Author's Notes: A tag to the Season Two episode "Grace Under Pressure." Features McKay and Zelenka whumping and much angst. Spoilers for that episode, slight cussing, no other warnings. I don't use a beta, so any mistakes are my own. Czech translations are thanks to the wonderful Tagetes, who wins a raspberry flavoured Czech scientist for her efforts.
Reviews appreciated and adored.
Grace Under Pressure
When Radek was ten, and just tall enough to reach the top shelf of his mother's kitchen; when he was ten, and in the class two years above his peers; when he was ten, making the planet Mars out of paper mache and red paint; when he was ten, and accidentally broke his bedroom window flying a miniature plane - when he was ten, and still too young and too small and too innocent - his cousin died.
The body was pulled from the lake - white and blue and so horribly still, especially the eyes, which were open and wide and stared right at Radek while his mother clutched him to her skirts - and he remembered, nobody said anything. The area was full of people, from police to passers-by, from the helpful and concerned to the curious, but it was silent. Nobody said anything, except for Radek's uncle, who screamed: "Muj boze, muj boze," brokenly, over and over again, and it was the first time Radek had ever seen a man weep.
The first time he saw a Wraith victim, during the siege of the city - a withered husk, eyes clouded by cataracts, sightless and still staring - he had whispered the same mantra. My god, my god.
But then, no one had answered his uncle, either.
When the sound of the jumper windscreen cracking carried across distorted radio waves, like ice breaking beneath a boy's skates, silence followed.
And his voice, a whisper, "Muj boze, muj boze..."
"He was - he was a good man. Better than me."
He spoke at the memorial, with few words and without a body to address them to. Stepping down from the podium, McKay felt Sheppard's hand rest, briefly, on his back, before the soldier moved past him to take his place.
The rest of the service was a regimented, all too familiar blur. He took a seat close to the wall, his legs shaking from the exertion, and stared out into the audience. A mix of uniforms and colours stared back at him. Sheppard and Caldwell stood at strict attention, the Daedalus called back from its explorations early. Caldwell had spoken with warmth but also with professionalism, keeping to the handbook. Sheppard had followed suit, with a few deviations the city had created, for a community built over a year.
The one time McKay looked up from his hands to glance at the podium, it was to find Sheppard staring right back at him, whilst his voice continued to address the crowd.
Feeling uncomfortable, McKay had turned his head, and seen movement at the very far end of the room. It was done quietly, the rest of the audience oblivious - but Radek's departure was witnessed by one.
"... onset of hypothermia, the effect the pressure change has had on his body, not to mention an almighty crack on the head..."
Which all amounted to McKay, bundled in blankets and with an IV in one hand, a bright blue plaster covering stitches in his forehead, his skin flushed a healthy pink and his breath coming slowly and easily.
Carson stood closer to the bed than with other patients, Zelenka noticed. Closer than at Cadman's, during the mind sharing incident, almost as close as when Sheppard had been tied to the rails, skin blue and hard - and then Beckett had borne the blame, and the guilt, and this time it was simply the knowledge that it had been too close. Too damn close, in a worried Scottish burr, wringing his hands, while behind a screen nurses began to strip McKay of his soaked clothes.
"So he's alright?" Weir asked. Her right hand rested loosely across Rodney's wrist.
"Aye. I'll want to keep him in the infirmary for the next forty eight hours, to monitor his condition, and then I'll release him to his quarters. He can return to light duty in three days, full duty in seven."
Light duty, Zelenka thought, ruefully. As though holding McKay to that would be an easy matter.
White and blue and horribly still...
McKay's chest rose and fell in smooth movements.
Eyes open wide and staring and...
He started, looking up. Elizabeth had turned away from the bed and was staring at him with an expression of concern.
"You can take over the science department in Rodney's absence?"
He nodded, running through tasks in his head. There was the study of the effects of low level radiation on the drain from a ZPM to consider, the rebuilding of the North pier, the repair work to the lower living quarters, Kavanagh's workload was still to be reassigned and McLachlan wanted to investigate the stabilisers in the lower basement...
Rodney had been so cold when they had pulled him out of the jumper. Touching him had been like touching ice - an initial burn, and then a seeping numbness spreading through the fingertips.
He was shivering so hard it was painful to even watch.
"How long before he wakes up?" Sheppard asked, now stood on the other side of McKay's bed.
Carson frowned. "No earlier than tomorrow morning, I'd say, and he'll sleep plenty after that. His body's had one hell of a shock." And then the Scot lowered his voice, and muttered beneath his breath: "He's not the only one."
His uncle had never recovered. Radek remembered seeing him only once more after the accident. He hadn't been allowed to the funeral, considered too young, but when his mother finished the only bread in the house he had run to the shops and seen him. Broken, hollow. Moving without seeing. A shadow of a man staring right through ten year old Radek as though he wasn't there. As though he saw someone else.
Someone jostled his elbow. Zelenka looked up. Sheppard wore a lopsided smile, touched by relief and something Radek couldn't place.
"Fancy grabbing something to eat at the mess? All hail the conquering heroes."
Radek looked away.
Shivering so hard it hurt to watch...
"I do not feel like a hero."
The first thing McKay knew of it was the alarm going off in the control room.
His first thought was, 'dammit, it's my second day back. Could it not have waited?'
The technician squeaked slightly when shoved to one side, Rodney pushing past him to reach the power display. Above him a hologram flickered, switching from power output to a view of the city, blue lines on black.
He lifted his head for a brief second. Elizabeth stood in the doorway of her office, her body tensely held, her lips pressed tightly together.
"Oh, you know," his gaze returned to the computer, "just life. God, playing a practical joke on me."
He didn't need to look up again to know that she was frowning, her mouth pursed disapprovingly.
There was red in the North, at the edge of the city, between the corridors and the sea. A pulsing crimson, alarming in its clarity.
Someone was working out there. Someone... he searched his mind and came up blank. He hadn't seen the duty roster for that week, had spent most of the early half bundled up in blankets drowning in cocoa. Zelenka had successfully hidden almost all his work away from him, that conniving...
"Dr Ashcroft to the control room! Dr Ashcroft to Dr McKay! Anyone?"
He slapped the 'on' of his radio, and spoke quickly and urgently. "Dave, we hear you. What's going on?"
"We were working on the crane, and it just - I don't know why it moved, there's no power in it, but the weight..."
"Ashcroft," he snapped, aware of Elizabeth coming down the stairs towards him, "slow down. Who's we?"
"Radek." The Yorkshireman panted. "Radek's overboard."
He had never learnt how to swim.
Growing up, there had been few opportunities, and when he was of an age of exploration, of journeys to the lake with friends, it had been forbidden. Radek had fought, with the arrogance of a youth thought invulnerable, but his parents refused to relent and when he saw his uncle, picking through vegetables in the local store, he understood, and never said anything more.
When confessed, during small talk exchanged over an open computer bank, Zelenka had found Peter incredulous. 'You're on a floating city in the middle of the ocean,' he had protested, and 'wasn't that in your file?'
It was, Zelenka explained, but since at the time of the first mission no one had known Atlantis was underwater, the issue hadn't come up. Then there had been a discussion about how many other personnel might lack the same ability, and the very real idea of suggesting lessons to Dr Weir - because it wasn't that Radek objected to learning, he had just missed his chance. But the thought had been forgotten, and now it was too late - too late for Peter, and too late for him. He was going to drown.
Slowly, laboriously, Radek shifted the fingers of his left hand so they gripped the ledge a little higher. It kept slipping, stubbornly, and it was harder and harder to make his fingers obey - thick and heavy and so numb he had already suffered several slices against the metal's rough edge.
It was, he supposed, a form of poetic justice. McKay would appreciate it.
He wondered what he would look like, if they ever pulled his body from the water. Awash with gratitude, he realised - at least his parents weren't alive to know.
A windshield breaking.
A ten thousand year old crane shifting between two men's weight and...
Sounds, Zelenka thought wearily, resting his head against the cold steel. Sounds, haunting him, the ghost of a dead thirteen year old boy in echoes.
Two weeks into the exploration of the city, one of the military teams had found a disused crane perched alongside the Northern pier. The engineering department had exploded into a paroxysm of joy, since the absence of any heavy equipment brought with them through the Stargate had raised serious questions as to how they would begin any of the larger repairs the ten thousand year old space craft needed. The existence of one had led to the discovery of others, dotted around the city, and they had been utilised to rebuild Atlantis after the Wraith siege.
In McKay's opinion, it was pure irony that during the same siege, the original Northern crane had been damaged. When not in use the machinery folded away neatly into three sections, slotting into purpose built rests in the pier wall. When powered up these three sections would unfurl, lock into place, and provide a strong, perfectly vertical scaffolding tower topped by a multifunctional arm – near identical to the ones used on Earth. The crane on the Northern pier was one of the largest, used to build the enormous silver spire that towered above it.
