quasar273 (quasar273) wrote,

Fic: Cross Country, Part Three

Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis, Stargate: SG-1, The Sentinel
Title: Cross Country, part 3
Author: Quasar
Rating: borderline R/NC-17
Pairing: John/Rodney, Jim/Blair
Date written: December 2006-February 2008 (whew!)
Length: ~20,000 words (whole story)
Summary: Salvage of equipment, people, and relationships.
Notes: This is the fourth story in my Criss-Cross series (thanks to jya_bd_cp_ttgb for the name suggestion!). Read the other stories first, or continue at your peril. You can also read a summary of the series, which does contain some spoilers for the stories.

Back to Part One, Part Two

Sixteen days after the salvage mission, nine days after the day-long memorial service for the Daedalus personnel, and four days after his stitches were removed, John reported to Ellison's office for the team's regular weekly briefing. He was a little nervous about being in a small room with Rodney, and it only got worse when he found out Ellison wasn't there at all; it was just Blair perched on the edge of Ellison's desk, and Rodney sitting in one of the chairs with his laptop held out like a shield.

"I told Jim I would have a talk with you guys before the briefing," Blair said frankly.

John pulled the other chair closer to him -- and incidentally further away from Rodney -- before sitting. Even without looking at Rodney, he knew the physicist was uncomfortable.

"Talk about what? What do we need to talk about?" said Rodney, too quickly.

"Well, you know, Jim and I just want to be sure you two can still work together."

John shrugged. "Sure."

"Of course we can!" Rodney blustered.

"Yeah, see, that would be a little more convincing if either of you had looked at the other since walking into the room."

John glanced over and caught Rodney's startled gaze, then looked away quickly. "We're both grownups," he said at the same moment Rodney declared, "We're professionals!"

John nodded. "What he said."

"Uh . . . huh." Blair rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "And you've cleared up your little misunderstanding?"

John winced.

"Of course we -- wait, what misunderstanding?" Rodney demanded.

"John?" Blair prompted.

John sighed. "Blair thinks it's a big deal that you thought I was cheating on you. I tried to tell him that's not . . ."

"It is a big deal! I mean, okay, so we never discussed this in detail, but I was definitely under the impression that we were going to be exclusive." Rodney gave a strained chuckle that made John's guts ache. "Stupid of me, huh? You'd think I would learn, after all these years. It's not like I haven't had it demonstrated before . . ."

The pain in his voice was too much for John. "Rodney, I wasn't -- we were exclusive. You were right."

Rodney blinked. "So then who's this Rick guy? Because I checked, and there aren't any Marines or airmen who go by Rick. A couple of the scientists, but one of them's straight and the other? I just can't see you with a sociologist --"

"Rodney. It was back on Earth."

"Oh." Rodney considered that. "You said something about that, but --"

"It was years ago. And he's dead, anyway."

"But you -- why were you calling me by his name if it was years ago?"

"Because I just had a --" John bit his lip. "Dream. About him."

"Oh. Oh! One of those nightmare things? I wondered what those were. I figured it was PTSD or something. Well, I guess it still is, only it's from, what, seeing your lover die or something?"

"I'd really rather not talk about it, Rodney," John said through gritted teeth. He stared at the edge of Ellison's desk, not wanting to know what would be in Blair's eyes if he glanced up. Looking at Rodney was completely out of the question.

"Well, you should talk to someone! It might help you deal with this a little better."

John glared in the general direction of Rodney's knees. "Somehow I missed the part where you have a psychology degree."

Blair cleared his throat. "As a matter of fact, I do have a--"

Rodney ignored him. "I don't need a degree to see how messed up you are, Sheppard."

"Fine! If I'm so messed up, maybe it's a good thing you're not going out with me anymore, McKay." John was holding on to his temper, but only barely.

Rodney looked like he was about to retort, then paused. "Hold on, is that what this is about? You're trying to protect me from you, or something? I thought you were protecting yourself."

