Title: Blue Colorado Skies
Word count: ~11,400
Characters: Rodney [H/C] John, Teyla, Ronon
Genre: Hurt/Comfort, AU
Disclaimer: MGM owns the show.
Spoilers: None (AU)
Writing for: agdrgn
Assignment: Rodney - Brilliant, maimed, steampunk - + Team
Author Notes: Thanks to gnine and naye for the beta. I fear I couldn't quite tame this prompt - no sooner was I astride it than it ran with me, in perhaps the wrong direction. (That is to say, my mind went steampunk = steam engine! And refused to be budged.) I hope it doesn't disappoint, agdrgn!
Please watch your step for massive steaming piles of historical inaccuracies.
Rodney had guessed John Smith would be trouble the day he rode into town and tramped into his shop, yellow with dust and stinking of horse and sweat, and asked if he was McKay. Rodney had looked at the man's worn boots, his shabby black Stetson, and the Colt holstered at his side, and known no good could come of this.
He'd more been reckoning on getting stiffed at the end of their transaction, however. Not so much that five months later he'd find himself imprisoned in a shack in the middle of nowhere with a couple of mad dogs for hire and a hundred pounds of dynamite.
"Done yet?" growled Mad Dog Numero Uno, right in his ear, so Rodney flinched in spite of himself. Number One was a big man, with a lined and pocked face and cruel eyes, and his backhand had split Rodney's lip half an hour ago; he was still tasting blood. "What's taking so long?"
"Oh, yes, rush the man working with the dangerous explosives," Rodney muttered. "You must have made your schoolmarm proud."
"We trust you'll take care," said Mad Dog Number Two--Rodney had yet to catch their names. Two was a bad egg, weasely with light hair and light eyes and a light voice. He was smart, relatively speaking, and not as rabid as Number One. Unfortunately he wasn't calling the shots. "You just hobble your lip and keep working, Dr. McKay. We've got time." He twirled his pistol casually.
"Of course, no rush," Rodney said, putting his nose back to the grindstone and ignoring Number One's revolver, pointed square at his skull. He'd fixed up guns most all his life; they didn't fret him overly much, unless they were aimed at him. Which these were. Just the stress he didn't need right now. With infinite care he measured out a bit more of the nitroglycerin sweated from the old dynamite, and mixed it in the clay bowl, then poured the viscous fluid into the small tin flask.
His left hand quivered fit to rattle a maraca, from nerves and hunger, and he rested his elbow on the rough wooden tabletop to keep the trembling from upsetting the flask. His right hand was rock-steady as always, of course; he hadn't had to worry about that for years.
As soon as he corked the flask, Mad Dog One snatched it up and tossed it to Number Two. Rodney yelped, "Watch it!" and threw up his hands before he could help himself, but nothing happened.
Number Two grinned at him, then shook the flask hard, listening to it slosh. "You doubting your know-how, Dr. McKay?"
"I just thought you might like to keep your hand," Rodney said. "It shouldn't go off until it's heated in the smokebox, but I'm not going to guarantee that."
Number One reclaimed the bomb in a bottle, squinting at it suspiciously. His revolver in his other hand stayed aimed in the general region of Rodney's head. "This little jar of horse-piss's going to take out your whole engine?"
"It's not my locomotive," Rodney protested yet again. "It's the Sterling-Grand Company's."
"But it's your patent," Number Two said.
"Which I sold. And if Sheppard Locomotive Works had offered me the kind of cash Sterling-Grand did--" and if Sheppard Works hadn't been the kind of backstabbing, amoral bastards who considered machine breaking to be a legitimate business practice, though Rodney neglected to say that part aloud--"I might've sold it to them instead."
"Would've been easier for everyone if you had," said Mad Dog Number One.
"Yeah, I'm getting that idea," Rodney said, and resisted the urge to get out his pocket watch. Number One looked to have an itchy trigger finger and it wouldn't do to make him more skittish.
It had been hours since they had arrived here; the sun was dropping in the slate blue sky, now gleaming through the unshuttered west-facing windows of the one-room shack. They hadn't offered him so much as a nibble of bread or a sip of water, and he was feeling sickly and dizzy from the lack. Breakfast, Kate's best raspberry jam on toast with eggs and sausage, had been too long ago. And an hour's hard riding while blindfolded and thrown over the back of a horse wasn't Rodney's ideal morning. His stomach was bruised black and blue, he was sure.