Folded away during the siege, a chance strike from a dart had destroyed the power couplings from the city to the pier. The crane had lain still and lifeless, battered by waves and wind, until now.
All this McKay explained breathlessly to Sheppard and Elizabeth as he ran for a transporter, whilst simultaneously issuing orders to the engineering crews over his radio.
"It was on the list of things to do - the long-term list, not the short-term."
"So why is Zelenka down there?" Sheppard wanted to know, his pace annoyingly easy and relaxed beside the puffing scientist.
"How the hell should I know?" he snapped, "I'm not his keeper." He didn't - couldn't - admit that he hadn't seen the Czech since the funeral, hadn't exchanged words with him since the jumper. It was those snatched memories, pulled from hours of obscurity, that explained the most. Cold and shaking, McKay had woken from a nightmare to remember another. Barely coherent or conscious for most of his rescue, he was startled by flashbacks - so cold, and so wet, and the intangible sensation of Sam's lips against his, and the rushing howl of water ripping against his body - hold on, hold on, just a little longer - and the warmth of Sheppard's arm beneath his shoulders and 'what took you so long' and...
I am sorry, Rodney. I am the reason the jumper crashed. If it wasn't for me...
"What?" He looked up, startled. They were still rushing along the corridor towards the pier, but Sheppard was staring at him as though he expected a response and...
"A jumper? We've still got the grapple attached to the one used to rescue you."
He nodded, quickly. "If he's in the sea..."
"I'll get a team," Sheppard promised, and then took off, taking a right turn down a side corridor.
Elizabeth was speaking into her radio, low and fast and urgent. "Dr Levandoski, are you still picking up a life sign off the North pier?"
"Yes ma'am. One life sign on the edge of the pier."
McKay released a small breath, looking ahead of him towards the exit.
Stepping out from the jumper had been surreal, dreamlike, and ascending up through the ocean's depths towards the promise of sunlight was no different.
Zelenka kept his eyes on the shield monitors, as outside the ship a great whale moaned in distress.
"Think it's pissed it's playmate's shut up?" Sheppard asked, sat at the controls.
"Possibly." His reply was terse. He could feel a cold damp spread across his uniform's sleeve, where Rodney had gripped him so tightly.
If he flexed his arm just so, he could still feel the ghostly imprint of McKay's fingers against him.
"How's the shield holding up?"
"Three minutes until it fails. Two and a half until we are at a depth safe enough for the jumper's structural integrity."
Sheppard nodded. Zelenka watched him move his hands across the console, and felt the pressure in the cabin increase by another fraction.
His ears popped, painfully.
"That any easier, McKay?"
The reply was slurred, a mumble. "Colonel?"
"Hold on just a little while longer. We'll take her up as quick as we can."
Radek heard a soft sigh from the back of the jumper, then a shuffling sound and a thud, as something - someone - crumpled to the floor. He saw Sheppard stiffen in his seat, his body lifting from the chair, but just as Radek opened his mouth to protest the American seemed to change his mind, sinking back reluctantly.
"Go check on him."
He didn't protest, although it wasn't his desire to monitor the shield that made him hesitate.
The back of the jumper smelt of wet cloth, sea salt, and blood. McKay lay on the floor, curled onto his side, his features grey and lax. He was still shivering, his breath coming in short, alarming gasps.
Zelenka reached out, hesitantly.
Gasp and grey and gasp and blue and gasp and...
He tapped the other scientist's cheek gingerly, then harder. "McKay. Wake up, McKay."
There was a groan, and a weak hand lifted to swat blindly at Zelenka. With some difficulty Radek managed to maneuver his friend into a sitting position, his back resting against the jumper bench.
"Yes, that is not surprising." He reached out to pull the emergency blanket from the seat behind Rodney's head. "You would warm up if you were not wearing these wet things."
"Can't..." The Canadian's head drooped forward, chin resting briefly on his chest, before he jerked awake again with a choked half-sob. "Oh god..." His gaze darted about the cabin, before resting on Radek with a strange, hungry intensity. "This is real?"
Radek felt his throat constrict, and looked away. "Yes."
"Zelenka?" said Sheppard's voice, from the front of the ship.
He swallowed nervously before answering, his voice sounding unnaturally loud. "He is awake, Colonel, but not very... coherent." He squinted in the semi-dark, seeing a brown stain across McKay's right shoulder and the side of his face. "And he is bleeding."
"Fell," McKay slurred, helpfully, his head dipping forward for a second time.
Radek placed his fingers beneath his friend's chin and tilted his head back, gently. He felt a pulse, racing against his touch, and jerked back, suddenly unable to breathe.
McKay shuddered, a great roll of movement through his entire body, so hard it made Zelenka's teeth ache. He released a short, hiss of air and started to tug at the Canadian's jacket, peeling it from the other man's resistant arms.
He kept his voice soft.
"Rodney, you need to stay awake."
Dim blue eyes looked at him, the pupils wide and dilated. "Radek."
Radek's hands stilled for a second. The words lay trapped beneath his teeth, thick and heavy in his mouth before spilling, violently. "I am sorry, Rodney. I am the reason the jumper crashed. If it wasn't for me you would not have been trapped down there."
Rodney blinked slowly, his eyes focussing sharply. "If it wasn't for you I still would be."
And then his eyelids slipped closed, his body loose against the bench.
Radek closed his eyes and held his breath.
"Zelenka! Radek, can you hear me?"
The response was faint, barely audible over the sound of the ocean against the city, but it was enough. McKay lunged to the right side of the pier and peered over the fence.
The crane had slipped two or three metres downwards, its far end touching the sea. There the great metal shelf which served to hold the crane up had ripped clean away from the pier wall. The restraints closer to the city side appeared intact, but the weight of an enormous tower of metal leaning diagonally into the sea meant it was only a short time until they also gave way.
It was possible, he thought, that it would take the entire pier with it.
He turned, sharply. "Elizabeth, I need all non-essential crew off this pier, now."
She nodded quickly. "Who do you need?"
"A small engineering team - I'll pick them." He glanced back to where Beckett was tending to a seated Dave Ashcroft, blood dripping from a nasty cut in the scientist's forehead. "Carson!"
The Scot looked up, his face pinched tight with concern. "Rodney."
"Get your people out of here, now."
Carson frowned. "I'm waiting on a gurney for..."
"Now," McKay repeated, insistently. "Unless you want to take a head first dive into the ocean."
Carson's face changed subtly, annoyance giving way to trace amounts of fear. "Alright," he snapped, to the team clustered around the seated Ashcroft, "you heard Doctor McKay."
McKay turned away from them, out towards the ocean. He could hear the whine of an approaching jumper, its volume increasing sharply. A silver shape shot from the sky behind him, curving over the top of the city before slowly arcing around to the sea. Pushing himself towards the edge Rodney leaned over and yelled down to the water: "Radek! We're coming to get you!"
He strained to hear a response. If the Czech had worn a radio, it was now lost or broken. Rodney couldn't see the man from the top of the pier, and had no way of telling where Zelenka was. Was the sound of the sea drowning out his reply? Was he injured?
"McKay, we've got him in sight."
He lifted his head, shielding his eyes from the spray of the ocean with the side of his hand. The jumper hovered at the same height as the top of the pier, but fifty metres out. If he squinted, McKay could make out a familiar silhouette sat in the pilot seat.
"Where is he?" he demanded, speaking into his radio.
"About two thirds of the way along, two levels down. Looks like when the crane slipped the doc' managed to hang on to something."
McKay swallowed, the action painful. Radek was lucky - if he had fallen into the ocean chances were that he would have been beyond rescue - but being trapped on the crane presented a new set of problems.
"Can you tell if he's injured?"
He turned, surprised. Carson stood outside the corridor door, on the small balcony between the city wall and the start of the pier. Rodney growled at him, but was ignored.
"I'll be fine if I stay here, Rodney. And your concern is touching."
"So help me," he snapped back, "if you don't get back when I tell you to..."
Carson looked away, his hand resting on the earpiece of his radio. "Go ahead, Colonel."
"Can't tell if Zelenka's injured, we're too far away. I could try bringing her closer..."
"No," McKay interrupted, quickly. "Bad idea, Sheppard. The force of the jumper in the air could be enough to send the crane all the way into the sea."
"Understood." There was a slight pause, and the sound of something shuffling, voices in the background. "A team's suiting up now. We're gonna lower Sergeant Weber down to pull Radek back up."