John rolled his eyes. "Whatever." He turned to Blair. "Misunderstanding all cleared up, and we haven't tried to murder each other yet. So can we hear about this mission?"

"Mission, what mission?" said Rodney. "I thought we were starting on the southeast pier next. Oh, wait --" He snapped his fingers in realization. "We're going back to that island to pick up Gateship Two, aren't we? I knew Grodin would admit he needed me on those repairs!"

Ellison was in the room suddenly; John hadn't even heard him coming. "We're going to the mainland," he said shortly. "Salvage operation."

Blair scooted aside to make room for his husband on the desk, but Ellison just stood in front of it, hands loosely clasped behind his back in a posture John recognized from every commanding officer he'd ever had.

"Salvage?" said Rodney. "On the mainland?"

Blair leaned forward. "Remember when we were on our way back to the planet, and Jim saw something that wasn't supposed to be there?"

"A scar," John recalled.

"I think it was from a crash landing," said Ellison.

"A crashed what?" John asked.

Blair shrugged. "Well, this scar wasn't there a couple of years ago, when we surveyed the mainland."

John considered what he knew of the expedition's history. "You think it happened during the siege?"

"They think it's a Wraith dart," Rodney snapped, looking nervous.

"Maybe," Ellison amended. "Also possible it could have been one of the 302s from the Daedalus -- they weren't all accounted for. But more likely a dart, since there were more of them around, and the 302s supposedly never entered the atmosphere."

"Whichever it was, if it was supposed to be heading for a ship in orbit and ended up on the mainland, it must have completely messed-up controls or propulsion." Rodney looked around at the rest of them expectantly. "Which means it probably crashed at very high velocity and there's nothing to salvage."

"We discussed it with O'Neill and Grodin," said Blair. "They think it's possible the dart was half-functional but couldn't quite achieve orbit."

Rodney frowned. "Well . . . possible, yes. And heading west against the planet's rotation wouldn't exactly help it reach escape velocity."

"Or maybe their sensors were down and they just couldn't find their ship."

"The point is, this is a scar and not a crater," said Ellison. "It came in at an oblique angle. Not a meteor, and not some ballistic piece of wreckage."

"You can't possibly think anyone -- or anything -- survived," Rodney protested.

Ellison shrugged. "Even if the pilot died, the people that got beamed up might still be recoverable."

"I've seen that," John said. "McKay -- the other McKay, in the other universe -- pulled this slimy thing out of a dart and brought it back to Atlantis, and they rematerialized his teammates out of it."

Blair nodded. "We've never done the rematerialization here, but that's a chance we can't pass up on. And also . . ." He looked a little sheepish. "Teyla's had some dreams. Not lately, but she said they lasted a while after the siege was over."

Ellison sighed. "Chief, I thought we agreed not to mention that. It could have just been regular dreams about the siege, end of story."

John blinked. "Dreams?"

"Teyla has a sort of telepathic ability to sense Wraith," Blair explained. "Especially hive ships, but one time she sensed a single Wraith that had infiltrated the city. It affected her dreams."

"And she also dreamed about this crashed ship?" Rodney demanded.

Blair grimaced. "Maybe. It isn't really clear. The dreams mostly stopped after a month or so."

"So you think the Wraith pilot lived a month after crashing and then died?" John said.

"Or Teyla was just dreaming. But the point is, we should check this thing out, and then we'll know instead of just guessing." Ellison looked at John and Rodney. "Beckett cleared both of you for missions, but if you're not feeling up to it we can go with another team."

John shook his head. He knew how Ellison felt about keeping the team together, and he generally agreed with that philosophy. Besides, he was itching to fly again. "We're good to go." He looked at Rodney.

Rodney was frowning. "How much danger do you think this will involve?"

"Rodney!" John protested, but Rodney just lifted his chin and kept looking at Ellison.

The captain shrugged. "Danger? Not much, probably. There might be some hiking. I heard you're up to speed on what little we know about Wraith technology, but Grodin could take this one instead."

Mention of his rival tightened Rodney's jaw, which may have been what Ellison intended. "No no, I can do it. Hiking is, is good. When do we leave?"

