The mission is a total waste of time. He has better things to do. Important things. More important than checking out what, by all reports, is a long-abandoned industrial site on a long-empty planet. Advanced, sure - but not enough to yield anything with an immediate application. Worth a visit, certainly. Just not a visit from Rodney.
Sheppard insists. The full team complement, as an example for the new guys. He's bringing a fresh batch of marines into the rota, so he's putting them through their paces in teams on runs like this one. Just enough challenge to tire them out, just enough boredom for him to see everything he needs to know.
The planet is mild and green. Nice, if you like that sort of thing. Hospitable and temperate, but deserted. Culled to extinction long enough ago for most of the planet to revert to wilderness, but not long enough for people to feel easy about resettling.
The hike takes hours, but it's easy. They follow long, narrow fields that probably started out as roads, possibly highways. The new team's out in front, with a marine on either side of their science guy, and their lead guy ranging around, hyper-vigilant and obviously trying to impress Sheppard. Sheppard's diligently pretending not to pay attention, explaining tractor pulls to Teyla. Teyla's pretending to pay attention to Sheppard, and doing her usual disturbingly good acting job. Only the fact that he's seen this performance before tells Rodney she's actually watching the perimeter for cues the new team might be missing. They've got a good system worked out for these runs, and it doesn't matter what the topic is. It's all a screen, his patter and her quiet questions covering up the nods, shrugs, and hand signals that carry the real conversation. Sometimes Rodney breaks into their act; the topics can get too tempting to not argue, even when he knows they're just making noise for the sake of it. Not this one, though.
Rodney drops back a little, keeping his central position but getting closer to Ronon, and farther from the distraction of everyone else. Ronon's watchful, but in the off-hand way that means the greatest threat in the offing is boredom. With a sigh, Rodney pulls the tablet off his pack and starts reviewing backlogged power consumption data. He figures Ronon's keeping watch; he can keep Rodney from walking into anything while he's at it.
He knows they've arrived when they step into sudden, deep shadow, and Rodney taps the screen to put the tablet back into sleep mode as he pulls a scanner out of his vest and scowls up at the half-fallen structure rising up in their path. It's an industrial site, and it hardly looks structurally sound enough to explore. Sheppard, Ronon, and Sienkiewicz, the guy meant to be in charge of the new team, are already prying at the rust around the huge door.
It's a grimy three hours later that they carry out the last of the small machines Rodney has picked out as most likely to not be total wastes of time. The only benefit of trips like this is that he never has to pack and carry - he leaves that to their science guy. He's an anthropologist or archeologist or something, but it's good practice for him. He'll have to learn how to get the marines to help carry his crap at some point; it might as well be early on.
The sun's still high. They came through the gate after a mid-morning briefing, Atlantis time, but barely dawn local time. Sheppard's waiting for the new guy to call a meal break, but the new guys never do. The time lag throws them. It's meant to be a lesson, but Rodney locates Ronon out past the shrinking line of shadow and walks over. They figured out a while ago that it was easy enough to fake an important discussion for long enough to eat a couple of sandwiches, behind the screen of their bodies. Sheppard gets his stupid test accomplished, Rodney gets to not risk his health, and Ronon gets to laugh at the new guys. They aren't sure what Teyla does about lunch, but Rodney's pretty sure she's not going without either. She's just sneakier than they are.
The hum starts as they're walking back toward the gate, so low he thinks he's imagining it. It gets slowly less ignorable, but it's been a long annoying day, so he's got plenty of reason to think it's just his headache.
Everyone goes quiet over the next hour, distracted, frowning, moving a little jerkily, and that's when he figures out they can all hear it too.
When he finally tries to talk, it's hard to hear his own voice. They all try for a while, but it's too loud, a roar from everywhere at once. They draw together, guns out and ready, and double-time back to the gate.
It's a relief when it comes into view. He knows his breath is coming in embarrassing gasps, but he can't hear it. He can just barely hear the thrum of his heartbeat under the constant sound, and he hits the symbols on the DHD hard, sending his IDC even before the chevrons start to lock. Except the chevrons don't start to lock at all.
One two three four five six seven and nothing.
Sheppard's looking angry and yelling something, but he ignores him and ducks to pull the cover off the crystal housing. The next time he looks up, Teyla's frowning down at him - he hadn't heard her approach. He shrugs up at her and stands. There's nothing obviously damaged, nothing missing, and nothing subtle could have been done in the time since they arrived on the planet. He waves her into place behind the DHD, motions for her to dial so he can watch the process. It all looks right, crystals glowing as the address goes in, the gate starting to react, but nothing else.
