the path wound away into the horizon. "Well, we either wait here until they realise we've been gone too long and organise a search, or we follow the path and hope it loops round or comes to a crossroads."
Rodney looked at the distance ahead of them. He was still panting, probably from the adrenaline as much as the run here, and he really didn't want to walk much further if he didn't have to.
"You know," Sheppard said with a wicked glint in his eyes, "I think the exercise might do you some good. Maybe next time you won't be panting for breath after running a short distance..."
"That," Rodney said, hotly defending himself, "was in no way a small distance."
"Yeah, but you're the one who looks like he's about to pass out, not me."
He glared at Sheppard, who merely smirked some more.
"I hate you," he muttered sourly.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Sheppard answered, rolling his eyes. "So, ready to move out yet?"
"No. I think we should wait. It's not raining or cold and we're not in any danger. If we go traipsing off, who knows where we'll end up? Besides, it'll make it harder for them to find us."
"What about the energy signal?"
Rodney got the detector out of his pocket and scowled down at it.
"We left that behind when running from those things. It's back the way we came."
Sheppard winced. "We'll have to come back later."
"With a jumper."
"Yes, fine, with a jumper."
"In the meantime..."
"We'll wait," Sheppard said with a sigh, clearly reluctant but, for once, letting Rodney get his way.
"Good," Rodney said, spotting a long, low rock a few feet away that would make do as a seat. A cold uncomfortable one, but better than nothing. Just. "And thanks," he added quietly, sitting down. He knew staying still didn't sit well with Sheppard, but he really didn't feel up to a long trek after that run. He furrowed his brow. It hadn't been that long a run, really, despite what he'd said to Sheppard earlier. At least, not long compared to some distances they had covered. Certainly, it shouldn't have worn him out quite this much. Was he ill? Maybe, but it had been a few weeks since he'd last had to run for his life and he'd been exceptionally busy in the lab of late. Too busy to exercise. Not that he did that much to begin with, but he'd done even less than normal recently. So, it was probably nothing, and he wasn't going to give Sheppard more ammunition - the man was already convinced Rodney was a hypochondriac as it was!
He got out his PC tablet and spent the next few minutes working on how to further increase power efficiency on Atlantis - an ongoing project of his - as his breathing finally returned to normal and he tried to ignore a restlessly pacing Sheppard.
Finally, Sheppard sat down next to him with a sigh.
"You got any games on that?"
"Games? This is a specially adapted PC tablet, one that I adapted myself I might add, used solely for offworld exploration so that I can integrate with any Ancient technology we might find," Rodney exclaimed haughtily.
"Uh huh." There was a moment's pause. "So, got any games on it?"
"Bored already, Colonel? Well, what else would I expect from a military mind..."
"What? You started it with your whining about games."
"I wasn't whining."
"Oh yes, you most certainly were, Colonel Attention-Span-Of-A-Gerbil."
"Riiight," Sheppard drawled, his eyes glancing out to sea, brow furrowing. "What's that?"
"What's what?" Rodney said, looking up and following Sheppard's line of sight. "Oh." On the horizon, a large grey area was rapidly swallowing up the clear, blue sky.
"A storm?" Sheppard asked.
"Maybe." Rodney reached out with his sight, feeling Sheppard's hand on his arm to ground him. "Sea mist," he stated, checking how far the bank of mist was from them. "A few miles out yet, but sea mists tend to move pretty fast."
"That could be a problem if Ronon and Teyla come looking for us. They might not see that the path is gone before it's too late."
"Oh come on, this is Ronon and Teyla we're talking about here. I'm sure they'll see it! Besides, Teyla will probably insist on calling in a jumper when it gets too foggy to see."
"Hopefully," Sheppard agreed cautiously. "The ground's too soft for a jumper to land here and it's going to get pretty wet and cold soon. I think we should head for those trees. We might be able to find some dry wood to make a fire with, and at the very least, we'll be more sheltered than on the cliff's edge."
"More exercise, just what I wanted," he muttered sarcastically, packing his PC tablet away.
"Buck up, McKay. At least we're not being chased by rabid dogs," Sheppard said cheerily, as he helped Rodney attach the tablet to its Velcro holder on his back.
"We don't know that they were rabid. I mean, do they even have rabies in this galaxy?"
"They probably have something worse."
"Oh thanks, that's such a comforting thought, Colonel."
"I thought so. Come on, that mist's coming in fast so we'd better get a move on."
The path leading to the trees was every bit as muddy and slippery as the cliff path had been, and John had stopped Rodney falling flat on his face three times, nearly ending up in the mud himself in the process. Normally, he would be exasperated at Rodney's lack of balance, but something was wrong. Rodney seemed clumsier than normal and he was panting for breath more than the walk merited, even by Rodney's standard of fitness.
Using his empathy, he reached out and checked how Rodney was feeling - cranky, tired and downright miserable - nothing unexpected. It could just be that Rodney was exhausted. It was possible he hadn't slept much before the mission, too involved in some project or other, and hadn't wanted to hear John's speech about getting a good night's sleep before going offworld - again.