"Departure just before noon tomorrow should put us at the site around dawn local time," said Ellison. "That will give us the whole day to put the pieces together."

Ellison showed John the area he was talking about on survey records taken when the expedition had first explored the planet. It was north of the equator -- so early winter there -- in a desert region on the northern section of the main continent. Unfortunately, the weather satellite they had set up after a big hurricane that first year barely extended to the north part of the mainland, so they had only a rough idea of what the weather would be like. But from his exerience in Afghanistan John figured desert plus winter meant cold and dry. He hoped Rodney would dress warmly enough, but decided it wasn't his business to say anything. He planned to pack extra water, though.

The flight took a couple of hours, skimming through the upper atmosphere. Ellison rode shotgun, which made sense since he knew where they were going. Never mind that his guidance would only be needed at the very end; no one suggested that Rodney should take his usual seat.

When they got to the right area, it was overcast with high clouds, windy, but as dry as expected. The terrain was something more like scrubland or prairie rather than a pure desert with dunes; John was relieved to find that it didn't really remind him that much of Afghanistan. Isolated mountain ranges served as landmarks for what Ellison had seen; John was getting close to what he thought was the right area when Ellison said, "Over there" and pointed him further west -- by nearly a hundred miles, it turned out.

The grayish-brown earth and scrubby plants had been torn up over a track about half a mile long, revealing a paler yellow soil below. John was at once impressed with how long the track was (he couldn't see anyone walking away from a crash that left that big a mark) and how short, for Ellison to have seen it from space. Whatever had crashed had ended up in small enough pieces that they couldn't immediately tell what it was. Ellison didn't want John to fly too low over the wreckage in case the thrust from the drive pods blew sand over some of the evidence. Looking at the way the sharp-bladed desert grasses bowed and fluttered, John didn't think their drive pods would do anything that a year and a half of weather hadn't alredy; but he complied and landed a few hundred yards away from the messier end of the crash track.

Clipping his P90 to his vest, John cast a quick glance at Rodney to make sure his gear was all set. Rodney and Blair were both carrying P90s as well, at Ellison's assistance; if this was really a Wraith, they might need rapid, heavy, and lethal firepower. Rodney seemed uncomfortable with the weapon, but checked it over competently and looked ready to go.

Outside, at ground level, it did seem more of a desert. There were patches of bare ground in between tufts of grass and low, thorny bushes that carried no leaves at this season. Everything was a dull gray color, blending in with the sand that skittered across the ground. Some of the wiry plants inhabited a fine line between bush and cactus; Blair commented on them with interest, but John wasn't really interested in the botanical classifications.

Rodney was ready to go straight to the largest piece of remaining wreckage, but he agreed reluctatly to wait while Ellison paced around the area first with Blair two steps behind. Finally the captain summoned the rest of them with a nod. "Definitel a Wraith dart," he said shortly, jerking his chin at the debris. "But the pilot's not here now."

John took in that ominous comment and kept his weapon ready regardless. As they got closer to the big chunk of wreckage, John saw that it was the pilot compartment, stripped of almost everything that had been attached to it. It had either been good engineering, good luck (for the Wraith), or really incredible flying that ensured all the rest of the ship absorbed the energy from the crash.

"No radio or subspace signals at any frequency," Rodney said with an eye on his scanner, confirming what they already knew.

The pilot compartment was upright and had lots of footprints around it, or at least foot-sized depressions in the sand which had filled over time with a finer, darker silt than the surrounding coarse dirt. John could tell they were pretty old, but he wasn't a good enough tracker to judge if the Wraith had been injured or not; he figured just the fact of footprints was bad enough. He glanced at Ellison, but the captain was squinting away at something else.

Rodney leaned over the edge of the open compartment.

"Don't touch anything," John said sharply.

Rodney glared at him.

"They have a self-destruct," John explained. "I don't know if it's still intact, but it makes a nasty explosion."