The jumper started to descend, slowly, holding perfectly steady under Sheppard's hands. Even McKay had to acknowledge the man's talent - combining his expertise as a pilot with the seamless blending of Ancient technology with the gene, the Colonel had the ability to turn an unwieldy, rock-shaped ship into an extension of his own being. An ability McKay envied and resented him for having.
The little ship began to turn. Losing sight of Sheppard as the jumper screen faced out toward the horizon, McKay watched as the back hatch opened, revealing figures moving within.
Weber was no more than ten feet away from the jumper when everything went to hell.
Toby Griffin. One ex-wife, no children. Beneficiaries listed as his brother and his brother's two sons. Served at the SGC for six years, been on Atlantis for three months. Nothing significant of concern in his medical. A report by General O'Neill – dutiful, hardworking, loyal, trustworthy, personable and – in the General's own, unique language – a good man. High praise. Born in Cedar Rapids, 1956, died in the Pegasus Galaxy aged forty eight.
There were times, Zelenka thought, closing down his laptop, that being a scientist of technology could be a terrible thing. It opened doors where no doors were meant to be.
With the computer switched off the small bedroom descended into darkness. Radek fumbled his way to the bed through shadows and crawled onto the mattress, collapsing face up to stare at the ceiling.
He did not sleep.
Elizabeth had yet to write her own, concise summation of the pilot's life. Her words would be eloquent but to the point, warm but not beautiful. He wondered what she thought of whilst writing, whether she prayed for them, whether she cried.
Dim moonlight filtered through the small stained glass panel in the back wall of the room. Zelenka watched its path from one corner of the bed to the other, spending the night as he had the previous two – awake, numb, listening to the distant rumblings of Atlantis as she breathed and lived around him.
He wondered whether Rodney would speak at the funeral. Words of solace, words of praise? He wondered what Caldwell would say, what Elizabeth would look like as she stood upon the podium.
He wondered if he could stand it.
"This has to be your most stupid idea yet!" Sheppard said loudly.
"And the alternative?" McKay demanded, overly aware of his face flushing with anger and intensely glad it couldn't be seen from either the jumper or the safety of the city wall, where Elizabeth waited.
"Rodney, you said yourself that the crane is very unstable, yet what you're suggesting..."
"I know," he snapped, into the radio, "but it will work, Elizabeth. Look, the thing that's holding the crane in place now is the same thing that supports the crane when it's in a vertical position. It's stronger than the others. Believe it or not, when the middle support broke it was a good thing."
"We've lost sight of Radek," Carson argued.
McKay waved the life-signs detector at him. "He's still alive, even if Sheppard can't see him anymore. When the crane shifted he must have fallen into one of the spaces between the three sections."
"And by lifting the crane you think you can bring Zelenka up?" the Colonel asked.
"Exactly." He hesitated, self-preservation kicking into gear. "Probably."
"Probably?" Elizabeth demanded.
He winced. "There's a chance that if the circuits short it will release the tension that at the minute is stopping the three sections from collapsing on top of each other. If that happens, then anyone on the crane will be crushed instantly."
"Meaning you and Zelenka," Sheppard said.
"It's only a small chance," he retorted, swallowing nerves. "Believe me, Colonel, if I thought this didn't have at least a sixty-five percent chance of working I wouldn't be going out there!"
"What if we can support the crane? Hook the jumpers up to some grappling gear and..."
"We don't have time, and besides, like I said before, if just one jumper gets too close it could send the entire thing into the ocean. Were you not listening before!"
"I was listening, McKay. Just seems that you crawling out there will make it more likely to collapse."
"If I could operate the crane remotely from here I would, but as I've already told you, the system was damaged in the siege and now the controls have to be manipulated directly."
"Are you sure this is the only option?" Elizabeth asked, her voice soft in his ear.
"The only option, no, but it's the one most likely to work."
"Whatever is going to be done should be done quickly," Beckett added. "Radek could be badly hurt and the water is going to be mighty cold." He paused, and Rodney was aware of the Scot scrutinizing him. "What about you, Rodney?"
Confused, McKay started to shake his head. "Like I already told Sheppard, the crane..."
"That's not what I meant," Carson said, gently, and it was only then Rodney realised his friend had one hand cupped over his radio, blocking transmission. "You've only just recovered from the jumper crash, Rodney, and you go on about your claustrophobia enough for me not to forget it. It'd be understandable if..."
"Your faith in me is astounding," he snapped, his cheeks burning - because damn, it hadn't occurred to him just how dark it might be and how close to the water he might have to go and - oh crap...
"All I'm saying," Beckett said, pinning Rodney with a sharp look, "is someone else could go down there."
"No." He felt his hands curl into cold fists. "The crane is going to collapse if it isn't lifted. Time is of the essence and there is nobody who can fix the damn thing at the same speed that I can! And," he added, anger driven by fear, "you're sure as hell not helping by wasting valuable seconds right now!"
Carson scowled, but after a second stepped back. "Then at least make sure you borrow some protective gear from the engineering team." The Scot's expression softened slightly. "I don't want to have to put you back together twice in the same week, Rodney."
There was blood in the water.
Rodney was dripping - his clothes, his hair, water from his boots as Radek pulled them from his frozen feet and deposited their waterlogged innards onto the floor. The dim lights of the jumper were reflected in the resulting puddle, a lake that was growing by the second. For a second time Zelenka pulled McKay to the left, an attempt to free him of the damp, and then he saw it - a dark smudge. A cloud of brown, of crimson, along McKay's cheek and neck and shoulder and arm and there - dripping, his hand still and unmoving, lying in the water. Washing him clean.
Radek couldn't feel the wound, couldn't move his hands to look for it, couldn't see in the dark space around him. But he could smell it. Rich and cloying and sweet.
There wasn't much. Not yet. But in the water...
It should have been worse.
He was the only one who had had any warning of the crane's collapse. A vibration beneath his feet, travelling up to his spine and into his skull, then a great groaning as the ground literally fell and above him people were shouting and all he could do was hold on, hold on tight as the security he had known tore itself apart.
Darkness and light and darkness again and - pain, oh god - and creaking, groaning, screaming, metal screaming and ice breaking and a windshield cracking and noise all around him as his feet fell and the sky fell and then - and then water, driving nails from his feet to his head and around his chest and his fingers scrabbling for any purchase and holding on and gasping and then...
"Pomozte mi nekdo! Muj bratranec - prosim! Pomoc! On spadnul!"
Radek dipped his chin to his chest, resting his forehead against the cool metal strut he clung to. The ocean reached past his hips and lapped at his upper ribcage.
"All you have to do is open your door and walk to my jumper."
Of all the ways he thought he might die - drained by a Wraith, shot by a Genii, radiation from his own nuke - this hadn't been one of them, but it seemed ironically apt. He chuckled, blackly, the sound rough and weak against his lips.
"All you have to do..."
"My god, my god..."
And so cold, it hurt.
Alone. He thought - he'd feared - he would die alone.
"Muj boze, muj boze..."
"Almost thought we lost you."
Scrambling across steel and iron had seemed like a wise idea atop the pier, but as his fingers were scraped and scratched and various body parts bruised against uncomfortable angles McKay was forced to admit that perhaps – just perhaps – it had not been his most sensible moment. Certainly not one of his most defensive.
A nameless technician had passed him a hard hat, complete with torch, but as his head dipped and ducked beneath metal beams the light bobbed and danced around the enclosed space, making the world dizzy and confusing. He had left his pack behind and now carried only a life signs detector, strapped securely into his jacket pocket, a small wallet of tools, and his radio, clipped to his ear.
And an almost overwhelming sense of claustrophobia...
He measured his breaths, coming short and fast, warm puffs of air in the cold.
With only one broken strut the crane, although at an odd angle, had at least been in roughly three pieces. When the second collapsed so did the metal, the crushing weight of the top pieces crumpling the piece below. Beams had twisted, forming unnatural gaps within the machinery and reducing other spaces to the size of McKay's fist. It was a miracle Radek hadn't been flattened within, and it was only the steady glow of his life-sign which assured Rodney otherwise.
The strange new moulding of the metal made climbing difficult. More than once Rodney had been diverted from the quick and straight route by a protruding steel beam, its edge ripped open, or forced to squeeze his body through two sheets, pressed together by weight. As he felt his uniform snag on bent nails or sucked in his chest to pass through the space he would whisper to himself, low and urgent in the dark.
"Wide open fields, wide open fields..."
He tried not to think of how this new bending of metal might affect his goal. Powering and then lifting the crane was already a difficult task – now he was faced with the possibility that it was already too late, that the shape and strength of the machinery had already been lost.