He waves Teyla out of the way and raises a hand toward the rest of the assembled expedition members, ending with Sheppard, trying to signal patience and I'll get this and I'm a genius, just hang on a minute.
He ducks down again and pulls out the anti-static cloth he keeps in his vest, spreading it out flat on the ground. He tugs the crystals out gently, one at a time, and sets them into careful, ordered rows. He starts snapping his fingers overhead before he realizes just what a fruitless method of drawing attention that is. When he stands, it's right into Sheppard's personal space. It isn't just that the sound makes it frustratingly easy for people to sneak up on him - it's also making it hard to focus on more than one thing at a time. Disorienting, like mental tunnel vision. Sheppard was probably the one who would have responded to the finger-snapping anyway. He glowers at him for form's sake and starts fishing through the pockets of Sheppard's vest. Sheppard, in a move that Rodney has to assume is also just for form, bats his hands away and makes a face that is probably meant to be a demand for an explanation or something equally useless. Rodney raises a quelling finger and goes back to the pockets, grinning as he tugs a handkerchief free. He knew there'd be one, somewhere. He gives Sheppard a little victory smirk and gets an eyeroll in return. Rodney ducks back down to the crystals and starts to go through them, polishing each before carefully reseating it in the correct setting. He takes his time, but the work goes quickly enough. He rises and gestures Sheppard toward the console to dial.
Again. It looks right. It just doesn't work.
Sheppard's looking angrily and indiscriminately at him, the DHD, and the gate.
Rodney considers yelling in return, but nothing is making it through the constant sound anymore. He settles on a sneer instead, and gestures toward the DHD: you can do better? and no, really - you think you can do better? Because last time I looked, I was the expert in 'gate technology, but if you think you can do better, then by all means, show me. It's a lot to get across in a handwave, but by the expression on Sheppard's face, he's managed it.
Sheppard beckons Teyla back to the console to dial and tugs sharply on Rodney's vest as he drops down to look inside the DHD. Rodney manages to retain most of his balance and some of his dignity when he crouches to watch the process again.
There's no change.
Sheppard scrubs a hand over his face and gives Rodney a furtive look, honest worry behind the shelter of the machinery. It makes Rodney feel even more helpless - he's got nothing, no ideas, no equipment to diagnose a problem other than the things he'd have already found with hands and eyes, and no replacement parts even if he had found a problem. No way to know why the gate won't dial.
He stands up too fast, dizzy for a moment and lurching a little on his feet. Teyla's hands steady him - he'd forgotten she was there again. The sound is claustrophobic, makes it hard to remember what's in the space around him, who is there, what they're doing. He makes a point of turning a little, looking her in the eye, smiling a quick thanks before getting back to it.
The gate won't dial, or the gate won't dial Atlantis?
He frowns a minute before settling on a benign address. Really benign. Somewhere there won't be any danger of surprising anyone as well armed as the expedition marines tend to be. Not the alpha site, but one of the alternates.
One two three four five six seven and dialing.
He glances over at Sheppard, who looks relieved and determined and still worried all at once, and tries not to look embarrassed that he hadn't tried an alternate address sooner when Sheppard looks back.
They regroup into a loose defensive formation at the gate and go through.
Stepping into the event horizon is an immediate, blissful relief. Silence.
It doesn't last.
The civilian with the other team - the anthropologist or whatever he's meant to be, Carmichael - has dropped to his knees in the dust, and Ronon's tugging him up, pulling him along as they get far enough away from the gate to take a defensive position. Rodney gives him a glance, because it isn't like he doesn't want to do the same thing, but this isn't the time.
He crooks a finger at Sheppard and steps up to the DHD, dialing the city fast.
The alpha site is next.
Nothing. And that makes no sense at all.
Another friendly terrestrial gate address, and it dials. Even less sense.
Sheppard smacks his shoulder and does some kind of wave and point thing at the rest of the group, and they go through.
The noise is still there on the other side. It seems louder. Is it louder? Can it get louder?
By the fourth try Rodney is indiscriminately angry and exhausted. The sound is provoking a constant, sickening adrenaline rush and he can't focus and he's done too much hiking today. He was annoyed before the hum even started and it won't stop and oh god what if it never stops? What if they're all dead and this is hell? What if everyone else is fine and he's dead and this is hell? What if -
Sheppard's shaking him by the shoulders. He lets go once he's got Rodney's attention, mimes a deep breath, then another, until Rodney plays along. It helps, a little. He's kind of glad he doesn't actually have to admit that with words.