Rodney blinked and looked more closely at the dust-streaked compartment. "There," he said, pointing to the console. "That must be where the self-destruct mechanism was. It's been disabled. In fact, a lot of this was disabled." He squinted. "Not wrecked -- ripped apart deliberately."

Blair pointed at some tracks on the ground nearby. "He was trying to get something working. Maybe the radio?"

Rodney turned and studied the fragments at Blair's feet. "Subspace transmitter, right. But it doesn't look like he had enough parts to fix it."

"I found the culling device," John said. He had circled behind the compartment and discovered the cage-shaped unit, naked, with sinewy Wraith wires hooking it into the remaining section of the ship.

Rodney came by and squatted over it. "He was trying to get power into the device. But I don't see why . . ."

"He needed food," said Ellison in clipped tones from the other side of the wreck. "And he got it. Over here."

A short distance beyond the pilot compartment were a couple of shriveled bodies dressed in expedition uniforms. And a few feet beyond that, another . . . and another . . . John grimaced, and Rodney made a distressed noise.

"The culling beam leaves the victims unconscious," Blair said softly. "Oh, man. He could have materialized them all at once and just gone from one to the other . . ."

"At least they wouldn't feel it," John said quickly, "if they were unconscious."

"Doesn't look like they tried to run, anyhow," said Ellison. He knelt by one of them to pull up the dogtags and closed his eyes briefly at what he found, then stood and dusted his hands. "Sheppard. Help me bring the body bags from the Gateship. McKay, try to figure out what resources that Wraith took away from the wreck."

"What? How am I supposed to --"

"Did he take the explosives from the self-destruct?" Ellison pressed.

Rodney looked down as if he expected to find the explosives lying at his feet. "Well, I suppose I can --"

"That's the sort of thing I need to know. Blair, help McKay." His significant look said that Blair should keep an eye on Rodney, keep him from blowing himself up or destroying evidence. John, who had an idea how tricky that could be, shrugged in sympathy.

By the time they had gotten the bodies stowed in the Gateship -- and John was thinking he was tired of "salvage" operations -- Rodney had some answers for them.

"Well, he didn't take the explosives." Rodney pointed at a gooey scorched residue at the rear of the compartment. "As far as I can tell, he set up a slow burn to provide the power for rematerializing people from the culling device, since the engine is a total loss."

"Okay, that cuts down on possible booby-traps," Ellison said.

"I can't really tell what weapons he might have," Rodney went on. "There are some empty storage bins, but I don't know what was in them, if anything."

"Where?" said Ellison, and studied the storage areas. "Maybe a handheld stunner, some knives. Nothing big, anyway."

"Hmm. But he might have a radio with him. I'm not positive, but I think that's what was removed from here." Rodney pointed at a niche on the far side of the compartment. "Possibly he cannibalized the short-range radio while he was trying to fix the subspace transmitter, but without an intact dart to compare against I just can't be sure what parts are missing."

"But you said there haven't been any radio transmissions," Blair put in.

"Not since we've been listening, no. But maybe he has a receiver and not a transmitter."

"Or maybe he just hasn't been transmitting," John suggested. "Saving power?"

"Yes, yes, also possible. My point is --" He looked at Ellison. "Our radio transmissions might be overheard."

Ellison frowned. "Can you scramble them?"

Rodney considered. "Well . . . yes, but it would take me an hour or so working with each radio. And the ones I've worked on won't talk to the others, and vice versa. It might cut the range of the transmissions, too. Oh, and he'll still be able to tell there's someone transmitting nearby, he just won't know what we're saying."

Ellison scratched his head. "Well, see what you can do with Sheppard's radio and Blair's. We'll keep the other two radios unaltered. And no communications with Atlantis until you get the scramble set up. If we can stay together, we'll avoid using the radios at all."

"There's more," Blair offered, glancing uncertainly at Rodney.

"More?" said Ellison.

Rodney grimaced. "I can't tell for sure. You understand that, right? I mean, I wouldn't want to get your hopes up --"

"Spit it out, McKay."

"There might still be some waveforms in the culling device."

