Hell has three gates: lust, anger and greed – Bhagavad Gita
The connection between pilot and craft was so instinctive he didn't even have to think about what he wanted from the ship anymore. It was as if it read his mind, automatically knowing when he wanted to change direction, altitude or speed, banking, climbing and descending with almost imperceptible smoothness. Sheppard had never given his relationship with Ancient tech much thought before, accepting it as just one of those things he was lucky to have, but it occurred to him now that it was kind of weird...in a way that made him feel special, of course. So, did Ancient tech have an intelligence of its own, he wondered, taking the ship up over a steep rise and on across a grassy plain, and if so, had anyone ever tried to communicate directly with it? Maybe this jumper had an identity separate to that of Atlantis itself...maybe every piece of tech they'd found in the city did. If so, they might all have their own distinct personalities...in fact, come to think of it, he'd always found Jumper Six far more temperamental than all the others he'd flown, needing that extra mental nudge to do what he asked. So, if they were all separate consciousnesses, did they all deserve a unique name? Now that would take some remembering –
'Sheppard! Have you even heard a single word I've said?'
McKay's cutting question sliced through his thoughts and brought him back to the here and now. The scientist had been rattling off various facts and data that, smart as he was, meant precious little to him for the past ten minutes, so he'd shut him out and lost himself in other thoughts while admiring the passing scenery. It was a trick he normally pulled off without a hitch, but this time his mind had wandered off topic for just a little too long, it seemed.
'Yes I have. You were talking about power readings...and possible structures,' he fudged, knowing they were the usual things Rodney scanned for on any new planet. The glare he got in return told him that wasn't going to cut it with his hypertensive friend.
'Oh, way to generalise, Colonel Clueless,' McKay snapped. 'I knew you weren't listening.'
'Probably wouldn't understand you even if he did,' Ronon grunted, throwing Sheppard a grin as he peered back at him.
'Ain't that the truth.'
Beside him, Sheppard could feel McKay's temper broiling. 'And I suppose that's my fault?' he snipped at the colonel, obviously viewing him as the easier of the two men to tackle.
'Well, you do have a slight tendency toward wordiness...' Sheppard pointed out.
'Actually, the words I use are absolutely correct for –'
'What is that?' Teyla asked, reaching past McKay and pointing to something coming into view out of the windshield.
Sheppard's gaze followed the direction she indicated, where he spotted a structure - a circular wall at least twenty metres high by his visual estimation. It stood in the midst of a changing terrain, the land more gritty and sandy, and devoid of all plant growth.
'I'm not sure' he told her, calling up data on the HUD to try to provide her with an answer. Before he could make any sense of it, the display began to fragment, scrolling and throwing up weird, random statistics – interspersed with static – that made absolutely no sense...pretty much like McKay's earlier techno babble.
'What did you do?' the scientist demanded, squinting as if that might make the readings easier to interpret.
'I didn't "do" anything,' Sheppard snapped, hitting another control to attempt a reboot of the display. When it fired back up it made no more sense than the last screen had; if anything the data was even more erratic in its behaviour. 'You're the resident genius. Why don't you try figuring this out instead of pointing fingers?'
'Whoa, look at this,' McKay squeaked, holding up his tablet for Sheppard to see. 'These EM readings are off the scale. That must be what's sending the HUD screwy. We need to get out of here before it interferes with the rest of our systems.'
The screen flickered and died, but Sheppard caught sight of the readings just before it did. 'Yeah, I think you're right,' he breathed, mentally ordering the jumper to bank left and veer away from the walls looming up ahead of them.
It didn't respond.
'Colonel?' Teyla said, her voice laced with tightly controlled panic.
'Thought you said we should get out of here,' Ronon reminded him, and, damn it if he wasn't trying. But that mental link he'd been pondering the joys of earlier seemed to have completely abandoned him, the ship now ignoring him like a stubborn child who wasn't ready to go to bed yet.
'That's the idea, buddy, but the jumper apparently has other plans,' he grunted, attempting to take full manual control. The ship remained unresponsive, heading on its course without even the slightest hint of deviation. 'Any time you wanna step in, McKay!'
As he made his request, all systems died, plunging them into shadow as the ship, still moving at speed, began to lose height.
'On it!' McKay yelled, prising off the panel covering the control systems and frantically swapping things around to try to force some sign of life from the ailing jumper.
Sheppard knew he was working as fast as he could, but was conscious all the time of the altitude they were losing far too rapidly. 'McKay!'
'I'm trying!' McKay yelled back at him, redoubling his efforts, but to no avail. He dropped his arms limply to his sides, face pale and eyes huge. 'We got nothing...absolutely nothing!'