They camp after the fifth planet, but no one really sleeps. In the morning, they sit drawing up theories in the dirt. One of the marines - Anders? Andrews? - tries to claim the noise is physiological. Stupid. Well. More delusional, really. Wishful thinking, scaling the problem down to human-size rather than whatever size it actually is. Gate network-size? Galaxy-size? Universe-size? Unhelpful, anyway.
They decide to try a few of the more prosperous inhabited worlds on the off-chance that one of the expedition's trading partners knows what's happening. And maybe they can figure out if the dialing problem and the sound problem are part of the same phenomena, or if they're all just so unlucky that two totally unrelated disasters are happening at once. Rodney draws up a list of the likeliest places, taking the time to list the addresses into the field notebook the anthropologist produces from his pack. Conserving power seems fatalistic, but they haven't managed to get to any planets that might be capable of recharging their equipment. Better safe, even if the switch to paper makes Sheppard look annoyed. Or maybe that look isn't annoyed - maybe it's nervous. He hands over the list to Teyla and Ronon, and they confer silently over it, changing the sequence of addresses and writing down a number of others to try.
Inhabited places aren't, though. They hit a few dud addresses that won't dial, but when they go through to the ones they can get to, they don't find anyone.
Occasionally they find a body or two, lying in the street, dead less than a day. Not enough.
The next morning, they walk through a field scattered thickly with the bodies of small birds. They have glossy purple feathers, and their eye-sockets are crusted with blood. The whole flock, dead mid-flight, fallen to earth together. The anthropologist guy does a quick necropsy, but shakes his head in the end. Nothing useful.
They don't find many other dead animals, though they do see signs that some things are still alive. They keep up their guard.
It doesn't take too much longer for Rodney to start losing track of the days. More than three. He's pretty sure Sienkiewicz is keeping a tally, though. The new guys aren't trying to impress Sheppard anymore, but they seem to be doing all right, considering. All eight of their group are grimy and tired.
Even careful rationing can't make the supplies they started with last very long; they start foraging within days. The fresh food they can find is rotting faster than it should. Even the unripe fruit on trees has gone soft and dark, seeping. Sometimes they find caches of trade goods, dried beans and mushrooms, leathery things that can't be eaten until they are cooked and soaked and cooked again.
Rodney's days fall into a routine of trying to dial home, failing to connect, completely and thoroughly disassembling the DHD, inspecting all of the parts, reassembling them, dialing, failing again. The whole process is down to three hours, now, so that leaves eight hours minimum to find and loot any of the empty settlements within walking distance. He's pretty sure they are all still pretending to be looking for survivors, but - funny thing about communicating with gesture and expression - they all know no one has hope.
Another day, and they've only been walking an hour when Ronon stops short. Everyone else turns to face him. That's another thing about not being able to hear - they've become very attentive to the modes of communication they have left. Ronon makes an exaggerated motion, flaring his nostrils and smelling the air, and everyone else follows suit. There's something there, faint on the breeze. Sheppard raises an eyebrow and gets shrugs from everyone before turning back to Ronon, who sights in one direction, then another, before coming to a decision and starting to walk again. Sheppard waves a hand, which apparently means something to everyone else, as Teyla and the marines all bring their guns up to a casual ready position, and fan out in Ronon's wake.
The faint smell gets stronger fast. It's rot, stronger than what they've been coming across. Cloying, with a strange, half-familiar overlay. He's trying to work out where he knows it from when he catches movement out of the corner of his eye. Ronon's reaction is faster, of course, and he's started shooting by the time Rodney figures out what it is - long white hair, moving with the breeze. The tall, slender figure of a Wraith queen, seated on a tumble of boulders.
They all fire. It would be a terrible din, if anyone could hear it. Makes it feel surreal, makes him focus on the feel of the kickback over everything else. Teyla and Sheppard turn away to scan the perimeter for other threats, guns held high, ready.
After a moment, Ronon calls a halt by lifting a hand into the air. It's an odd gesture out of context, like he's waving at the queen, who has ducked down, half out of sight. Maybe injured, maybe dead. A couple of quick hand signals between him and Sheppard. Sheppard can't win arguments by saying that something's an order any more, and it's plain by his expression that he's just lost one. Ronon lopes away from the group, taking a long path around the queen's hiding place, pausing, then running fast toward the stones. When he gets there, he makes an exaggerated beckoning motion, and then they all have to run over.
He has to guess that she's dead, and it's safe. But this is still weird.