Ellison just stared.

"People. He means people," Blair supplied.

"I'm not certain, because the power is gone. But see, that's my point. There was just enough power to rematerialize four people, and four people were, um . . . right. But there might have been more people stored in the device and just not enough energy to rematerialize them. Of course, it's also possible -- even likely -- that the waveforms have deteriorated over time, so they might not be recoverable. But . . ."

"So you're saying we should take that thing back to Atlantis with us?" said Ellison.

"That's right. It's sort of a slim hope, but, uh . . ."

"Better than no hope at all," said Blair.

"Right." Ellison looked down at the weird skeletal device. "Does it need power while we're traveling?"

"No. Or, if it does need power, it's already too late. A few more hours won't make a difference."

"Right. Disconnect it and stow it in the Gateship while I check out the tracks one more time."

Eliison did a long walk around the perimeter while Rodney removed the ligaments connecting the culling device to the pilot's compartment. John started to point out what the other Rodney in the alternate universe had done, but this Rodney just snapped at him impatiently so he stepped back. Seeing the direction Ellison was looking, he wasn't surprised when the captain came back and said the Wraith had gone east.

"Those mountains to the northeast are the nearest likely source of water, and that's where the tracks are heading."

"Do Wraith need water?" said John doubtfully.

Blair nodded. "We had a couple of captives that first year. They don't eat -- well, not food, anyway -- but they need to drink. Not as much as we drink, and they can go a few days without, but it's a pretty basic need."

"Okay. How do you want to do this?" John asked Ellison. "Those mountains are fifty miles away or more, and the tracks are over a year old. If we're tracking on foot, we're going to need more provisions than we brought." And a lot of time, he didn't say.

But Ellison shook his head. "I can follow the tracks if you fly low and slow, at least here over the desert. Once we see what the vegetation is like in those mountains, we might have to change our plans."

That was pretty much how it turned out. John flew a leisurely path toward the mountains, with Ellison adjusting his course a few degrees this way or that from time to time. In the foothills Ellison started having more trouble reading the rocky soil, and John had to hover a lot while he squinted. Twice Ellison got out covered a section on foot while John followed him in the Gateship, which was a little weird. Then they reached softer, moister soil and the tracking got easier again for a little while as the trail continued to climb. They followed a stream from the air for a few miles, and then Ellison lost the trail as the trees got taller.

"Set the gateship down near that last camp we saw," Ellison said at last. "It looks like he stayed there for a while. Maybe I can get an idea how long if we take a closer look."

"That's odd," said John as he settled the Gateship in the next clearing upstream from the camp.

"What's odd?" said Ellison, still gazing intently through the windscreen.

"These trees. They look like pine trees."

Ellison just looked at him. Blair said, "What's so odd about that?"

"I just mean, they look a lot like what we have back on Earth, but this is an alien planet. You'd think it would be more . . . alien."

Ellison's jaw flexed.

Rodney was the one who said what everyone was apparently thinking. "Hello, did you actually pay attention to any of those mission reports you read? Eighty to ninety percent of the worlds with Stargates have pine forests near the gate, and most of the rest have a pine forest somewhere on the planet. It's only been commented on by every gate team in two galaxies."

John's face heated. "I've only been to two other planets besides this one," he pointed out. "One was a desert -- at least, near the Stargate it was -- and the other had an unbreathable atmosphere. Excuse me for being the new kid on the block!"

"Okay, enough squabbling," said Ellison. "Look alive; the tracks I saw seemed old, but I won't be sure until I get a closer look."

John took up his P90 again, falling naturally into the rearguard position as the left the Gateship. Ellison was first, the obvious scout; Blair stayed close behind in case Ellison needed guidance with his senses. And Rodney was in the middle, the most protected -- which was only sensible since he had the least combat training and was also most likely to be distracted by his equipment. He had a scanner out now but apparently wasn't finding anything interesting.