His stomach on a quick spin, Sheppard scoured the landscape ahead of them. They'd passed over the section of the circular wall closest to them, and beneath them, within its confines, was some kind of settlement...run down and highly populated if the crowds rushing out from the dilapidated buildings to stare at them were anything to judge by.
In the distance, the wall on the far side of the enclosure came into view. For one horrible moment he thought they were going to collide with it, but they thankfully had just enough height to clear it, scraping the bottom of the ship with a sickening screech. Not that their situation was much better for that near miss. They were still going down – fast.
'Okay, strap yourselves in, people. This is gonna get bumpy!' Sheppard ordered, grabbing his belt and buckling himself in as the others did the same.
He just had time to hear Ronon hiss 'Dammit!' before they impacted hard with the ground and everything slipped away from him.
'Oh, yeah...that's gonna leave a scar.'
McKay's whimpered complaint was the first thing Sheppard heard as he began to come round, that and the general groaning and creaking of compressed and twisted metal settling into its new form.
He opened his eyes and pushed his head up from the controls to the sight of the crumpled cockpit and broken panels, and a windshield so filthy with churned up dust he could barely see through it. Rubbing his aching neck, he turned stiffly toward McKay in the co-pilot seat, spotting the tiny cut on his chin he was moaning about. Other than that, he looked relatively unscathed. That was good. Now he could check on the others.
A pained groan from the rear compartment told him everything was not well before he'd even begun to move.
He instantly freed himself from his seat and stumbled his way back to his friend, which wasn't easy since the craft was listing to the right. Still, he levered himself through to the rear compartment using various fixtures and fittings until he reached him. Teyla was already with the Satedan, trying to persuade him to lie still while she examined him.
'I'm fine. Stop fussin',' Ronon insisted, batting her hands away with his customary stoicism.
'Thought I told you to strap in,' Sheppard said, realising restraining him was pointless and so helping him up instead.
The big man grimaced, clutching his left side. 'Tried to. Belt wouldn't work.'
'Hey, don't blame me,' Rodney said, instantly defending himself. 'I added it to the snagging list the last time we took this one out. I guess they didn't get round to fixing it yet.'
'I guess not. And I guess you didn't check,' Sheppard barked back at him.
'No...I'm sorry...I didn't anticipate total loss of power and crashing as one of the problems we might encounter on this mission!'
'No one ever does. That's what the belts are for!' With the damage already done, it was useless to lay blame at anyone's feet, and now Ronon was upright, he didn't seem so bad. 'You okay, buddy?' Sheppard asked, reaching out to clap his hand on Ronon's shoulder. As he did so, blood began to drip from his forearm, just one spot at first, but swiftly followed by several more.
'Aw, crap!' he grumbled, finding a tear in his right sleeve and pulling it open to see a deep gash in the skin beneath. The smashed controls had obviously cut right into him. 'That's all I need!'
'Here, let me help you out of your jacket,' Teyla offered, pulling it free from him and turning his arm over so she could see the injury more clearly. 'Sit down...both of you. I will get the first aid kit.'
'Any chance you can fix –' Rodney had wandered through from the forward section to join them, but, seeing Sheppard bleeding profusely, decided against finishing his request. Instead, he dabbed at the nick on his chin with the back of his hand, easily stemming the blood flow. 'Never mind.'
He dropped heavily into the seats opposite Sheppard and Ronon, struggling to stay put because of the angle they were leaning at, as Teyla retrieved the first aid kit from an overhead compartment and began to tend to them.
Now he knew the injury was there, Sheppard's cut began to throb like crazy. Not surprising since there was a piece of the panel still embedded in it, a small one that Teyla now carefully removed with some tweezers and set down out of harm's way. It hurt as she removed it, but the pain lessened almost immediately after its withdrawal. The tension that had built in him began to ease with its passing.
Since Sheppard was the one losing blood Teyla treated his wound first, despite his best attempts to guide her toward Ronon. The big man was quiet, even more so than usual, and Sheppard felt certain he was hurting worse than he was letting on.
'You all right there, buddy?' he asked, biting back a hiss as Teyla swabbed his arm with iodine. She offered him an apologetic smile, but continued to do it anyway.
Ronon just dropped his head back against the seats and sighed. 'Already told you, I'm good,' the Satedan insisted, but he looked decidedly uncomfortable, even as he said it.
'I'm surprisingly good, too, in case you were wondering,' Rodney butted in, clearly annoyed that no one had asked him about his condition yet. 'Although I think I have a crick in my neck...'
'That's good, Rodney,' Sheppard said through gritted teeth, as Teyla wiped his injury again, then stopped and hunted through the kit for the next torture implement she needed. 'And you, Teyla?'
