"No Traveller Returns"
by Grey Lupous
Spoilers: It's all one big spoiler for "This Mortal Coil". Anything up to "Lifeline" is also fair game. In fact, there be spoilers in the author’s notes. Quickly, look away!
Summary: It’s so much harder 'to be', than to not. (Written for SGAHC’s 5 minute "soul" challenge)
A/N: And by "five minutes", I really mean "the whole day", because I had no uninterrupted five minutes Christmas Day. Sad. Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I ask the question: what if they hadn't had to sacrifice themselves?
I lose my soul a little more each day.
With each whiff of salt that’s not carried on an ocean breeze, with every face that I called friend, and with every memory that I don't hold a true claim to, I feel a part of me die a little. It's not obvious to the others, or at least I hope it isn't. That's just one more thing they need to deal with right now.
Rodney's huddled close to the fire, hands rubbing together, trying to generate enough heat with friction and proximity to ward off the chill that's been chasing him for days now. Teyla sits next to him, trying to ply him with a homemade form of tea she's managed to brew from the dried leaves on this planet. Ronon is off to the side, just within the reach of the fire's light. The flames glint off of his knife as he cleans his kill from the afternoon. John sits just beyond the glow of the campfire, the flickering flames occasionally lighting up his features. His mouth is set in a grim, tight line as he watches Teyla and Rodney.
I have a good idea what he is thinking from the way his brow twitches as he purses his lips. I had only caught the tail-end of yet another argument the other day, when he and Rodney forgot for a moment that we could all hear their raised voices. Rodney once again tried to present his case for deactivating the nanites inside us, and John had promptly told him to "drop it".
From his shivering, I can tell that Rodney hasn't dropped it. The argument probably just fueled his desire to prove his theory correct. The night’s breeze goes through my thin jacket, chilling me to the bone. We may have to move into the Jumper tonight, despite Rodney's protest of using up too much power. I'm not sure he can take another night in the cold air.
I step out from the shadows, depositing an armful of firewood next to the dwindling pile. Ronon tosses me a brief look of acknowledgement over his shoulder. In the dim light I can see that he is almost finished preparing the meat. I take a spot next to John, practically feeling the tension radiating off of him. I give what is supposed to be an encouraging smile, but either he cannot make it out in the darkness or he's not in the mood to be comforted. Knowing John Sheppard, it's probably both.
"You couldn't just leave it alone, could you?" His voice is pitched low, almost a growl.
I start to speak up, but Teyla beats me to it. "John."
Her voice is smooth, controlled, and even in the firelight, I can see her reproachful look. He bristles, shoulders bunching up as he visibly bites down on what he was going to say next. Rodney doesn't respond; just shivers and burrows further into his blanket, which says more to me than if he had made some sort of smart response. John's gone still, visibly struggling to rein in his emotions. This is a monster he can't fight with his fists or a P-90, and I know that kills him.
I am about to remind him how he helped Rodney fought his last "scary monster" of this kind, when I realize with a start that we really haven't discussed it at all. A memory is all I have of the incident, and I'm unsure if John has even that. I feel another piece of me disappear at another remind that I'm not truly the person that I think I am. These snatches of memory haunt me, ghostly reminders of a life I have never truly lived.
John's hand has moved from its casual perch on his knee to a clenched fist digging into the ground. I resist the temptation to lay a hand on his shoulder as I know it would only make him uncomfortable. We all feel just as helpless as him and want to do something, anything, to help.
"I think I'm close," Rodney murmurs into the tin mug Teyla has finally gotten him to accept.
John's knuckles dig a little deeper into the dirt.
"I'm positive I can shut them down... then—"
"Then what?" John snaps. "Then we can go back to a home that's not really ours? Then your mild case of pneumonia can develop into the Pegasus equivalent of SARS?"
"Then we can stop running!" Rodney spits before dissolving into a fit of coughing.
Teyla steadies his shoulders with one hand, the other straying to his forehead. John starts forward, before he catches himself and settles back down. I see Ronon pause in his meal preparation, waiting for the coughing to subside before resuming his task. I watch as Teyla pushes a refilled cup into Rodney's hand. I can’t make out the words she murmurs to him, just the soft, soothing quality of her voice.
"John," I say, softly enough so only he can hear it, "we can't keep going on like this."
His jaw clenches. "I know."
"I can fix this," Rodney wheezes before Teyla gently, but forcibly, pushes the mug back to his lips. He obediently sips and his heavy breathing eases some.
"You better mean you can fix your nanites," John says softly, and I can see from the slump in his shoulders that the fight has gone out of him. "Your whooping cough is scaring off all the game."