They were a few yards from the tree line when Rodney slipped a fourth time - this time succeeding in sending John onto his ass, with Rodney on top of him.
"Damn it, Rodney!"
They both struggled to get up, John having to grab Rodney's arm again once they were standing so that Rodney could get his equilibrium back.
"What's wrong?" John demanded.
"What?" Rodney replied distractedly.
"I want to know what's up with you," he said firmly, placing a hand onto Rodney's brow.
"Hey, cut that out," Rodney complained, pushing his hand away, too late.
"You're hot," he said accusingly.
"What? You're kidding, right? I was just thinking how cold it had gotten. Damned mist must be cooling everything down and it hasn't even caught us up yet."
"Rodney, it's not that cool. I mean, sure, it is cooling down, but it's not cold."
Rodney looked at him in surprise and put a hand to his own forehead.
"Yes," John said patiently.
"Oh crap, I'm ill. I thought... I mean, I know I haven't exercised as much as normal, but I thought that run took more out of me than it should have done!"
"Hey, hey, easy McKay. It's probably just a cold or a mild flu. We'll get to the trees and I'll get a fire going and you'll feel a lot better. I'm sure it won't be long before Ronon or Teyla decide we've been gone too long and send for help."
"But it might not be a cold - and flu can kill you, you know."
"Come on, McKay, calm down."
"But we don't know what's wrong, it could be a deadly virus or, or, or maybe I got bit by something? There were those gnat like things earlier, before the hounds of hell chased us. Oh crap, what if I've caught some sort of malaria?"
"Rodney," John took hold of Rodney's shoulders and shook him very lightly. "Calm down. You're going to be okay."
"I..." Rodney looked at him, eyes wide in fear, before gulping and nodding his head. "Okay, sorry, I don't know why I'm panicking so much."
"Maybe the illness is effecting your emotions," John suggested with a shrug. "Or your hypochondria's gotten worse."
"Oh, ha, ha, mock the possibly dying man..." Rodney stopped suddenly, blinking at him. "Um, I don't feel so good," he muttered, before pulling away and puking at the side of the path.
"Ew," John said quietly, patting Rodney on the back sympathetically.
"Ugh." Rodney pulled his canteen and took a swig, spitting it out and then taking another sip. "I hate being sick," he moaned softly.
"Yeah, it sucks. Come on, let's get to the trees. I'll try and rig some kind of shelter, make a fire, that sort of thing, while you rest."
John kept a worried eye on Rodney, keeping a hand on his shoulder to steady him as they walked the last few yards into the trees. Spotting two that were interlaced so that they formed a cave-like area beneath the branches, he moved Rodney that way. It looked big enough for both them and a fire, if he could get one going, and the thick, dense leaf cover should help keep any heat in.
Guiding a quiet, pale looking Rodney under the branches, John set about finding wood and kindling for a fire. Fortunately, the mist hadn't reached them yet - though it wasn't far off now - and the wood and fallen leaves were actually pretty dry.
Once he'd got the fire going, he sat down next to Rodney and tried to contact Ronon or Teyla.
"They won't hear you," Rodney muttered, having remained quiet until now.
"You don't know that for sure," John said. "If they've called for a jumper, then it'll boost the radio signals - and even if they're on foot, they should pick up our signal when they get closer."
"Hmm. True. Sorry, mind's seems a little fuzzy." Rodney wrapped his arms around himself, shivering violently.
Damn, if Rodney was cold already, with a fire going and the mist yet to appear... John sighed. Not a good sign.
"So, that tablet of yours, does it have any games on it?" he asked, receiving a huff in return. "Well?" he pressed.
"Fine! Yes, it does, but if you tell anyone..."
"Yeah, yeah," John said unconcernedly as he pulled the tablet from McKay's back and booted it up. "What's it got?"
"Solitaire, Hearts, Minesweeper. Nothing else - I can't risk taking up too much room, might need to download important data."
"Which do you want?"
"I thought you could play something, take your mind off things."
"I'd rather work..."
"With a fuzzy mind?"
"Oh, yeah. Good point." Rodney shivered again. "Um, Solitaire."
They settled into silence, with only the slight mutter or curse from Rodney, as the mist swirled eerily around the bushes and trees, air currents making it coil and weave like ghostly tendrils around them. John shuddered. There was always something a bit creepy about mist and this whiteness was no exception. He tried his radio every few minutes, hoping for a response. He had no idea how long it would be before Teyla or Ronon realised there was a problem.
Rodney put the tablet down, sighing and placing his head in his hands.
"Hey," John said quietly, "how're you feeling?"
"Like crap," Rodney replied testily. "Can't concentrate on the game, and it's only Solitaire! Hardly anything challenging! And I'm cold, really, really cold."
John wished he'd brought more gear with him, but he hadn't expected to be leaving the village, let alone dealing with a sick Rodney miles from help. Next time, he'd make sure he had survival gear with him even if it was supposed to be a straightforward trade negotiation. He removed his tac vest and jacket, pushing the jacket at Rodney.