Dropping through into a dark hole Rodney landed on the beam below him with a thud. In the bright beam of his head torch he saw his goal - a metal box the size of a cargo crate, thick, heavily insulated cables running to and from it. Ripping the Velcro on his gloves, McKay discarded the clothing and started to pry open the top of the box, already spotting where the cables lay damaged. Several were shorn clean in two; others lay threadbare and lifeless, hooked around crosspieces of the crane.
With another glance to his scanner, McKay called out. "Radek?"
He thought he heard water splashing, muted beneath layers of metal.
Then, soft, from somewhere beneath him, "Rodney?"
Radek peered upwards, mesmerized by the dancing light above his head. He caught a glimpse of McKay's face, pale and waxen, and the shadow of the metal beam his friend lay across.
The fall had deposited Zelenka in water, and it had only been the searing pain in his leg that had prompted him to battle back up, righting himself awkwardly by reaching out to grab onto the metal beam above him. Recovering from the initial shock, spitting out mouthfuls of saltwater, Radek had looked around to find himself entirely enclosed, surrounded by darkness. Metal stretched above and below him, crushed and curved to create a space just big enough to accommodate him. Whatever had snagged his leg made movement impossible, and he was forced to stretch his body painfully to cling to the shelf above him.
Lost in his own struggle, Radek was oblivious to McKay's approach until the other scientist was almost on top of him.
He tilted his head back a little further, gasping as his efforts pulled against his ribs and injured leg.
He laughed, despite himself, the resulting echo brittle. "What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question," McKay retorted. His voice was sharp, and oddly comforting. "What the hell did you think you were doing?"
Zelenka frowned, struggling to think through a muddled fog. "I came to fix the crane."
"David..." He broke off, breath catching in his chest. "David..."
"Is fine," Rodney told him, "up on deck and safe, which is more than I can say for the two of us! And you know what I mean! We agreed that any work on the North pier would be handled by a full engineering team! So what, what happened, you thought you'd take it on as a hobby!"
Radek blinked at him, confused, because none of it made any sense – why was Rodney here, how could he be here, when he had died in the ocean...
His hand slipped from its hold around the shelf and his body started to crumple into the water.
Something shot out of the light and grabbed his wrist so hard Zelenka could feel the shape of five fingertips digging into his skin. His arm jerked, his body pulled upright.
"Wake up," McKay snapped at him, shaking Radek's arm, "wake up and hold on."
Again Zelenka stared at him, breathing in short, stuttered gasps, water lapping around his chest. Water and cold and falling, the sky falling and shrieking and screaming and – the crane, the crane fell, and McKay... McKay was here...
"Why?" he said softly, dumbly, his thoughts muddled.
"Because who else is going to pull you out of this mess," McKay told him. "But I can't do that and hang onto you at the same time so you're just going to have to do it yourself for a little while longer, got it?"
Radek nodded. "Got it." Slowly he pulled his wrist free from McKay's grasp and stretched up once more, closing his hand around the shelf.
"So," McKay said, his tone conversational, as though Radek's near fall hadn't just happened, "I intend to finally fix this thing. If I can hook up the power from the city back to the crane I should be able to lift it enough to pull us both out. It will collapse," he added, as an aside, "but let's hope we're not on it at the same time, huh?"
There was the sound of something creaking, and the clatter of metal against metal. The light from the torch dipped and turned away as McKay's face disappeared back from the hole.
"We can talk about what the hell you thought you were doing later," his voice said, dimly. "It should only take a few minutes to hook this thing back up."
Radek peered upwards, his chest tight with hope, and fear. "This is too dangerous."
"Probably," McKay said, "But here we are."
"Rodney, you should not be here."
The light suddenly dazzled him, appearing suddenly over the edge of the hole and glaring right into his face. "You're repeating yourself. Just listen, alright? I'm going to get us both out of here, Beckett's going to fuss over us both in the infirmary, and then I'm going to ream you out in front of the whole department for making such a stupendously stupid mistake as to take this job on your own, and you can take on my entire backlog of paperwork as punishment – but until then, keep quiet, let me work, and hold on."
The light disappeared again.
Radek rested the side of his head against his outstretched arm, and closed his eyes.
McKay stood in the back of the jumper as the hatch closed, watching Sam watch him back, a sad smile on her face, and pink suited her, which he might one day tell her, if he didn't expect a slap in the face in response - and then the door shut, and left him wondering how she would ever get to the surface, how she would ever get home.
He would decide, later, in his woozy, infirmary-bound recovery, that she wouldn't. That whatever part of himself that she represented was better left on the ocean bed. And then he entertained himself with the ludicrous, fleeting vision of Mermaid Sam, complete with golden tail, gliding over rocks and through waves with all the other mermaids, with all the other pieces of people lost to the waves.
He mouthed the name, and an apology. The jumper was cold, but he was colder, and his breath made no impression in the air.
He wasn't aware of collapsing. One minute he was standing, alone, comforted by the distant conversation from Sheppard and suspecting it was all very one-sided - and then he was sat, back against the bench, butt against the floor, shaking so hard his ribs ached from the effort, feeling exhausted and hollow.
He stared at his knees.
Someone's warm hands were trying to pull him out of his jacket. An accented voice hovered near his ear, buzzing low and deep, a lull he leaned into.
"Hold still, McKay." The hands were touching the wound on his head - there was pain, and he recoiled with little effect - pain in his head and down his spine and in his elbows, for chrissakes, which made no sense because he hadn't done anything to hurt them.
"I am sorry, Rodney."
He concentrated hard, and managed to lift his head.
"I am the reason the jumper crashed. If it wasn't for me you would not have been trapped down there."
Rodney stared at his friend, at the way Radek wouldn't look at him, at the way the other man's hands still rested against his head, against his shoulder. With sudden, incredible clarity, he formed a response.
"If it wasn't for you I still would be."
The effort cost him dearly, but in the brief second before his head dipped back to his chest and he blacked out he saw...
He saw Radek look away.
The darkness was oppressive, closing in on McKay despite the light from the head torch and the glow from his scanner. He worked quickly and in silence, save for the odd curse as his cold fingers fumbled on the wires, or as power surged along the cables and died seconds later. The damage was severe, with some parts of the machinery missing entirely, and he was instead having to patch around holes in the system to connect the controls to the city beyond.
Every couple of minutes he would twist his body into an uncomfortable u-shape and lean over the beam to peer at Radek. The Czech was positioned awkwardly, his body stretched out as one hand clutched to a metal crosspiece above his head, in an effort to keep him free from the water which now reached his shoulders. The crane was sinking, McKay realised, despondently, the struts above his head slowly folding beneath the weight.
He listened to his friend breathe; short, shivery gasps that did little to ease the worry in his stomach. Radek's face had been pale and scared, his eyes wide, glasses long lost, and Rodney had seen his pain, and smelt the hint of blood.
It was all too familiar. He was struck by a dark, twisted Alice in Wonderland image, staring into the looking glass at himself, clutching to the ceiling of a submerged jumper.
And god, it was so dark, and so damp, and the metal was creaking and groaning around him, under stress, under pressure, under the weight of so much water...
He waited for a second before repeating himself, urgently.
"Radek, talk to me."
There was a long pause, before he heard a soft: "You said to be quiet."
"Yeah well," he flexed his fingers, struggling to maintain the feeling in his right hand, struggling not to sound desperate, "I changed my mind."
There was another pause. "What – what do you want to talk about?"
He scowled into the dark. "You make a lousy Carter."
"Nothing. Look, I don't know, Radek – talk about anything." McKay stared at the cables, trying not to notice how the metal seemed to be bending around him, how small the space was, how he could hear the water just beneath him. "Improvise."
Water, lapping against metal, against skin, against the side of the pier.
"Do you think, if I asked Doctor Weir..." there was a slight hesitation, "she would allow swimming lessons?"
McKay groaned, inwardly. "You can't swim?"
"Never had the chance." Radek's voice turned a little defensive. "It is not uncommon, McKay."
"I know that," he retorted, working at one of the screws with a pair of slender pliers, "but it's a hell of a time to think of it."
"Seems to be..." the Czech gasped, "the perfect time."
Rodney tightened his grip around the pliers, his knuckles white.
"McKay, you hear me?"
Sheppard's voice was loud in his ear, enough to make the scientist jump. McKay tapped his earpiece.
"I hear you, Colonel."
"You found him?"
"Yes." He twisted in on himself, leaning down into the hole. "Radek, the Colonel says hi."
The Czech stared up at him, his breath visible in small puffs against the air.
Rodney pulled himself back onto the beam. "He says hello back."
"Is he injured?" asked Carson.
Swallowing, McKay lowered his voice. "I think so, but I can't tell where or how badly. And he's cold." He paused, and added: "We're both very, very cold."
"How long until you get that thing up and running?" Sheppard asked. "I can see the crane moving from here."