Rodney sips at his mug quietly instead of answering, and John sighs heavily. It's an argument they've rehashed every day for the past week, ever since Rodney came up with his latest theory on how Oberoth's faction is tracking us.
"Damn it, Rodney," John swears softly, wiping a tired hand across his brow. "We can keep outrunning Oberoth's crew..."
Ronon strides in front of the fire to place several spits of meat on the fire, effectively blocking our view of the other side of the camp. He took an extraordinarily long time tonight to clean his kill tonight, and I realize I'm not the only who's been eavesdropping.
"Food should be ready in a few minutes," he says gruffly, moving to take a place somewhere to my right, neither on our side of the fire or Rodney's.
"Thank you, Ronon." I nod to him, grateful for the interruption of the same tired, repeated words.
My eyes stray to the flickering flames, and the soft crackling of burning wood fills my ears. It's the same as every night before. At dawn's first light we'll all pile into the jumper and head to a new, abandoned planet in order to stay one step ahead of our pursuers. Then Ronon will leave on a hunt to procure that evening's meal accompanied by either Teyla or John, while Rodney and I wait at base camp. It's a dreary, exhausting existence, and part of me doesn't blame Rodney for wanting to change that. The other part of me is just as angry as John that he's risked his life like this.
The nanites have been our only first aid ever since we started this journey. We can't dial Atlantis for fear that we might give away its position, and we can't go to any of our—that is, Atlantis's—allies for the same reason. Deactivating them is also risky for a number of other reasons, the foremost being that our Rodney has no true memory or experience with them or their base code. Their "updated memories" are only courtesy of my... her recent integration with the collective. I have my doubts about how much knowledge of the subject our "creators" were willing to impart on a mind like his.
From what the others told me, he was able to recognize nanite coding at a glimpse. But would they really trust their base coding to an "experiment"?
As Rodney tries to choke back another cough, I come to the sad realization that I was right to doubt. I think John connected the same dots, which is why he's been tried to keep Rodney from trying to take this direction. However, McKay has never been one to take "no" for an answer.
The meat is done cooking, and I take the spit of meat Ronon offers me with a tight smile. It seems like each night the tension around the campfire grows. If we don't find a way to shake our pursuers soon, I'm afraid that we'll have more to worry about than recharging laptops and finding dinner. I blow on the alien meat in order to cool it, telling myself to take one thing at a time.
My companions either stare at their portion or nibble half-heartedly. No one's heart is in it, either weighed down by anger or worries. This is ridiculous. What's done is done; right now we need to focus on what's important. I lower my spit so I can look at everyone as I address them.
"I think we should sleep in the jumper tonight."
Rodney pauses in his nibbling to stare at me incredulously. "What? Why?"
"Because," John says in a very controlled voice, "you're not going to last out here in the cold. We should've ignored your whining about draining power last night."
Rodney opens his mouth to protest, but Teyla takes the opportunity to force him to take another sip of tea. I can't help but smile as he sputters, trying to curse both her tea and our idea of camping in the jumper. A ghost of a smile crosses John's face, and I realize that it's been entirely too long since I've seen that.
As Rodney manages to find his voice, raising loud complaints, I turn to John. He catches my eye and leans over so we can keep the conversation to our side of the fire.
"We need to leave a message for Atlantis."
I hold up a hand, forestalling the argument I know he's going to give me. "We need supplies, something to help Rodney fight off this infection, and all of the expedition's notes on these nanites."
"We can't risk—"
His eyes go steely at the implication that he's not thinking about Rodney. I give him an equally stern stare in return. "Just because we can't go back to Atlantis, does not mean we're alone out here."
I know John Sheppard, both the man sitting next to me and the one back on Atlantis. If a teammate is in trouble, nothing short of a coma would keep him from doing whatever he could to help. And just because his McKay is safe on Atlantis doesn't mean he wouldn't give us what we need to save ours.
John looks away, and I know he wants to argue with me. His instincts to protect Atlantis are still strong, even if it's not truly his duty. I nudge his shoulder, and he flicks me an annoyed glance. I tilt my head towards the fire, and the rest of his—our—team...
"Atlantis has a John Sheppard looking after it," I remind him softly. "He won't let us do anything to jeopardize it."
"I don't see how we can do it," he says tersely. "We can't dial them. Not until we figure out how Oberoth is tracking us."
"Luckily you have a very bored genius over there that just might have an idea."
The deep frown eases some as he considers this. I decide I've led the horse to water, now I can only hope that he takes that metaphorical drink. He retracts back into his personal space and takes a large bite from his skewer of meat. I return my attention to my own meal and let the familiar sounds of our nightly routine wash over me.
Somewhere in the warmth of the fire and companionship, I come to a slow realization. I might not actually be losing myself at all; just discovering who this Elizabeth Weir really is.