He wondered if anyone had seen them grab him off the street. That bounty hunter had been staying at the Heightmeyer Inn--the wild man, what was his name, Dex. If he'd been looking out the window at the right time, he would've seen it. And he'd been hanging around with Smith a lot, he might think to mention something, if Smith was contemplating Rodney's failure to come for their afternoon chess match. Or maybe he wouldn't; Dex didn't seem to be much of a talker.
Of course, if the mad dogs were to be believed, this was all John Smith's fault anyway. The outlaws claimed they'd heard around town that Rodney was the inventor of the Sterling-Grand Horizon locomotive, and the only person they could have gotten that from was Smith. Or Teyla, but Teyla wouldn't talk to men like these, except to arrest them. So it had to be Smith, probably over poker in the saloon one night.
How many times had Rodney warned Smith about those games? And here he'd thought Smith getting himself shot like a dog was the worst he had to worry about. Should have known better.
He shouldn't have sold the damn patent to begin with. Should have known better than to get mixed up in the likes of rival train companies. And he sure as shooting should have known better than to tell Smith about the locomotive. Even if it had been the best way to explain the dirigible's engine, and Smith had wanted to know how he aimed to make it fly, and it had been a while since Rodney had really had anyone to show off his inventions to. The gunfighters cared about how he could fix up their guns, and that was it. And Teyla would bend a pretty ear when he ranted, but out of natural courtesy more than interest.
Smith liked Rodney's inventions. The dirigible especially--his eyes lit up like green candles the first time Rodney had mentioned it; he'd begged for a week solid, until Rodney had finally taken him out to the abandoned mine where he was building it. And then he'd gone over it and under it and had fingered the balloon's waxed canvas and had wanted to know when it was going up. When he could take it up.
Smith would probably take note if Rodney didn't show. Yesterday Rodney had completed the final adjustments to the dirigible's engine, but it hadn't yet been tested; Smith wouldn't get that chance without Rodney. So maybe he'd come looking. It was a hope, anyway, and he had precious little else to cling to--
A hard slap to his cheek snapped his head around. Rodney shook his head to clear his vision, fresh blood souring his mouth, as Mad Dog Number One held the explosive flask up before his face. "So all we got to do is put this in the engine?" he asked.
"In general, yes," Rodney said. "In specific, no--to get the proper chain reaction in the locomotive's engine, you've got to plant it in the steambox above the fire. Then you'll have five minutes before it goes off."
Mad Dog Number Two studied the flask intently. "Exactly five minutes?"
"Four or five, about, depending how long it takes for the heated liquid to expand to gaseous--never mind, why am I telling you two mush-heads? You wouldn't know a molecule from a horse's ass. No, I don't know exactly how long it'll take the cork to pop. But not that long."
Number One's expression stayed forbiddingly fixed, but Number Two looked perturbed. "If he's telling the truth, Kolya, that doesn't give us much leeway for getting off..."
Number One gave his second a flat-eyed, rattlesnake stare. "Then we stop the train on the bridge before we toss in the bottle."
"Wait!" Rodney's head whipped around so fast he wrenched his neck. "What do you mean, stop the train?"
"Shut up," the big man said, but Rodney was past listening.
"You're going to fix it so that the SGC Horizon won't be breaking any more speed records," that was what Mad Dog Number One had said when he'd cut the rope tying Rodney's wrists to his saddle. "I thought you were going to blow up the engine in the railroad yard--isn't that how you people work, creep in in the dead of night and plant the explosive--"
"Your sweet little bottle here only will work if the engine is running, isn't that right, Dr. McKay?" Number Two asked.
Rodney stared at him. "Well, yes--but you could light the fire..."
"What good's a locomotive blowing up in the yard?" Number One said. "They wouldn't bother to write that up in San Francisco. But the SGC's newest engine exploding and running the train off the bridge into Langley Gorge will make the headlines all the way back in New York City."
Rodney was pretty sure the dizzy pounding in his skull was because he had stood too quickly, but the red before his eyes was something else. "Langley Gorge--but that's the train to Denver, there'll be a hundred passengers or more--"
"With a goodly complement of women and children, with luck. Headlines wouldn't be as hot if there weren't."
"You can't!" Rodney grabbed for Kolya's wrist--with his right hand, not thinking, and the man's eyes widened as he felt the solid metal under the leather glove. There was a reason Rodney avoided shaking hands--even Smith had blinked, the first time, before grinning and saying, "Yeah, Lorne told me about that. How strong is it, anyway?"
Now Rodney tightened deliberately, with a soft mechanical whir as his fingers closed. The bones of Kolya's wrist creaked under the artificial grip, and the lines around his mouth whitened, but he didn't drop the flask; instead he shoved the gun in his other hand into Rodney's stomach.