"We can feel the vibrations on the deck," Elizabeth added.
"Yes." He bit his lip, aware of the same movement beneath and around him. "I know. Shouldn't be long."
"Care to quantify that?" Sheppard drawled.
He growled softly. "It will take as long as it takes, Colonel. Do I ask you how long it will take you to fly us somewhere?"
"All the time."
He rolled his eyes. "Yes, well, this can't be quantified. The damage is bad but not unfixable." Readdressing his attention to the cables, McKay worked thread one within the other, its fibres coarse and rough beneath his fingers.
"The quicker you can make it, McKay."
"I'm going as fast as I can!" he hissed back. "Now if you don't mind leaving me in peace to finish this, perhaps I'll be able to do this job before Zelenka and I turn grey of old age!" He flipped the radio off, ignoring the beginnings of an objection from Elizabeth. "Radek, you still with me?"
He nodded, irritability temporarily overcoming his previous panic. "Quantify it, he asks me," he muttered, mostly to himself. "I had enough of people asking me 'how long' and 'how much' back in Siberia. They tell you they want new discoveries, new power sources, new technology - but oh, can you complete a business plan first, and justify just how much you think this new energy weapon is going to cost? And fill in a health and safety questionnaire? Health and safety!"
"Rodney." Radek interrupted him, his voice quieter than before.
"What!" McKay snapped back.
"Right." He dipped his head, bringing the light of the headlamp closer to the cables. "I am working," he pointed out, peevishly.
"I know." The response was soft, a hint of accent on the words.
"So..." he continued, using the blade of a box cutter to splice a cable in two, "you can't swim."
"It is not uncommon," Zelenka reminded him.
"Just seems strange to me." McKay slipped the knife back into the folds of its casing, and picked up the pliers again. "My parents threw my sister and I into a summer camp where they forced swimming lessons on us. I hated them. Liked swimming, hated the damn lessons. The teacher was this creepy woman with long fingernails who used to grab me by the ankle and force me to kick." He shuddered. "God, the main reason I learnt the damn backstroke was so I could escape her class."
"My cousin drowned."
The words were abrupt, and oddly abstract. Images of dappled sunlight and lazy summer days spent in the woods evaporated. Rodney's fingers paused for a moment, resting gently on the cables beneath him.
"Sorry," he said, feeling foolish.
"It was a long time ago. He was thirteen."
McKay closed his eyes, listening to Zelenka breathe for several seconds before opening them and resuming his assault on the wires. "What happened?"
"I was younger, by three years. It was winter. We went to the park, to the lake..."
There was a pause, the Czech's voice fading. McKay looked up from the wires and sought deep into the darkness, futilely.
"Radek?" His voice broke, quavering on the repeat. "Radek?"
"The ice broke."
He cursed, almost dropping the pliers held in his right hand. "Don't do that again."
"I was so scared." Radek's voice was distant, dreamy, worryingly so. "He was not far - I could have reached him, but the ice between us seemed so wide... I ran."
McKay dipped his head, taking a deep breath, tightening his hold on the pliers. Concentrating on the machinery, watching the power flow on his scanner, he replied with the simplest answer, and with poorest solace. "You were ten."
"I was scared," the scientist repeated. "Someone passing - I called for help, but it was too late. When they pulled him free, he was already dead."
"You're not going to drown..." McKay paused, realisation kicking into horrible gear.
The memorial. He had seen movement at the very far end of the room. It was done quietly, the rest of the audience oblivious - but Radek's departure was witnessed by one.
"Dammit, Radek. Griffin wasn't your fault."
The Czech's voice was barely above a whisper. "I am sorry, Rodney."
I am the reason the jumper crashed.
"Is that why you're here?" he demanded, fury - and something darker - making his hand shake. "You think exiling yourself to all the crappy jobs makes up for something which you couldn't have prevented?"
"I led the repairs!" Radek shot back. "I told you the jumper could fly..."
"I signed off the damn report!" he shouted back. "I was in the jumper, Radek, in case you've forgotten! I couldn't stop the ship from crashing, I couldn't stop the 'screen..." He broke off, swallowing the words, his entire body trembling. "Don't you dare assume responsibility for this."
"No," he snapped. "You want to take the blame, then how about the fact that we're both stuck on this damn crane because you wanted to play the martyr!"
"That is not true!"
"No? Then what? You think, hey, here's a project I couldn't possibly do any real damage to! Well look how well that turned out, huh! Your damn death wish is going to kill us both! Ow!" The wires beneath his fingers had suddenly sparked into life, crisping his skin with a short electric shock.
"The power." Anger evaporating, Rodney stared at the cables excitedly, tapping the pliers against the scanner. "It's hooked up. We're ready to go."
He heard a gasp from below. "Good. It - it is a little cold."
"Yeah," he admitted, "I know. Just hold on a little longer and then we'll be back on Atlantis. Carson won't let us leave the infirmary."
"I won't ... complain."
McKay grinned foolishly, watching the power levels bounce around the scanner's display as he fiddled with a cable. "Just a little longer," he repeated. "Then we'll both be out of here."
"I, uh... I wanted to say something."
McKay's eyes shifted minutely, his gaze flickering to where Sheppard and Weir were sat. Zelenka would never have seen it if he hadn't been watching closely. Elizabeth had her hands folded, resting in her lap, but didn't look relaxed. Sheppard's back was stiff, his shoulders knotted, his head tilted just so. Radek couldn't see his face.
Rodney stood above them at the podium, the open Stargate behind him. A soldier Radek didn't recognise stood just to Rodney's right, holding a folded American flag.
"Toby Griffin was, ah...," Rodney dipped his head, away from the audience, before lifting his chin resolutely. "I didn't know him very well."
His hands, Radek noticed, were white, clutching the edge of the podium tightly. He leant forward, the wooden pedestal bearing some of his weight.
"Hardly at all, actually. And I wasn't..." He paused again, then confessed, in a rush: "We didn't talk much. In the jumper. But he was - he was friendly. Tried to be. Talked about science." He laughed, the sound seeming alien, strangled and broken.
The room was deathly quiet.
"I don't think - we had nothing in common." McKay's gaze drifted again, to something Zelenka couldn't pinpoint, a space beyond the crowd, beyond the walls of the control room. "He was - he was a good man. Better than me."
Radek watched him, watched the way Rodney's eyes would flicker briefly to the folded flag, held so carefully in the soldier's hands.
"He saved my life."
Then McKay looked away, pushing away from the podium. He was shaking, trembling minutely, and again, Zelenka didn't think anyone saw, unless they were watching for it - but he wasn't the only one to have been watching, because as Sheppard rose to take McKay's place the Colonel's hand slipped onto the Canadian's shoulder.
Rodney said something as he moved away, but his voice was too quiet, the microphone too far away to pick up the words.
Zelenka thought he said, 'sorry.'
He turned his gaze away from the podium, away from where Sheppard stood, speaking in a calm, collected voice. The room was stifling, overcrowded. He felt eyes on him, critical, full of blame, and the guilt lay thick and heavy on his shoulders, suffocating him. Shaking, Radek pushed himself out of his chair and started to flee, to flee from words like 'fine soldier' and 'honourable' and 'loyal.'
He hoped there was somewhere to run to.
Power levels to the section were rising, steadily but surely. McKay stared at them, urging them upwards, tweaking the wires and their makeshift bindings to boost the connection as much as he could. Even once he had stabilised them, raising the crane would be dangerous at best – lethal at worst. If the power cut out part way through the process it would guarantee both men a watery, painful death. And there was still the chance that the structure wouldn't be able to handle the stress, that it would collapse in on itself, crushing layer upon layer of metal, destroying the pier and ripping a hole in the side of the city before sinking into the ocean.
All these possibilities ran through McKay's head as he fiddled with the cables, securing links with the pliers, then with his bare hands, teasing the wires together. After several agonizing minutes, throughout which Zelenka never said a word, Rodney had the power stabilised to his satisfaction.
"I've got it," he announced, triumphantly. "It should hold for as long as we need it to. Everything is steady at the other end, and I've secured the connections here as much as I can." He slipped his tools back into the soft wallet, and pushed them deep into his jacket. "I can manipulate the controls from here by tweaking the sensors, fool the computer into thinking I'm up on the pier. It would be easier if I had time to repair the full console but I'm just going to have to do it using the hands on approach."
His hands delved deep into the casing, easing selected wires aside and reaching through to the control crystals beyond. "It won't be a smooth ride, of course, given the crane's current position, so you're going to have to hold on, but if you brace yourself against the crosspiece behind you it should hold you." He frowned, peering around him in the dark. "I should be alright here, I think. The space is small but..."