It gets weirder once they reach the body. Their aim, collectively, had been good. The bullets have nearly chewed her body in half. So she's definitely dead, which is a tremendous relief.
Ronon makes a quick gesture with his fingers to get everyone's attention, which is probably unnecessary, as the next thing he does is curl a hand around the corpse's jaw and turn her face toward them. They all look. Then look at each other. Sheppard is a picture of chagrin, over the wasted ammunition, most likely. Her body is mostly intact, or was before they had begun firing at her, but her eye sockets are nearly empty, the softest tissues already rotted away. She's been dead a while.
The smell is coming from the remains of a Wraith ship they find slumped in the next field. The organic elements are made more obvious by the way the outer walls have softened, gapping away from the bone-like structure underneath. There's nothing useful still intact, but Sheppard pretends he can't see Rodney protesting, so they have to explore it anyway. It's disgusting and gets them nowhere. The floors are like wet clay, sticky and sucking at their boots with every step, and most of the roof slips away while they're still inside. It doesn't even resemble structurally sound, but at least they're sticking together.
They gather on the grass after, to scrub at the bits of ship smeared over their boots. Teyla's jacket has a slick of thick, reeking liquid down one arm, and Rodney pulls up a bundle of dry weeds before walking a circle around her to catch her eye, then pulling her around so he can wipe the worst of it away. She gives him a patient look that's as good as a thank you. Smiles are too much to ask at this point - they all look hollow-eyed, thin already, worn out and beaten down. Except, Rodney thinks, Ronon. Who was as bad as the rest of them this morning, but now looks different. Almost happy. He's standing next to Sheppard, animatedly gesturing in the space between their bodies.
It's not hard to figure out that it's about the Wraith. And Sheppard's following, nodding along, but Rodney can see where Ronon's going with his argument long minutes before Sheppard does. He gives Teyla's elbow a surreptitious nudge and lets his eyes flicker toward the conversation. She follows the look, and he watches her sigh. So she knew this was coming; Ronon's leaving.
He wants to do recon on the Wraith, find out if this is an isolated death or if they've all been struck down. Rodney thinks he's maybe a little over-focused, but he can't criticize, really - Ronon's held together really well, and whatever the rest of them are doing, it's hardly likely to be any less pointless. And the search will take him to the addresses their group has been avoiding as unsafe. Aside from the horror-movie connotations of splitting up the group, it makes sense.
They're running. Ronon has to be long sick of that, bone-tired of running away. This is a chance for him to run toward something for a change, to grab at a victory, however it was won.
Sheppard convinces him to take one of the marines along, the one whose name Rodney never picked up on when he could have. They leave the next morning. No one wants to meet anyone else's eyes, and the marine shakes everyone's hand, squeezing tight and holding too long. Rodney tries not to flinch at the pressure, and almost succeeds. He knows the impulse behind it; the odds are good that none of them will see the guy again. Ronon is a survivor, and if it's possible, he'll make it back. The marine, though, is just some kid. Rodney can't help but think red shirt, and he finds himself impulsively grabbing at the kid to try to make up for the thought, pulling him into a hug. It's weird, and embarrassing, but when Rodney steps away he catches Teyla's look of approval. He's failing at so much lately; the idea that he might be getting better at people seems strange.
They take their time breaking camp afterward. They're dallying, really, so Rodney sits next to where Sheppard is re-checking the contents of a pack, close enough that they're shoulder to shoulder. Sheppard doesn't look up from what he's doing, but he leans a little, a hey and a bearing up?. Rodney nudges back, hoping he's conveying an yes, yes, hello. and a never better, why do you ask?
The conversation trails off pretty quickly. Sitting on the ground, it's easy to see the trembling of the grass, vibrating with the noise. The air feels increasingly thick with it, nothing more than a medium for sound waves, He can almost feel it, a buzzing in his fingertips where they rest against the soil.
For a moment, he feels like he's drowning. Then he hauls himself to his feet, waving to the rest of the group and kicking Sheppard's outstretched foot. Sheppard kicks back, of course. It's really a pretty poor substitute for their usual back and forth, but it's familiar.
He's going to miss Ronon. Maybe he'll find what he needs, though - proof the Wraith are dying, or the chance to knowingly outlive enough of them.
The next day their numbers drop again.
Anders had the last watch before dawn. Teyla's the first to wake, and finds his body. He hadn't even had the decency to leave the general area of the campfire before he shot himself. It's a mess, bits of bone and specks of blood everywhere, and it would be stomach turning if they weren't all nauseous from days of adrenaline overload already. They don't have the energy to bury him. Sienkiewicz actually looks pretty annoyed, and Rodney has the crazy thought that maybe the guy's worried that Sheppard's still evaluating his team leadership.
