Rated Teen for Language
It was a milk-run Joslin had joked.
"No such thing as a simple mission," he'd corrected Joslin, his tone not too sharp, not too soft and it had sobered the young Marine who set back to packing his gear.
Out of the latest batch of FNGs to be dropped off by the Apollo, Joslin had been the best, the quickest, the smartest, the most dedicated. The most like him. He'd been the youngest, too.
The crews were loaded, six in his jumper, five in the second, Joslin at the helm of Jumper Two, hand-picked for the job - an agricultural run to Cradia on the far side of the Pegasus Galaxy. The cargo area of both jumpers were packed with supplies and equipment for trading and teaching. Ronon slid into the window seat beside Lorne.
"You still owe me a beer," he reminded Ronon.
"There’s this one place on Cradia where my unit used to go on leave - "
The jumpers were packed up again and ready to go, Joslin's hands eagerly at the controls, lifting his bird off the ground and hovering.
“Beat ya, Boss – “
“Didn’t know it was a competition, Captain.”
“Aye, sir – “ Joslin replied and he imagined he could see the younger man straightening up a bit in the pilot’s chair like Joslin always did when he corrected the Marine.
“But I guess you did,” he offered to take the sting off his words.
Joslin had grinned and offered to show him the way to Cradia.
"Take her out, Captain," he agreed, holding place while Joslin dialed up the gate, the familiar burst of interstellar void swirling in the planet's humid air and dissolving into the watery puddle.
Joslin had piloted the second jumper through the eye and Lorne had waited a standard lag of ten before following, emerging into a maelstrom of debris and fire as they exited the wormhole.
The jumper responded to his hands, banking sharply to the right and down, trying to escape the inevitable collision, throwing her passengers from their seats to land errantly around the cabin. He ignored the screams as he fought the controls, realizing distantly that the cargo hatch had slammed closed - there must be a breach - get the jumper under control. Get the jumper under control.
He counted to five while he fought the pin-wheeling tumble they were in, feeling, more than seeing, the atmosphere of a planet as the jumper screamed and strained, fighting gravity, putting the images of the last ten seconds into a nightmarish sense of order. The destroyed jumper, a wrecked cruiser that might have been Wraith, debris and the weird, silent fire of an explosion in space, flames ripped outward into the void as oxygen was sucked from the dying ship. His jumper whined under the strain of the atmosphere.
"This is gonna be rough!" he shouted.
Clean-up was always the worst. If you knew something was coming there was time for anticipation and preparation, time for a flurry of activity and a thousand things to do, time to plan, time to act. If it were a surprise there would be the moment of reaction and rebuttal. Inevitably, either way, there would come the time of rebuilding and recovery, time for counting the dead and the living, time for surviving and recouping. If you were lucky, you also got a time for reunion, a time to reunite with life as it was.
If you were lucky.
He grabbed at Ronon as the taller man struggled to stand on unsteady legs.
"Fine," Ronon grunted, shaking off his help.
His hands came away bloody.
"This isn't Cradia," Ronon interrupted.
He silenced Ronon with a look, dragging the two of them away from the others.
"One more time?"
"Cradia is inhabited, smaller than Sateda but not far behind in technology, warm. This isn't it."
"Maybe it is and something happened to the sun here."
He exhaled. "Misdial?"
Ronon shrugged. "Glitch, doesn't matter. Atlantis doesn't know where to look."
"Don't say anything yet - " he started to say, falling silent as Ronon interrupted.
"They already know."
"It's fried, I don't think there's anything I can do. The computer itself is fried, so even if we could repair the engines, there's no way to fly them." She was a pretty brunette from the engineering lab and she was explaining it for the third time with far more patience than she was feeling.
"What if we - "
"You're not getting it, Major," she said, her voice rough with forced politeness and numbing fatigue. "I've been working on these engines every day for three weeks and I could keep on working on them for the next year and there is still nothing I can do! There's something about this planet - there's a magnetic field, that's why the communications aren't working, that's why the engines aren't working, that's why the computers aren't working, that's why nothing is working and it isn't going to!"
He waited, riding out the outburst. When it was over and before she could apologize he spoke. Camryn needed a win, needed to succeed at something.
"Can you help Davis - he's trying to set up a water filtering thing but you know he’s a biologist, not an engineer and then he's Canadian on top of that,” he teased with a soft, non-patronizing smile, a little hint of flirt, a little hint of shy – “so maybe you could give him a hand?"