'Aside from a few bruises, I am well enough,' she assured him, pulling a packet of Steri-strips from the kit and tearing them open with her teeth. She applied them as carefully as she could, but the cut was wide and it took a lot of effort to pull the edges together. Sheppard tried not to show how much it hurt because she was doing a fine job under their present circumstances. Once she'd applied four strips, she thankfully seemed content with her work and finished off by wrapping it with a field dressing. 'That should stop the worst of the bleeding and keep it clean, but it needs proper medical attention,' she told him, squatting now before Ronon and persuading him to let go of the side he was favouring.
Teyla gently lifted Ronon's shirt and Sheppard's stomach did an involuntary flip as he saw the livid bruising on his friend's side. It was already dark purple, showing he'd taken quite a hit on impact. He made a mental note to give the mechanics hell about letting them take out a defective jumper without at least warning them things hadn't been fixed. It looked painful to him, but, Ronon being Ronon, he showed no real sign of just how much it had to be troubling him.
'I should strap your ribs,' Teyla told him, but he shook his head.
'It's not that bad.'
Teyla glanced Sheppard's way and he gave a barely perceptible shake of his head to tell her to let it go. Ronon preferred to get through things his own way; he'd eventually tell them if he needed help...hopefully...and until then it was better to give him space.
'So what now?' Rodney asked, looking round at them all. 'The ship's dead, so we can't call for help, but you guys need to see a doctor. You wanna sit here and wait for someone to come through and help, or go looking for help ourselves?'
'I'm thinking we should contact Atlantis if we can, tell them we're okay and we're gonna head back toward the 'gate for a pickup. Think you can get the radio going?' Sheppard asked.
'No way,' McKay said with a grim shake of his head. 'I already checked. We have zero power...not even a flicker. The circuits are completely fried.'
That was not what Sheppard needed to hear, and for once he suspected McKay wasn't just exaggerating to make himself look even smarter when he got things up and running. 'Okay...in the absence of that option I say we start walking,' Sheppard announced, getting to his feet and checking his weapons. 'We know what direction the 'gate's in, and it shouldn't take us more than six or seven hours to get there.'
'Six or seven hours!' McKay whimpered. 'That's...that's...'
Sheppard shot him a "must you do this now?" look, and the scientist backed down.
'That's obviously our only course,' he conceded, taking one last look at his tablet and finding it as lifeless as the rest of their tech. 'Oh, well. At least I won't have to carry this along with me,' he sighed, tossing it onto an empty seat.
'See, every cloud...' Sheppard smirked, clapping him on the back as he headed past him to the rear hatch.
Of course, with no power, the hydraulics didn't work, so Sheppard rammed his shoulder to it and managed to get the obdurate door open a few inches. McKay and Teyla joined in, and even though Ronon really didn't even seem comfortable with walking, he loaned his considerable weight to the struggle. With teamwork and brute force they soon had the hatch open far enough for them all to slide free from the crumpled ship.
Once clear, Sheppard looked back at the buckled jumper, watching plumes of smoke swirling elegantly from its damaged engines and circuits. If jumpers really did have a personality all of their own, he figured this one would be feeling pretty sorry for itself right now...except the lack of power meant it most likely wasn't conscious of anything. That was probably for the best.
As they began their trek, Sheppard couldn't help but notice Ronon's slight limp and strained expression. If they'd had a choice he would have suggested he wait for them to return with help, perhaps left Teyla there with him, but with the 'gate so far away, and no real knowledge of what might lurk on the planet they'd crashed upon that really wasn't an option. He just had to hope whatever stubbornness was keeping the man upright held firm until they made it through the 'gate to Atlantis.
In her office on Atlantis Elizabeth was lost in concentration processing requisition orders when the sound of someone clearing their throat in the doorway disturbed her from her work.
When she looked up, she found Chuck loitering there, giving her a sheepish smile. 'Sorry to disturb you, Dr Weir, but I thought you might like to know Colonel Sheppard's team is thirty minutes late checking in.'
Glancing at her watch, she allowed herself a brief moment to wonder where the time had gone before asking, 'Have you tried to contact them?'
'Yes, Ma'am. But so far, no success – just static.'
That struck her as odd since they hadn't seen anything to worry them about the planet when sending through the MALP. The Stargate had been seated on a dais amid lush greenery, with no sign of settlements or indigenous life forms in site. The likelihood they had met resistance before cloaking was therefore remote. If they were late getting in touch, there had to be another reason for it.
'Maybe there's some kind of interference and they're having trouble getting through. Give them another half hour to find some way to communicate...but ask Major Lorne to have his team on standby.'