Neither was Ellison, it seemed, because he relaxed a little as they reached the camp. It looked pretty bare to John; he could see where a fire had been built, and a pile of collected deadwood nearby, but there wasn't much sign of fishing activity or bones lying around. No food, because the Wraith didn't get nourishment from food, he realized. And correspondingly, no latrine. He'd known that, but hadn't known on a visceral level.

John watched from the edge of the clearing as Ellison checked out the fire pit briefly and then moved on to the tracks in the soft ground on the bank of the stream. "This place looks like it was abandoned a while ago," John said questioningly.

Ellison nodded. "At least six months. But before that, he went away and came back. There are signs here from two different periods."

John frowned. "What do you suppose that means?"

Ellison shrugged. "He went looking for a better place, didn't like what he found, and decided to come back here?"

"And then moved on again?" Rodney asked disbelievingly. "What for?"

Ellison shook his head. "I don't know."

"I have a bad feeling about this, man," said Blair in a low voice.

"You could be right, Chief. Look sharp." Ellison cocked his head and turned in a circle, weapon ready and mouth open. John didn't know if he was tasting the air somehow or if he could hear better with his jaw loose, or if it was just an unconscious habit. Then Ellison stiffened and crossed the clearing in three strides, with Blair on his heels.

"Jim? What did you find?"

Ellison crouched by a low bush, a cousin of the thorny ones down in the desert below. "Check this out, Chief." He was pointing at something that looked to John like a wisp of lichen, or maybe a heavy cobweb.

Blair hissed slowly through his teeth. "He cocooned himself?"

"Somewhere nearby. Came out of it, came back to this campsite, and then . . . left again."

"How come? I mean, why come out of the hibernation?"

"I don't know. Maybe an animal disturbed him? Or he thought he smelled food? Hell, maybe he had bad dreams about Teyla same as she did about him."

"Does it matter?" Rodney demanded, studying the fragment of webbing over their shoulders.

John had returned to watching their perimeter while everyone was distracted, but he listened with interest to the conversation.

"It matters if it affected what he did next," said Blair. "Because that's how we find him."

Ellison stood up. "From what we know, he had to be getting pretty hungry by a month or two after the crash. Even with four . . . meals under his belt, he couldn't go on indefinitely."

"So you think he holed up somewhere near here?"

"Obviously he did at least once. Came out of the cocoon for whatever reason . . . then maybe went back to it again?"

"Yeah, but where, man?"

"Nearby. Somewhere safe from predators." After a moment, Ellison looked up.

"The trees?" Rodney scoffed. "You think Wraith sleep in trees?"

"I don't know about that, Jim," said Blair, sounding doubtful. "It would be safe from most predators, but not windstorms. I mean, bears climb trees, but they don't hibernate in them."

"You could be right, Chief, but let's not rule out the possibility. We could be looking for a cave, or a hole, or a tree -- we'll have to keep our eyes peeled. Give me a minute, here."

Ellison wandered in widening circles around the abandoned camp, crouching often to check something on the ground, or lifting his head to sniff the wind. Finally he came back to the streamside. "No clear trail," he said. "At least, there's half a dozen trails and they're all old enough I can't tell which is the freshest. But the smart money says we go uphill."

"Remember when we were helping the geologists do those surveys?" Blair said, following his husband as they started to tromp through the trees. "And Dr. Alacki talked about the kind of formations where you could find caves?"

"Limestone," said Ellison shortly.

"Limestone worn by water, usually," Rodney added. "I could try to scan for the right minerals . . ." He fiddled with his device while they walked.

"Yeah! Water, like that stream?" said Blair, waving behind them. "Maybe we should be sticking close to it."

"That's nice, Chief, but our Wraith buddy wouldn't be looking for an extensive cave system -- just a good nook to hide out in. Something in the side of a cliff, maybe, with just one approach to it."

"I saw some cliffs before we landed," John said. "Off to the, uh . . ." He pointed uncertainly.

"Southeast." Ellison nodded. "That's where we're headed."