"Let go," he grated. "A gut wound's not the way you want to die, Dr. McKay."
Rodney snapped open his hand with a metallic click, releasing Kolya's wrist. His left hand was trembling worse than ever. "I thought you were machine breakers--not killers!"
"Sheppard Works is paying us to shut the SGC down for good." Kolya smirked at the flask, a grin as soft and tender as sun-bleached bone. "This'll get the job done."
Smith took the train to Denver sometimes with the payroll shipments, working as an expressman to protect against outlaws. Rodney couldn't remember if he'd be on it tomorrow morning--if he'd said, Rodney hadn't been paying attention at the time. But if he was--"Jumper John Smith will be on that train," he said, drawing himself up. "I wouldn't risk it, if I were you."
"Jumper John?" Kolya stared at him a long dry moment, then laughed, a rasp like a tumbleweed blowing over sand. "Yeah, I'm sure we'll have plenty to worry about with him."
"I would, if I were you," Rodney said stiffly, for all his guts were ice water. "They say he shot fifty-five men in one fight. Or you could ask the Wraith Gang around these parts, if any of them are left they'd tell you--"
Mad Dog Number Two was smirking, too. "Tell us what? That we've got a hell of an ace in the hole?"
"You seem to be under a misapprehension, Dr. McKay," Kolya rasped, leaning forward, looming over Rodney. "The gunman Puddlejumper John, he wasn't born Smith."
"Of course not," Rodney said with a sniff--like he hadn't figured out that one in about five seconds after their self-introductions, even if he'd never bothered to push. A man's name is his own, and he of all people wasn't going to question someone else's choice, not considering his own Christian name. "Who is actually named 'John Smith'--"
"It might interest you to know," Kolya said, "that before he came to Gatetown, John Smith was known as John Sheppard."
Rodney, backing against the wooden table, stopped and stared. His right hand didn't tremble, but the fingers twitched, a spasm through the metal gears, knocking his knuckles against the table's edge. He felt the jar of the impact in his arm, even without skin or bone to bruise from it. "Sheppard?"
"John Sheppard, the eldest son of Patrick Sheppard, director of Sheppard Locomotive Works," Kolya told him. "How do you think we found out about you, Dr. McKay?"
"That's..." Rodney protested. "You're--that's horseshit, that's not--"
"We haven't had the best working relationship," Kolya said, "but trust me when I say I never lie to dead men."
Kolya's revolver was still raised; he'd never lowered it. But he moved it now so the sunlight caught on the barrel, a bright steel shine. Rodney found himself staring at that sliver of silver, transfixed like a rabbit in a hunter's lantern.
"You said," he said, and though his mouth was dry as sand he didn't have to force his voice even, too far past fear to even feel it anymore, "if I found a way to take out the locomotive, you'd let me live."
"And maybe if you'd taken our first offer, I would've entertained the notion," Kolya said. "But you sound opposed to our plan, and we can't have anyone warning the authorities--I believe you entertain a close relationship with the local sheriff."
"Teyla's not--close isn't the--just an acquaintance, really," Rodney stammered, backing away, his hands raised defensively. His right hand could stop a bullet--he'd tested that--but it wasn't like his arm could move fast enough to actually catch one, and Kolya's Colt was a six-shooter besides. "What if I, um, promised not to tell anyone?"
Kolya's smile looked to be as wide as it could get before his skin started cracking like unoiled leather. "Afraid I can't take your word on that, Doctor."
"Wait, you can't do this--you need me!" Rodney pointed his chin at the flask. "If that doesn't work--it's never been tested, I might've mixed it wrong, it might not--"
Kolya glanced at his henchman. "Ladon?"
"Could be right, Kolya," Ladon said, doubtfully. "Or wrong--I don't know his locomotive well enough to tell. That bottle's awful small..."
Eyes still fixed on Kolya's gun, Rodney kept backing up, until he stumbled into the worktable behind him. Something rolled off when his hip bumped against it--one of the sticks of dynamite, apparently their Plan B for blowing up his SGC Special. No help there, seeing as the table was on the opposite side of the shack from the door, and there were no windows on this wall. Not that such would do him a lick of good anyway; from his glimpses of the surrounding countryside outside the window, there wasn't so much as a bush or rock to hide behind, just beaten ground and sparse scrub grass. Not exactly a prosperous ranch, but then they obviously weren't hiding out here to raise cattle. He'd seen the ribbon of railroad tracks running by only a few hundred feet away...