He scooted away to carry out her instructions while Elizabeth tried to get back to her work. A half hour delay reporting in wasn't normal, but it wasn't unheard of either. Sometimes teams got caught up in discussions with locals that they didn't want to abandon because they were...delicate, so she'd learned to allow a buffer of around an hour before worrying too much. But the protocol was that she should be kept informed of any late contact the moment the half hour mark passed, so she could make the decision about when it was time to act.
Yet, as she tried to get back to her work, the gut instinct for trouble she'd developed since arriving in the Pegasus Galaxy really started to nag. This was Sheppard's team, after all, and for some reason they acted like a magnet for trouble.
She stood up, stretching out her back, and then poured herself a cup of coffee, strong and black. Carrying it to her office door, she leaned against the frame and gazed at the Stargate, as if merely watching it would bring the contact she wanted to hear. It didn't work, the 'gate remaining inactive as if to mock her.
With a sigh, she hugged her mug between both hands and returned to her seat, gazing listlessly at the paperwork. With Sheppard's propensity for getting into trouble, those requisition forms weren't going to get signed off until she knew what was happening on MX6 858. There was no point in even trying to kid herself that she was going to get through them any time soon.
Instead, she turned to her laptop and fired up a game of solitaire. That way, she still looked the picture of calm and productive serenity to any member of staff who might approach, while the game hopefully distracted her from her worries.
After five minutes, she had already lost the first game, very badly...simply unable to concentrate on even the most basic of moves. She sighed and checked her watch again, listening in the hope the 'gate would spring into activity. It didn't.
Something told her the next twenty minutes would be the longest of her life. Still, at least that gave her time for a rematch...
Swigging from his water canteen, Sheppard checked back over his shoulder to see if the others were keeping up. He couldn't help but get a sinking feeling when he saw Ronon bringing up the rear, and not through choice it seemed. Though they had only walked the several hundred yards the jumper had managed to clear and then slide along after crashing, his face clearly showed all the signs of the pain he was reluctant to admit to, the truth now impossible to hide. He was struggling...struggling but determined.
The huge walled encampment they'd passed over after losing power was only yards away now, so the colonel decided that once they were in its shade they could take a rest and give Ronon a chance to recover from the walk.
The walls looked even higher from this angle as they approached them, tall and solid and completely blemish-free. Insurmountable, he realised, running a hand over the pristine smoothness of the rendering covering them. And he couldn't see a gateway in the vast expanse of wall stretching out as far as he could see. In a structure this big, was there really only one way in or out?
Ronon caught up with the group and leaned heavily on the wall, his face pale and his skin damp with perspiration. The short trip should have been a cakewalk for the big guy, but even that reasonably easy trek had taken it out of him.
Sheppard recognised Teyla's worry as she glanced in his direction, and even though he knew Ronon would deny any problem, he asked, 'You sure you're okay there, Ronon?'
'Just got a stitch,' he lied, holding his ribs exactly where he had before starting the walk.
'Yeah, me too,' Rodney panted, slumping down in the dust and leaning his back against the formidable structure. 'And a headache. And it's so damn hot!'
'Maybe if you took off your jacket...' Sheppard suggested. Teyla had shed her uniform jacket before setting out, and he'd already removed his to have his arm treated. They'd tied them around their waists in case the night came in and was cold as it could be in desert areas, and he was glad he had. It was warm, though not dry heat as he had expected. No it was decidedly humid, which had him wondering why no plant life was surviving here. But there was nothing; the area was completely barren.
'Are you kidding? In this heat I'd cook like bacon! Have I mentioned I have very fair skin?' McKay complained.
'You know...I think you may have mentioned that,' Sheppard drawled, casually cleaning the dust from his shades with his T-shirt before slipping them back on. He had a headache brewing too; the shades helped to ease it a little in the glare of the sun, but not much.
'Perhaps there is someone behind these walls who can help us,' Teyla suggested, laying her palm against the smooth render. 'I will look around for a door and see if I can contact someone.'
'You wanna go in there?' McKay snorted. 'Didn't you see how run down that place was when we flew over it? I think we should stay right out here and head for the 'gate. That way we might get treatment without getting even sicker in the process.'
'You're not even sick, McKay,' Sheppard pointed out.
'Exactly. And I make it a habit not to go looking for help from people who look like they need it more than I do.'
'Yeah, you may have a –'
Sheppard didn't finish his sentence...couldn't in fact. His brain turned to Jell-O at that moment, his jaw hanging slack as a wave of despair washed over him like nothing he'd ever experienced before. He felt sick to the pit of his stomach, and his ears reverberated to the sound of cries for help, hundreds of them, all clamouring to be heard. Then, one voice rang out clear above the others, silencing them instantly.
He has come.
The colonel didn't even feel the impact as his body folded to the ground.