An hour later, they had gone about three miles on a meandering path that wound among trees and rocky outcrops. Rodney had suggested several times that it would be more efficient to go back and get the Gateship, with more elaborate references to his recently-healed ribs each time. Ellison didn't even seem to hear him, he was concentrating so hard on whatever clues he was finding in the ground or the air. Blair just gave an apologetic shrug.

"Hey Rodney, catch," John drawled, and tossed him one of the spare bottles of water he'd brought along. "Just think of it as exercise and fresh air. It's good for you."

Rodney walked backwards, gesturing with the water bottle. "If you're implying that I'm out of shape, I'll have you know --"

And that was when the Wraith dropped down from the rocks overhanging the path. With wild white hair and pale green skin, it was even more alarming than the one John had seen before. It landed between Rodney and Blair, so that the two of them blocked John's and Ellison's line of fire.

John had his P90 up and was yelling at Rodney -- he didn't even know what -- as the thing reached for him. Rodney was turning, too slowly, still in the way. There was the crack of a single shot from Blair or Jim, and the creature snarled, spinning to face the other way. It grabbed Blair's jacket with one hand and hurled him thirty feet or more down the hillside.

Rodney grabbed at the Wraith -- John yelled, "No, don't touch it, shoot it!" -- and was thrown aside himself. Now John had a clear shot, but Ellison was directly on the other side of the creature. Would the bullets go through? Why wasn't Ellison firing? John scrambled a few steps uphill, trying to get a crossfire angle, but his foot slipped. He fell and caught himself on his elbow, but now a tree was blocking his shot and he had to lever back to his knees, losing precious seconds.

Ellison was just standing, frozen, looking downhill where Blair had been thrown. His weapon was pointed at the ground; he didn't seem to care that the Wraith was right in front of him, didn't even react as it slammed a hand into his chest.

Then Rodney was there, in John's way again, grabbing the Wraith and hauling it off of Ellison. It spun and grabbed Rodney's wrist, then his throat. John was still yelling: "Rodney, no, get out of the way!" and Rodney was yelling back, "Shoot it, just shoot, just shoot!" and finally John noticed the flare of green where the Wraith was holding Rodney, realized what it meant, and clicked the P90 over to full automatic. It still felt wrong, wrong wrong to aim it at his teammate (friend, lover) and pull the trigger, but he did it. Bullets sprayed around Rodney in brilliant flashes, and the Wraith jerked again and again until John's gun jammed and the fire stopped.

Silence. John's throat hurt from the yelling, and his heart was thrumming up between his collarbones. The Wraith didn't move.

"Is it dead?" Rodney stirred under the creature, pushed it aside and stood up, looking down at it. "I'm okay -- I think I'm okay. Is it dead?"

John lowered his gun. "It looks dead." Did Wraith have a pulse, and if so where should he feel for it? He approached carefully, then decided to play it safe, took out his handgun and put three more shots into the Wraith's skull. It didn't jerk; its muscles were completely lax.

"It's dead," said Rodney positively.

John let out a shaky sigh. "Jesus, Rodney, why didn't you tell me you had the shield?"

Rodney unzipped his jacket and plucked the glowing green brooch from his chest, looking at it. "I didn't want you to -- well, it's not very -- I mean, I didn't know if I would even need it."

"Ellison --" John turned and froze.

Ellison was still standing where the Wraith had left him, ripped shirt flapping in the breeze, staring downhill.

John followed his gaze: Blair lay crumpled at the base of a tree where the Wraith had thrown him.

"Oh, shit," John breathed. "Rodney, try to snap him out of it!" he barked with a wave at Ellison, and scrambled down the hill.

Blair was folded over himself, head down, and at a glance, the angle of his neck looked pretty bad. "I don't think he's breathing," John said, afraid to touch. "Ellison, can you hear a heartbeat? Jim!"

Ellison groaned oddly, but then he was sliding down the slope as well. "Yes. Yeah, I hear -- his heart's beating. But it's getting weaker."

"Shit. We need to breathe for him, but we can't at this angle. Can you tell if it's safe to move him?"