Radek's voice was soft, but the intent behind it brought McKay into silence.
"This is dangerous, yes?"
He swallowed, staring into the dark. Night had fallen, and so had the temperature, and he shivered against the cold metal he rested against.
"The crane could collapse."
"It's possible," he allowed, knowing it did no good to lie, knowing that Radek knew too much. "It's not something I intend to happen."
He heard the other man gasp, shakily, his voice weak and tremulous. "No. I would not think so. But... it is possible your efforts could kill us both."
McKay twisted around sharply, his back muscles protesting, stiff from the cold and being sat in such an awkward position for so long. "Thanks for pointing that out, Radek. I had thought of that."
"Then why are you here, McKay?"
He scowled, angry and afraid. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Why did you come after me?" Radek's voice rose slightly in volume. "This, this is dangerous, idiotic..."
"All of the above," he retorted, flushing, "but I didn't want Kavanagh to take your place..."
"Be serious, Rodney!"
"What do you want me to say? That this is my idea of a vacation? I know this is dangerous! And yes, quite possibly idiotic and stupid and less than good for my health but..."
"Because!" he snapped back, clutching tightly to the beam below him, his heart beating hard and fast against his chest. "Because you came after me!"
He heard Radek laugh, a low, despairing sound. "I was ordered to come after you, Rodney. I did not want to go, but Sheppard ordered me, Weir ordered me..."
The Czech's voice trailed off. There was a short, tense silence. Rodney closed his eyes, listening to Radek breathe, listening to the sounds of water and the hum of the power cables.
"They're coming for you. They're going to get you out of here."
He hadn't believed Sam. Fantasy Sam, hallucination Sam, Carter of his own subconscious, who had told him a rescue was coming but he wouldn't allow himself to believe it. His mind, overactive at the best of times, pushed to the brink of chaos during a crisis, running through solutions in his head and coming up empty. There was no way for them to locate his position, no way for them to reach him. Even the damn radio was useless. He had been convinced he was going to die, cold and alone, his body forever trapped in the coffin of the broken jumper and then...
"Hey buddy. What say you lower your door?"
He hadn't believed they would come, but despite everything, he had been rescued. And now Zelenka – Zelenka, of all people – admitting the truth, admitting his fear, and he couldn't, he wouldn't believe that the Czech wasn't a hero, hadn't risked his own life in trying to save McKay's, wouldn't believe that he didn't owe the other scientist some sort of indescribable debt because god, what the hell was he doing here if that were true...
"Well," he responded, stiff and terse, "you were scared."
"I was a coward."
"You were scared," he repeated. "Not something I can really blame you for, since believe me, if it had been the other way around..."
"Like now?" Radek interrupted. "You are here."
"You think I want to be?" He twisted around further, so he could peer into the hole, power cables and control crystals temporarily forgotten. "I don't! I could think of a thousand things I would rather be doing that being here, trying to fix this ten thousand year old piece of junk just to save your lousy life but the point is I am here. And all I know is that if it wasn't for you and Sheppard I wouldn't be and I don't care whether you had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the jumper!"
"It matters," Radek insisted, desperately.
"No it doesn't!" He slammed his fist down onto the beam, feeling the resulting vibrations run through his body. "You want to know why I'm here, then fine! I had this crazy notion that for some reason the fact that you saved my life meant I had to return the favour, since the only reason you're out here is because you're on some stupid guilt trip over Griffin's death but guess what, he died because he tried to save my life, not because you cocked up, and you don't get to take that away from me! Don't you dare!"
There was silence, broken only by the sound of McKay panting in anger, and Radek's harsh, struggled breaths. Around them the crane continued to creak and groan, a sharp wind whistling shrilly through the spaces between the beams.
"Rodney." Radek was whispering. "I..."
"Don't," Rodney shot back, furious, twisting back towards the control crystals. "I'm going to fix this damn crane and bring us back to the pier and rescue us both and you can stay quiet, alright? Just don't say another word."
"I am sor..."
"Shut the hell up," he retorted, the words sour against his tongue.
The sound of the windshield cracking was like ice, breaking beneath a skate.
Rodney took a step away from the glass, staring at the jagged protrusion as though it were something vicious, and ready to strike. Griffin, still partially slumped over the pilot's console, followed McKay's gaze.
"That's a problem."
Rousing himself, Rodney pushed himself towards Griffin, fumbling at the man's clothes and hauling him upright. The pair staggered to their feet, the pilot's gait uneven and weak.
"Can you move?"
McKay stared back up at the crack, drawn to it, dread growing cold and tendril like in his chest. "Radek," he spoke into the radio, his voice tinged with the high-pitched tone of panic, "the windshield's giving way under the pressure of the ocean!" Staggering slightly, he pushed himself away from the console with a free hand and half-dragged himself and Griffin into the back of the jumper, his mind still reeling, still throbbing mercilessly.
The Czech's words vibrated in his ear, low and urgent. "Move into the rear compartment. The seal should be able to hold."
"One step ahead of you." He untangled himself from Griffin, turning towards the button that would close the bulkhead doors. His movements seemed sluggish, a voice screaming in his head, too slow, too damn slow, the crack was growing...
Nothing happened. He slammed his fist against the button several times, oblivious to the pain. "No. No, no, no, no, no!"
Griffin was staring at him, as he turned away, turned towards another panel desperately. "The crash probably damaged all sorts of systems."
"Maybe," Rodney snapped back, near hysteric, "if you were more focussed on flying than enlightening me on the history of tomatoes..."
Griffin tried the button again, without success, his hand falling to his side. "Well your focus didn't get the drive pod to shut off. I'm still not blaming you."
"Yeah!" he retorted, shaking, "because it's not my fault!" He was about to turn back to the second panel, about to search for a solution he knew wasn't there, knew there wasn't time, and then...
"I've got an idea."
Words that would haunt him, words that would wake him in the night trembling and soaked to the skin, words he heard at the funeral spoke loud in his head while an audience of onlookers sat oblivious, listening to formulaic speeches from Caldwell and Sheppard.
Griffin turned, heading into the forward section of the jumper.
McKay did nothing – didn't move, just stared, dumbfounded. If he had been quicker, if he had said something, if he had realised... "What are you doing?"
"Good luck, Rodney."
The bulkhead doors started to close.
"What are you doing! Griffin!"
The doors closed, shutting McKay in, shutting him off from the forward half of the jumper, shielding him from the crack and the ocean and the sound as water rushed into the tiny compartment, thousands of tons, suffocating and crushing and metal bending and screaming and power beneath him and the scanner's readings fluctuating wildly and praying, let this work, let this work, and the windshield cracking, sounding like an explosion, and Griffin beneath it all and Radek falling, slipping and falling and god...
The volume of it all.
Good luck, Rodney.
Screaming, raw and angry and torn open. "Why? Why did he do that? Why would you do that!"
A flicker of the infirmary ceiling...
Creaking, groaning, thunder in his ears
The fleeting warmth of Carson's hand on his wrist...
And falling, falling so far and up, and into the shadows
The pinch of an IV, the heavy sensation of a swathe of blankets...
McKay's arm wrapped around his own, pulling him up
A scratchy irritation at the back of his throat...
Screaming from pain, from fear and horror, horror at the sky falling and then
Cool liquid and soft voices. Dr Weir's face, and Colonel Sheppard, and David, and Miko - but she was gone so suddenly it left him confused and dazed and...
Something hard and heavy hit his stomach with a muffled slapping sound.
"I know what went wrong with the jumper."
Zelenka opened his eyes slowly, his eyelashes thick and heavy. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, trying to remember where he was - the infirmary, safe - then rolled his head to the side, cushioning his cheek against the pillow. McKay sat in a plastic chair beside the bed, leaning forward, his face flushed.
"I ran some simulations, looked over your team's reports on the repair job." He folded his fingers together, then pulled them apart, fidgeting. "It was an accident. A fluke."
Radek stared at him for a moment, then started to shake his head. "No," he refuted, his tongue thick and heavy, his words dogged by exhaustion. "I missed something."
"Just read the report," McKay told him.
Radek lifted his head from the pillow just enough to see the folder lying on his chest, nestled amidst the blankets. He was aware of Rodney watching him intently.
"Go on. I didn't do all this work for it to go wasted."
Two days, Carson had told him, the last time he had woken, muddled and confused. Two days since he had been pulled from the wreckage of the crane, two days since he had lain on the metal pier and had pressure bandages applied to his torn and bleeding leg, two days since he had been wrapped in blankets and cocooned into an infirmary bed. Two days which showed on McKay's face, writ clearly in the smudges under his eyes, the bright, caffeine dilated pupils, the painfully recent fine lines in his skin.
"Go on," McKay repeated, impatiently.