Camryn from the engineering lab smiled tiredly. "So am I."
Reilly was complaining again. He’d tuned the man out again and Reilly was letting him know about it. He wiped the muzzle of the P90 and screwed it back onto the weapon.
He was tired. Reilly was probably tired, too. He’d put Reilly in charge of the rations since the geneticist proved to be not much help at anything else with a dislocated shoulder and a fractured ankle. Reilly hobbled closer to him.
“I said we should be looking for food.”
“I heard that part. I was more interested in the part where you said I needed to get off my ass.”
Reilly hobbled back the few steps he’d come forward, the temporary bravado fading even before he had.
“Major – “
Lorne was on his feet and closed the distance between them, his voice low and steady.
“We stay together. The rest of us only go so far because you can’t go with us and I don’t know what’s out there but I’m willing to take the chance that it might not be friendly and leaving one or two people behind means only that many go out and those aren’t odds I’m going to take just yet.”
Reilly stood his ground, his head lowered, for once offering no argument.
“Good. That’s settled.” Lorne snapped the P90 onto his vest and tapped the clip sharply with the flat of his palm. “We good?”
The lichen Jules from Botany found had to be consumed raw or the scientists were pretty sure it would have no nutritional value, not that there was enough extra water to boil it into soup even if it hadn’t mattered. The stuff smelled like low tide and more than once Lorne wished it tasted a little more like that than what it did taste like…but it was keeping them alive.
At least he thought it was. Rations that should have lasted a month had been stretched to six weeks but they would only last another few days even supplemented by the lichen.
Food was at the top of a very long list.
"The field around the planet - " he asked her, asked Camryn, while she sat by the fire watching the sky darken with the planet's long, cold night.
"Yeah - "
"It shuts mechanical things down."
"Could that be why the cruiser was - just sitting there, at the gate, when Captain Joslin - when jumper two came through?"
Her answer seemed to satisfy him and he would have left it at that.
"It's going to kill us, too."
"Get in line," he muttered under his breath as he walked away.
Dawn was the coldest time of the day, colder even than the dead of night. A loud screech brought them all awake, stumbling in the dark from what little warmth the jumper provided.
"Get down!" he yelled at the civilians, motioning them to the back of the jumper.
Ronon was already out and crouched on the other side of the fire, gun drawn, eyes on the sky.
"It flies," he said, ducking as whatever it was came over the body of the jumper, swooping low, ramming it. The featherless creature’s broken body careened wildly past their encampment, Ronon firing as it went by, the dark shape blending with moonless grey sky.
"Did you hit it?"
"I don't think so." Ronon could have been announcing afternoon tea had been cancelled.
Another came at them; this time Ronon scored a hit, the heavy body tumbling and falling to the barren ground several hundred yards away. Several others were upon the two carcasses before they were on the ground good, ripping and screaming at the stringy carrion. They efficiently shredded the animals and took off again, back the way they'd come.
Camryn bandaged the gaping hole in Davis' side. Davis Arnold, who was embarrassed because his first name was a last name and his last name was a first. Davis Arnold, a doctor of plant biology with two PhDs, molecular biology and bryology, one kid, favourite colour blue, afraid of horses and roller coasters and grew up with a dog named Billy.
Davis Arnold who was not going to survive the wound in his gut that Camryn bandaged as best she could with her fingers, set the best Jules could but he wasn't a medic and there was only so much any of them could do.
The beasts were coming more often.
Horrible shudders racked Reilly's body constantly and he knew it was depressing the others to sit with the crippled man. His broken ankle was inflamed and swollen, the foot long since blackened and dead. Even as much as they wanted to, they couldn't, seeing in Reilly themselves, seeing their futures, so he stayed with Reilly instead. He pretended to find a dozen things that needed to be done and they pretended those things were important.
When Reilly suggested the group go hunt for lichen, he declined.
"We'll go when your ankle is better," he said.
"It's fine," Reilly had insisted. "I've been walking on it for days."
When Reilly asked for a cup of peppermint tea, he leaned close, whispering it'd just be a few minutes, he'd brew it himself, lemon or milk?
Lemon or milk….
The crack of a tree branch cut into the silence. He started, P90 coming up instinctively after another pseudo-dactyl morning raid. It was Camryn, the pretty brunette from the engineering lab, the one who had the hots for Sheppard, the one whose long slender fingers were still wrapped in the last of the gauze, cut and broken in the crash, now mostly useless and gnarled, the one who liked the Beatles better than the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan most of all.