"Don't you need it?"
"Not as much as you do. Put it on, I'll be fine."
Rodney looked like he was about to argue, but then just sighed and did as he was told. John put his tac vest back on and tried his radio again. Still nothing. Damn.
"How long do you think the mist will last?"
"How should I know, I'm a sentinel not a seer. It's too dense for me to see through it to the other side. Or at least, I assume it is. I suppose I could try."
John placed his hand on Rodney's arm. "Don't push too hard," he warned. "I don't want to have to pull you out of a zone out."
"Yes, yes, I know what I'm doing."
In hindsight, John would realise that letting Rodney use his senses when he was ill had not been one of his better calls. As Rodney zoned out on the mist, his first reaction was annoyance - he'd told him not to push it! - and to try to call him back.
"Rodney." No response. "McKay, listen to me, follow my voice." Still nothing. Seriously getting worried now, he switched to telepathy. "Rodney, can you hear me? Hey, McKay, stop freaking me out here." Still nothing. Crap, this wasn't good - McKay had never zoned out this badly, not even before their bonding. Something was very wrong - could whatever was making Rodney ill be messing with his senses and his ability to response to his guide?
"McKay, please, listen to me. Hear my voice and follow it back."
He kept trying for several minutes, but there was no response, not even a hint of a reaction. Drastic times, drastic measures, he thought to himself glumly, using an old trick that he had been told would work, but he was loathe to try. Partly because of the bitching he knew he would get, partly because he didn't want to hurt Rodney. But he had to give it a try and so he pinched Rodney on his arm several times, hard. Slapped his face. Shook him and shouted in his ear to 'wake up, already'.
It didn't work.
Closing his eyes, he tried to keep himself calm, even though deep down a part of him was panicking. The guide didn't know how to wake his sentinel and that was so not a good thing. What was he doing wrong? Nothing, that he knew of. So why wasn't Rodney responding? It had to be the illness, but how? Even if it was messing with Rodney's senses, why couldn't he call him back?
"John, Rodney, can you hear me?"
He jumped at Teyla's voice.
"Yes, I hear you. Where are you? Rodney's in trouble..."
"We are on our way in a jumper and should be with you soon What is wrong with Rodney?"
"He's ill and he's zoned out," John replied, amazed at how calm he sounded. "I've tried to bring him round, but can't."
"That does not sound good."
"No, it doesn't."
"Sir, we've above your position now. There's an open area of solid ground fifty yards from you, I'm landing there."
"Thanks, Lorne. Is Beckett with you, by any chance?"
"Aye, when I heard you might be missing I thought I'd better come along, what with your propensity for trouble, the two of you."
"Hey, we're not the only ones who get into trouble!"
"Aye, well, why don't you tell me Rodney's symptoms?"
He reeled them off, explaining how long Rodney had been zoned for, along with what he had done to try and bring him out of it. By the time he had finished, Beckett, Teyla, Ronon and a couple of marines had reached them.
"Och, Rodney," Beckett said sadly, as he sat before him and started to check him over. "What have you done to yourself this time?"
John watched in silence as Beckett finished his cursory exam.
"Okay, we need to get him back to Atlantis," Beckett finally said. "I think whatever's making him ill is stopping him from coming out of the zone. The sooner I can fix one, the sooner I can fix the other."
The journey back was tense, to say the least. John tried a few more times to try and bring Rodney back, to no avail. Before long they were racing through the corridors of Atlantis to the infirmary, and then he was sitting in the waiting room with Teyla and Ronon, waiting for news on his sentinel and friend, and not entirely sure how he had gotten there.
Time slowed down then, minutes seeming like hours, hours like days, until Carson called him in to sit with Rodney.
It had felt like he was slipping and sliding into nothingness and there was no way to stop it from happening, no one calling him back from the brink. Slowly falling into dark molasses, thoughts slowed, feelings dissipating, senses dulling, darkness, nothingness...
...and then a voice, talking, cajoling, threatening, bullying, pleading...
The voice was important.
He needed to go to it. Follow it.
Slowly, he felt the darkness fade as he inched his way towards the voice - his senses returning, his feelings, his thoughts...
He awoke with a gasp and his guide was there, smiling in relief.
Sheppard. John. Home.
He drifted into sleep, safe and secure.
Relief rushed through John as Rodney came out of his zone and looked at him - before falling back asleep, the ungrateful wretch. After spending the last hour talking to him, calling him back from his zone out, you'd have thought Rodney could have at least thanked him before going to sleep!
But it was okay, really. The venom from the gnat-like creature, which the locals hadn't thought to warn them about, had finally flushed out of Rodney's system - with a little help from Beckett and his meds. And now Rodney was back after nearly two hours of total zone out and John couldn't keep the grin off his face.
He leaned back in his chair and lifted his sock clad feet up onto Rodney's bed, making sure that they were as close as possible to Rodney's face for maximum bitching when he woke up again, and relaxed.
It wasn't long before two sets of snores filled the infirmary.