Teyla leaves that afternoon.
They've done their thing on another planet, recon, scavenging, DHD teardown and rebuild, and she's been walking in slow circles with Sheppard for the past hour. Carmichael is scrawling in the remains of one of the field notebooks while Rodney and Sienkiewicz work on turning the latest finds into something resembling a meal.
It's strange how they're all changing to live with the sound. Rodney can feel it in himself, the way he's desperate for information, watching everyone for cues. Teyla, if anything, is more self-contained than she was before. In an odd sort of balance, Sheppard is the opposite. More and more of how he feels shows in his face, in his posture. He looks bereft when Teyla takes her leave of them.
She'll try to get to the settlement. She tells them she wants to see if the Athosians left a message, or if she can get to them somehow, circuitously. She wants to go without them. She doesn't explain that part very well.
At the heart of it, Teyla's decision is the same one Ronon made. To stop running away, to turn and run toward whatever is most important. Maybe it's one of those cultural differences that run through every conversation and conflict they have in this galaxy - Rodney can't find anything to run toward, not under the weight of the noise. Sheppard turns away from her when it's clear he's losing another argument, but he isn't hiding anything.
Rodney copies out the list of gate addresses for her on the last of the unused paper, even though he knows she can navigate without his help. It's the only thing he can give her, the same way Sheppard can only offer her the last of his men. She accepts both gifts without argument. None of them are thinking clearly anymore. The sound means a constant headache, the kind you feel in your eyes and at the base of your neck and as a vise around the temples, all at once. It's a marvel they're thinking at all.
Something clarifies the moment she steps away from them and through the gate - she may be displaying a particular Pegasus knack for persisting under a threat, but she's moving away from them as well. She doesn't want to watch them die, if that's where this is headed. There's a moment of relief at the thought: Rodney doesn't want to watch her die, either. Or Ronon. Or Sheppard, but the only alternative to that is dying alone, and no. Just no.
Sheppard watches the gate until it closes. It gives Rodney time to pull himself together before picking the next address, continuing to look for a way out, for some sort of salvation.
Eight wasn't a large group, but five was far smaller. Two is strange and unbalanced.
Now when he and Sheppard walk, they lean into each other all of the time. It's not very reassuring.
The sound is still getting louder. Gradual and inevitable, but then there's a percussive shift and it goes dull.
Sheppard sets a hand warm against the side of Rodney's neck, lifts it away to show the palm wet with blood. He hadn't felt the trickling of blood from his ears. That's the change, then. Deafened for good, now. He takes a quick inventory: skin feels numb - nerves dead. Headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. A sharp feeling he suspects is stomach ulcers. It's a roll-call of symptoms he's watched for on a half-dozen projects in high-decibel settings. It's funny to think that all of that paranoia amounted to nothing in the end.
Time blurs for a while as they stagger. Rodney can feel the vibration now everywhere, like an indiscriminate itch. It makes his skin crawl, hot or cold, both at once, he can't tell anymore. He keeps feeling like he should be able to shrug or twitch away from it. There's vertigo, too, so he keeps his head down, tries to focus on his own hands, on Sheppard's sleeve. Nearby things, so he can ignore the lurching feeling brought on by the looping movement of the horizon.
Sheppard's eyes close as he walks. He scratches a little at the grime on his neck, at his beard. Rodney watches the dried blood behind his jaw flake away, settling on his shirt for a moment before the vibration in the air twitches it to the ground.
It's morning. It seems like morning, seems like they haven't been walking long. Except that they aren't walking, they're crawling. He can't remember stumbling, but he can still sort of feel it, the way he tried to grab at Sheppard's shoulder to keep upright, but somehow wound up with a hand locked around his ankle instead. He can't feel his own fingers, but he can still see them gripping.
Sheppard's twisting on the ground, now. Unable to hold himself up any longer. Rodney can see his face, the panic in his eyes, the whites smeared with blood.
His vision dims quickly after that. He can feel the sound getting louder again, hearing it with every part of his body.
He's dying in the dark, nerves gone too numb to feel the soft wreckage of his eyes, the ruptures in his skin.
His thoughts are the last things to go. Extrapolating how long the sound will take to shake apart the world, break mountains into dust, shudder apart tectonic plates, pull tides awry, tear planets in two, push fusion out of balance, shake suns into nova billions of years too early, pull apart the fabric of the universe.
All of the answers.
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