She was laying limbs she'd gathered across a copse of stones, stepping onto them where they crossed an open area. They broke loudly into lengths manageable in their makeshift fire-pit. If the break weren't complete, she would cautiously pull at one end until it folded back against itself, kicking at the break until it gave and then stack the shorter piece in a less than neat pile. It was a slow but good system, one she could manage despite her mangled fingers, one she'd performed every day since they'd crashed here. She kept them in firewood, often working through the entire day just to have enough for the night.
Lorne wanted to tell her to stop. Dying from exposure was probably preferable to any of the other ways they were most likely going to suffer from. In the sub-zero temperature of the night, you might just go to sleep; you might even feel a little warm after a while.
He thanked her as he went by.
Ronon wasn't exactly packed for traveling.
"Those things are eating something other than us."
"It's an unreliable gamble, if you found them or their food source, how would you get the food back, you can't transport enough to feed everyone and who knows if they run in packs."
"Better than starving here."
"You won't make it."
"Maybe, maybe not. We're starving," he said simply.
"You're like a Klingon," Lorne laughed, a resigned, hollowed sound. "That's not a compliment."
It was the last thing he ever said to Ronon.
The other side of nowhere, three million miles from home, and rescue teams from Atlantis thirteen weeks overdue. It was possible that the planet's magnetic field had destroyed a rescue mission; there was no way of knowing. The nights were getting steadily colder each passing day and the lichen was harder and harder to gather, he and Jules - Jules, single, played soccer in high school and gone to MIT before dropping out to live for a year in Key West, liked spaghetti and sweet, iced tea with lime, not lemon - he and Jules had to go farther and farther for their daily ration of moss. Jules who was coughing more and more each night. He shoveled another pan of dirt, patting it into place carefully.
None of the graves were marked, but he could tell you who lay in each one, the day - the hour - they had died, what time of day he'd dug into the permafrost, what food they liked, what they hated, what they feared, the last thing they'd said.
Camryn had asked if he thought the pseudo-dactyls would be back.
He'd said no.
A flash of light streaked across the dark sky, one of several in the last hour or so. He knew it was most likely a piece of the second jumper. The planet's heavy gravity was drawing the debris field slowly into itself, the light shows longer and brighter over the last couple of nights, hundreds of the brief shooting stars falling into the atmosphere. He watched them run across the sky, remembering each name of the occupants inside -
Joslin, the Marine from Texas, Carrolle from Biology and Denmark, Wayne, a Marine who'd held the highest score on Guitar Hero for three weeks straight, Maggie the agriculturist whose father grew blueberries in Georgia and Darren, the quietist guy you'd ever want to meet and who wanted to try out for the Olympic Archery team. Lorne had written a letter of recommendation to the Air Force and SGC last month to allow him to try. Every time the sky lit up he recited the names to himself, meticulously recalling the details of each personality, trying to add to what he remembered of each person, wondering if he'd made any of it up along the way, adding the names of those from his shuttle as they joined the dead. The faces were easy - he saw every one of them each time he closed his eyes.
"Damn you!" he screamed, "Goddamn you, John Sheppard you motherfucker!" and the harsh sound ripped from his throat as foreign to him as breathing underwater. He was mad and he didn't get mad, he never had.
"GOD DAMN YOU!" he screamed again just because it felt good to hear the sound of a voice. He threw the shovel hard against the nearest lifeless, barren tree. "WHY DID YOU GIVE UP ON US?"
"Why did you give up…"
Dirt scattered across the neatly spaced mounds in the biting evening wind. Lorne stood there a while before he went back inside the jumper, leaving the shovel where it lay.
Joslin, Biologist Carrolle, Wayne the Guitar hero, Maggie, Darren the archist--archer, Camryn who never got to know John Sheppard, Ronon who did, Davis who hiccupped when he laughed too hard, Reilly who liked peppermint tea and once set a record in a hot air balloon, Jules…
He gathered the moss, he dug out the water pit, he broke the branches. He thought about rescue until he didn't think about it anymore, no use when there was no one left because you'd failed. The P90 was spent, had been for weeks. Ronon's sweet little gun would be nice about now. Or not. He lit the torches and began to drag firewood toward the pit, piling it close so that tossing it in was less of an effort.