One hand lay limp and loose, IV plastered to its back; the other was tangled in the blankets, fingers clutching tight to cotton. Zelenka prised them open, his joints aching, feeling like a hideously old man, like his grandfather.
McKay watched him struggle for several seconds before huffing loudly and pointedly. He leant over the bed, muttering beneath his breath, his hands working to free Radek from the sheets, and then with a gentle strength lifted the other man into a semi-seated position against the pillows.
Radek stared at him, because none of it made any sense - not McKay's presence, or his words, or the care he had just displayed. Confused because it was his fault the crane had collapsed, and Rodney had every right to rip into him, to suspend or even demote him for his actions.
"Read it," McKay said, insistently.
Obediently Radek opened the report, the cardboard rough against his skin. It contained a bundle of handwritten notes, scribbled in McKay's near-illegible hand. Scraps of paper, the back of a requisition form, crammed into the spaces on a jumper diagram, stuck in the margins of an instruction manual. Atop them all lay a relatively neat covering page, spoilt by a coffee stain and several heavily underlined paragraphs. Radek started to read, a painful ache settling in his stomach that had nothing to do with his injuries.
"I had to run a lot of simulations," McKay explained, watching Radek intently. "It took the best part of a day just to read your team's reports," which was McKay's way of saying yes, you covered all your bases, did your job right - and I hope you notice the amount of work I've put in, "and then I had to fill in the blanks with what I remember from the crash - and I did have other things on my mind at the time - but I think you'll find that everything makes sense." He sat back in his seat, folding his arms. "It's the only logical answer."
Radek stared at the report, laying his fingers over the words. "It is not possible."
"Yes it is," McKay retorted, pointedly, "it's just not very likely." He turned away from the bed, helping himself to the uneaten bowl of jello that sat on the table to the side. "Is this raspberry?"
"Grape," Radek replied, absently, still transfixed by the report.
"Hmm." The Canadian picked up the bowl and lifted a generous mouthful onto a spoon. "One of the power coils in the drive pod blew. It happens all the time, it's usually harmless, normally the jumper's systems can compensate. The only reason it didn't this time is because one of the conductors in the left engine was faulty." He swallowed a lump of jello, then pointed the spoon at Radek. "There's no reason your team should have picked that up. There are twelve hundred conductors in each engine and to test every one would take days. That's exactly why it isn't department protocol to check them - that, and if one should fail, it shouldn't matter."
"Usually," Radek said, softly.
"Right. But the coil blew, and the one affected the other, starting the chain of events which led to the crash. The chance of both of those things failing at the same time is - well it's not infinitesimal, obviously, but calculating it would be a waste of my time. Point is, it was just bad luck. That's all it was." He swallowed another mouthful of jello, then lowered the spoon, sobering suddenly. "It was bad luck."
Radek stared at the report, his fingers tracing the flow of McKay's scrawl, turning page after crumpled p age. Rodney was right - it made sense, and that fact was possibly more terrifying that the assumption before it, and the guilt Radek had borne heavily. "The crane," he said, quietly.
"Was a damn stupid thing to do," McKay finished, shortly. "I would have figured this out, if you had given me a chance. But Carson goes all Stalinist Russia over his infirmary and by the time I got to my laptop..." He paused, clearing his throat uncomfortably. "The point is, in my department you don't get to be a martyr. It's self-centred and stupid, which quite frankly only serves to insult us both."
Radek closed the file slowly, unable to look at McKay, feeling suddenly tired and very, very old. "Griffin died because of this."
"I know." McKay laid the bowl back on the table, its half-eaten contents ignored. "Not Wraith, or Genii, or Ancient nano-virus... just..."
"Bad luck." Radek closed his eyes, releasing his weight into the pillows, still clutching the folder tightly.
"It could have been anyone," Rodney added. His voice was oddly subdued.
"It could have been you."
"Or you. Anyone of us." The Canadian coughed. "I've passed my report to Elizabeth, for the official records."
Zelenka heard a scraping sound, and opened his eyes to see McKay standing up, pushing back the chair. "Rodney."
The physicist's eyes darted back towards the bed.
"Thank you for this."
The scientist gave an awkward half-shrug, turning slightly to pick up the bowl. "I'm department head, Radek. It's my job. And I'm taking the jello." He started to walk away from the bed, Radek watching him, watching the way Rodney tapped the spoon against his thigh.
"Look." McKay coughed again, and turned back towards the bed. "I wanted to thank you for coming to rescue me. You didn't have to, and whatever the reason you eventually did - it's still important that you came."
"I believe," Radek said, with a tired smile, "you have returned the favour."
"Hmm." He snorted. "Yes, well, that was your own stupidity. I'm not forgiving you for that one. In fact, since you're so keen on taking on large jobs by yourself, the air purifier system needs looking at. Several people have reported seeing smoke coming from the ventilation system in the Eastern living quarter." Then the scientist turned, walking towards the door, still talking, still tapping the spoon against his leg. "And after that you can look at the jumper bay doors. Sheppard says they're sticking." He disappeared around the infirmary door, out of Zelenka's sight, but he had not finished talking, hollering from around the corner. "And then you can check power consumption in the water reclamation plant!"
Carson appeared from out of his office door, scowling deeply, looking from the open door to Radek's bed. "What on earth is that man doing? If he's disturbing you, Radek..."
"Of course he is disturbing me," Radek said, but he was smiling, feeling freer and lighter than he had in days. "It is Rodney."
Carson's scowl softened. "Whatever he said to you had some sort of effect, that's clear."
Radek turned his head, lifting his gaze to meet Carson's. "He told me, he did not like martyrs."
The jumper looked colder and more alien than it ever had, sat at the bottom of the ocean, encircled by a neat pattern of disturbed sand. From above and sinking lower, Zelenka could see the front of the small craft, the windshield broken, great shards of glass pointed up like jagged teeth, the inside dark and impenetrable. The enormous whale monster above them cast a shadow across the rocks, and Radek watched as it circled again and again, drawn to both little ships.
The air was crisp and clear, the sky a bright, cheerful blue overhead. Radek could still remember the sound the snow made as it crunched beneath his feet. The surrounding trees were empty of leaves, dark silhouettes against the white, clustered around the ice like a crowd of wizened old men. He rested against one to untie his boots, the skates his cousin had grown out of lying on their side against a root. His gloves made the work unwieldy, but when he ripped the cloth from his fingers with his teeth he gasped at the cold, the way it bit into his skin and stole all feeling.
He turned his head towards Sheppard. The Colonel was leaning forward in the pilot's seat, hugging the controls, watching the broken wreckage and guiding their own jumper in carefully.
The sight of the shield from within was something Radek would always find impossible to describe – thousands of tons of water running over it like silk, repelled and parted by the shield's energy in a series of tiny, pretty waves. A shimmering light spilled into the cabin and covered everything with a strange glow.
The wind was picking up as Radek strode out across the pier, Ashcroft having to jog to keep up. He ignored the other man's confusion, his questions of why were they out there, was this on the duty roster, should they not form a team, did they not need other tools? Radek ignored him, ignored David's voice and the wind and the sound of the waves beneath him, ignored the way that as he clambered out on the pier to reach the cables, torn and blackened from weapons fire, the metal shuddered under his weight. He ignored it until it was too late.
Neither jumper was designed to handle these depths, and as Radek watched their power consumption grow steadily higher he calculated probabilities in his head; the exact chance of survival for McKay and Griffin. If the front half of the jumper had been compromised, what would the effect on the rear section be? And if it had been, how much stress would its inner workings take before they also failed? No inertial dampers, no lights, no life-support – god, no air – and that was without taking into account...
Radek stared at the downed jumper, then tore his gaze away, unable to watch any longer.
"Muj boze, muj boze..."
Damage to the ship had been enough to ground, if not cripple the vessel. Entire boards of circuits had fried, melting together. Repair work had been orderly and uninteresting, Radek signing form after form requesting supplies from the Daedalus. The greatest difficulty in repairing any Ancient system was persuading it to accept Earth materials. The city had been scoured clean before its abandonment, used for the war against the Wraith. The engineering department were quickly learning what were the best substitutes they could make, what patches they could create to keep systems running. Despite this work on the jumper had progressed on schedule, Radek checking his team's reports before e-mailing them to Rodney, whilst keeping copies for his own files.
Everything had been done according to procedure. All safety guidelines had been followed, all boxes checked.
The jumper shouldn't have crashed.
"I'm not going to order you to go."
"Jumper six, this is Sheppard, come in."
There was no response. Radek watched the information from the ship's scanners, grief and guilt and shame threatening to collapse over him. "According to these readings, it's dead." He swallowed, his throat closing up. "There's no power."