Ellison's hands ghosted around his husband's head, neck, spine. "Concussion. Dislocated shoulder. Broken neck."

"Oh no," Rodney murmured from behind them.

"Right here," Ellison said, his hand curled too high up on Blair's neck. "The vertebrae might just be dislocated, not crushed -- I don't feel any bone fragments."

John's heart was ratcheting up again. If they moved Blair, they'd make the damage from the broken neck worse. But if they didn't move him, he'd suffocate. "Okay, okay, uh . . . what do we have that we can use to brace his neck while we move him?" He looked to Rodney, who always had the most junk in his pack.

But Ellison was already moving, disconnecting the straps of Blair's pack and lifting him with one sure hand cupped at the back of his head. John winced to watch it, but he had to trust the man knew what he was doing. Blair had said Ellison was a medic in the Army, and maybe his senses let him know what was safe and what wasn't.

It seemed forever but was probably less than thirty seconds before Blair was lying flat. "We have to keep his head turned, like this," said Ellison. "Something will pull if we straighten it."

"Here, here." Rodney shoved something soft at Ellison -- a spare shirt, John thought -- and the sentinel tucked it under his husband's head to keep it steady at the right angle.

"He still isn't breathing," John pointed out. It couldn't be attributed to the crumpled position anymore; more likely, the damage to his spinal cord had paralyzed the muscles responsible for breathing.

"We'll breathe for him," said Ellison, and bent down to match his mouth to Blair's.

It was amazing to see the pink come back into Blair's greying lips and cheeks within a few breaths. It was obviously helping, but Blair still didn't start breathing on his own.

"We have to get him to the Gateship," John muttered. "No -- we have to get the Gateship here." He looked around quickly, but it only took a moment to remember the last decent landing site he'd seen. "I can bring her in about two hundred yards from here, is that good enough?" There was a backboard and neck braces on board, he remembered.

"Do it," said Rodney decisively. "I'll stay here and, uh --" He waved. "Help Ellison."

John nodded. It was pretty clear the captain wasn't paying attention to anything but his husband. "You might have to take over. Don't let him hyperventilate."

"I got it, I got it. Just -- just go. Hurry."

John ran. The first part was easy: past the dead Wraith, around the outcropping, down this rocky slope . . . all too soon, he was among the thicker trees, and that was when he remembered his sense of direction wasn't so good on the ground. They'd been following a trail only Ellison could see, which made it hard to retrace.

John's gift for getting lost anywhere except in the air had been a joke during training, a source of ribbing among his buddies . . . and then Rick Holland had gotten killed because of it, and it wasn't so funny anymore. And now Blair was probably going to die for the same fucking reason. John cursed himself, paused and turned in a circle, then ran for a deadfall that looked halfway familiar.

He kept going downhill, since he remembered that much -- but had it been this steep on the way up? At least going downhill he could maintain a pretty good pace; he was thinking now that he should have pushed himself harder on those dawn runs. Then he tripped and rolled and came back up on an aching ankle and figured a sane pace was probably smarter than an extreme one.

He was wishing desperately that the Gateship had some kind of remote control, that he could make it chirp like a car in a parking lot so he'd know which way to go, when he broke out onto a bluff overlooking a stream. He thought it was probably the same stream they had landed near -- it was about the right size, anyway -- but should he go upstream or down? He turned a couple more circles, trying to reach for the Gateship in his mind, then ran downstream more or less at random. Ten minutes later -- which was ten minutes Blair couldn't afford -- he found the clearing with the Gateship in it.

Fortunately, finding his teammates was not a problem. Rodney was carrying an Ancient scanner; John just had to ask the Gateship to look for it, and then he had no worries about getting turned around. He slotted the ship in where the slope was shallowest and started rummaging through the first aid supplies in the back.

When John reached the site, Rodney had taken over the rescue breathing. Ellison looked bleak but immediately took the kit from John, got Rodney using a bag with supplemental oxygen, and directed John to help him with the backboarding. They had Blair secured and on the way to the Gateship within minutes.

Link to Part Four
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