Sheppard's face was controlled, close to expressionless. "Then let's get a grapple on this thing and go home."
"It won't work."
"It's taken on too much water." Radek rested a hand against the console, his fingers touching the screen gently. "Sensors indicate even the rear compartment is partially full. The cable can't take the strain."
Inevitable, he thought, because the jumper shouldn't have survived, because it wasn't designed to handle these depths, these pressures. Cracks would have formed, not just in the shield but in the structure of the jumper itself, in the joins of its casing, in the cage within.
His cousin was becoming increasingly cocky, laughing at the younger boy's fear, spinning on one foot to say look, how easy, how simple, what a foolish thing to be afraid of. He was still smiling when the ice cracked.
Radek would be haunted by the sound until the day he died.
Sheppard was defiant. "We can try."
"No," he persisted, "listen to me. It's a matter of simple physics."
The Colonel's face changed, revealing a flicker of something dark, twisted and desperate. "I'm not coming this far without doing something!"
"Why are you here?"
"Because! Because you came after me!"
Radek stared back at him. None of this was right, he told himself, not the jumper, lying broken and dead at the bottom of an ocean, or Sheppard's insane desire to believe the impossible, or their very presence, protected from the water by a sliver of a shield, draining power every second and McKay and Griffin dead...
He would hear the sound of the glass cracking in his nightmares.
He wasn't aware of speaking aloud, but Sheppard's eyes had widened, eagerly, and he was forced to finish his thought. "We can extend the shield between the two jumpers." He turned, moving back to his laptop, his heart beating wildly.
"Do we have enough power?"
He checked over the readouts, his fingers tracing the results. "Yes. If we touch down on the ocean floor to conserve engine power, it should just be a matter of walking between the two jumpers."
He heard Sheppard move away, back to the pilot's seat. "I'll get us close."
"I led the repairs!" he shot back. "I told you the jumper could fly..."
"I signed off the damn report!" McKay shouted. "I was in the jumper, Radek, in case you've forgotten! I couldn't stop the ship from crashing, I couldn't stop the 'screen..." His voice broke. "Don't you dare assume responsibility for this."
"No! You want to take the blame, then how about the fact that we're both stuck on this damn crane because you wanted to play the martyr!"
Radek nodded, absently, watching the laptop screen, his mind making fresh calculations – power consumption, pressure per cubic inch, distance, shield strength. His fingers flew over the keyboard, adjusting the levels in the jumper's connections, unaware of the slight jolt as the ship touched the bottom.
"I need a moment," he said, to Sheppard's unspoken question. "I must be careful to extend the shield without breaking it. The force of this much water..."
"I know, instant death." Sheppard was already by the jumper door, looking between the exit and Radek eagerly. "So?"
He didn't reply, watching the screen closely as his right hand manipulated the shield controls, extending it outwards. The shimmering glow which coated the inside surfaces of the jumper started to shift, creating strange shadows, brightening then fading in an uneven pulse. Turning his head, Radek looked through the front windshield to watch as the distant, silken waterfall of ocean pushed outwards to encompass the opposite jumper, repelling back water, stirring the sand into miniature dust clouds.
He turned back to the controls, using his left hand to type whilst his right pushed the mouse across the screen. "I need to vent some of our jumper's atmosphere into the space, to fill the vacuum."
He could hear voices around him, shouting, calling.
"McKay! Bloody hell, man, I thought for a minute there..."
"I know, so did I, but it worked, didn't it? Help me with Radek. He's injured."
Hands on him, hands on his leg, pain along his side. He curled away from the touch.
"Radek! Radek, it's Carson. You can let go now. It's alright, we've got you lad."
"I'm here, I'm fine. Just let Carson do his job, Radek."
"We got out?"
Sheppard bounced slightly on his heels. His tension was palpable, signalled clearly in the tight knot of his shoulders and the fisted grip the man had in both hands, his knuckles prominent.
"One moment." Radek counted under his breath, watching the sensor results shift and change. "Now it is safe."
The rear door started to open, slowly, revealing the surreal seascape beyond. Sheppard bounded out onto the sand without pause, Radek remaining behind for a moment to check the shield was stable before following.
He paused at the jumper doorway, his breath stolen by the sight before him. The ocean lay above his head – the whole of it, deep dark water surrounding him, light barely penetrating. The shadow of the whale moved across the space, through the undulating patterns cast by the shield. The sand beneath Radek's feet was thick and hard, and puddles of water rested in its uneven surface. Everything smelt damp, and he could almost taste the salt in the air.
The Canadian's head drooped forward, chin resting briefly on his chest, before he jerked awake again with a choked half-sob. "Oh god..." His gaze darted about the cabin, before resting on Radek with a strange, hungry intensity. "This is real?"
Radek felt his throat constrict, and looked away. "Yes."
Sheppard was speaking into his radio, and Zelenka marvelled at his restraint, and the way the other man seemed unfazed by their surroundings.
"McKay, Griffin, do you copy?"
Zelenka held his breath, watching closely for a reaction. He couldn't hear the response, carried over Sheppard's radio, but he could see the other man's reaction – a soft hiss of air through his teeth, the way his shoulders slumped, the way a hint of colour returned to his cheeks.
McKay, Zelenka thought, and felt something within him uncoil and relax a fraction.
"What say you lower your door?"
There was another radio transmission, missed by Radek.
"Listen, long story short, we've converted the cloak into a shield and extended it around your jumper." Sheppard stepped up close to the opposite jumper. "I'm standing outside right now." He smacked his hand against the rear door, several times, the sound making Radek flinch.
It wasn't the right sound, he realised. There was no hollowness to it – more like a thud, like the Colonel had attacked something solid.
"All you have to do is open your door and walk to my jumper."
Sheppard turned, and flashed a grin at Radek, an expression of relief and something approaching disbelieving joy.
Radek nodded, returning the Colonel's smile, albeit hesitantly, feeling light-headed. "I guessed."
"All I'm saying is that if Rodney can't turn to you, who can he turn to?"
Sheppard turned back towards the jumper, his smile faltering. "McKay? What's the hold-up? We need to do this sooner rather than later. This shield ain't gonna hold forever."
Again Radek watched the way Sheppard intently listened to his radio, trying to read the soldier's expression and body language without success.
Suddenly the other man stepped back, moving away from the downed jumper. "He says they've taken on water."
Zelenka grimaced, following Sheppard. "How much?"
He didn't receive an answer, the Colonel staring intently at the rear door of the jumper. The man was muttering something beneath his breath, near silent, but Radek could see his lips move a fraction. For a moment there was nothing - an eerie silence at the bottom of the sea - but then he heard machinery creak and groan, saw the small ship visibly shift a minute fraction, the rear hatch vibrating. Then, suddenly, the door gave way, releasing a torrent of water that had him leaping backwards, his shoes filling with wet sand.
"McKay!" Sheppard was ahead of him, running into the open jumper as its open hatch continued to release water, spilling from around the edge in thick, silver rivulets. Radek followed to where Rodney lay, a dark, wrinkled mass on the floor, heaving and coughing.
The compartment had been flooded, he realised, with a dawning sense of horror. Enough to soak McKay to the bone.
"It could have been anyone," Rodney added.
"It could have been you."
"Or you. Anyone of us."
Zelenka rested a hand on the Canadian's chest, feeling the man's chest sputter. "Rodney, are you alright?"
Blue eyes opened a fraction before closing. "I will be."
Sheppard had one hand wrapped securely around McKay's arm, the other slipping under the man's back. Water stained his sleeves black. "Where's Griffin?"
Rodney lifted a hand, shaking violently. "In there," he said, pointing towards the front compartment.
"Je to moje vina, ze spadnul. Moje vina, ze umrel."
His mother shook her head, tears on her face, her hands reaching out to her son and pulling him into her chest. He allowed himself to be enveloped by her warmth, and felt her shudder against him, crying with a violence he had never seen before.
"Moje vina, ze umrel."
No, she told him, no. It is not your fault.
He was aware of meeting Sheppard's gaze, of seeing a glimpse of grief and intense anger in the other man's eyes.
When the windshield broke...
Muj boze, muj boze...
"It was just bad luck."
"I am the reason the jumper crashed. If it wasn't for me you would not have been trapped down there."
"If it wasn't for you I still would be."
Sheppard turned away, his hands gripping McKay tightly. Zelenka felt the Canadian tremble, shuddering hard.
"Alright. Let's get you home."
"Pomozte mi nekdo! Muj bratranec - prosim! Pomoc! On spadnul!" Someone help me! My cousin - please! Someone! He fell...
"Je to moje vina, ze spadnul. Moje vina, ze umrel." It is my fault he fell. It is my fault he died.