And what good would it do to run anyway, when they had the bomb--they'd board the train and throw it in the engine, with a hundred passengers aboard--or more, tomorrow was Saturday. More folks traveling on Saturday morning, maybe with kin in Denver, hoping to spend a Sunday at church with the family, with children; or maybe a groom going to his bride; and oh, God, he was going to die with all that blood on his hands. If they killed him now, at least he wouldn't know--but God most likely would, if he believed in God, which he'd never rightly decided upon, but if ever there were a time for a man of science to renounce agnosticism--
Ladon had shut up and Kolya was looking like a man making a decision, slow and thoughtful, all the time in the world. "Can't risk him escaping," he pronounced finally. "A man like this might find courage, pushed to the wall; that's the problem with a man with nothing left to lose."
"Me?" Rodney gasped. "Um, no, no courage here, yellow-bellied coward, through and through--" and he was going to be shot and die, and he'd built a bomb--he'd fixed up guns before, but never for any man he knew was an outlaw; never a gun that was going to kill women and children and innocent men. But he had no gun himself, no weapon, no way to keep Kolya from this...
No weapon. But six sticks of dynamite behind him.
Rodney swallowed hard, lowering his hands, accepting the inevitable. He wasn't a brave man; he never had been. A brave man was a gunman, like John Smith--John Sheppard, who wouldn't be coming, who'd been on their side. All along maybe; maybe every chess game and shared whisky had been to loosen his tongue about the locomotive. Or else Sheppard Works had designs on his dirigible. He'd never know now.
At least he'd never finished the thing, and he'd be damned if any Sheppard Works patent thief could build them another one, for any price.
He'd never been brave--brave meant dead out here, and he'd always been partial to living.
But he was dead now anyway, wasn't he. And a hundred-something people with him. He slipped his hand behind his back, groped for one of the dynamite sticks and caught the fuse between his fingers.
"You're sure you understand how to use that?" Kolya asked Ladon.
Rodney grasped his right glove with his left hand and tugged it off. Under the leather, the curved metal joints of the handpiece were cool to the touch, oiled to move smooth and nearly silent. With one finger he slid back the panel with the wedge of flint, a modification from a few years back. Easier than digging up the box of matches he perpetually misplaced, when he needed to light a lamp for working through the night.
"Pretty sure," Ladon was saying, "though if it doesn't work..."
Setting his fingers together, Rodney snapped, filed edge of one steel fingertip scraping across the flint, scattering sparks. One, two, and the filament strung between his fingers was lit; he felt the hissing heat against the skin of his left hand.
"What was that?" Kolya snarled at the sound. He stomped forward, grabbed Rodney by the shoulder as he let go of the fuse. "What'd you do?" Kolya demanded, yanking Rodney up by his lapels and shoving him back against the wall, almost nose to nose.
"Nothing!" Rodney said, turning his head aside before his shifting eyes could give him away. "I mean, um, what are you talking about--"
"Kolya," Ladon said suddenly, "do you smell--"
The fizzle of the burning fuse was tiny, but not quite unnoticeable, and Kolya's face was close enough that Rodney had the satisfaction of seeing his dark eyes widen.
"What'd you--" Kolya began.
"Get out of--" Ladon shouted, throwing himself for the door.
Kolya lowered his gun for the first time as he turned toward his man, but Rodney didn't have time to take advantage of his distraction before the dynamite exploded, hammering them with a burst of light and noise that was, really, all too familiar.
At least he had but one hand to lose, this time.
John leaned over Jumper's sleek black neck, slapped the reins and dug in his spurs while he murmured, "Come on, boy, fly."
Jumper's gallop kicked up another notch, four hoof-beats pounding faster than a woodpecker drills as they flowed over the rough ground. There weren't any roads, following the train tracks on this side of town, not even a footpath, just baked earth one step up from desert, yellow-gray dirt where no one had ever bothered trying to grow anything. Nothing but scrub grass and gopher holes, but Jumper never stepped wrong and didn't now.
Teyla and Ronon were both riding behind him, though how far back now he didn't know. Teyla was light as a derby jockey, and Ronon for all his size sat on horseback like he was a centaur, better than any cavalry man John had ridden with; but there was no piece of horseflesh in the nearest ten states that could match Jumper for speed, over rough ground or flat.
And yet he still leaned low to urge the mustang on, because fastest in ten states might not be fast enough. Not if it was really Kolya who had Rodney.
Kolya had been his father's man for over fifteen years, since before John had left the Sheppard family and their company and all its vicious wheelings and dealings behind. He'd joined the cavalry, only to desert that, too, when he found how many men in it shared Kolya's cruelty, his love of power over those weaker than him, and his need to prove it. But no soldier he'd ever met was as bad as Kolya.
If he'd known Kolya was in town--if Ronon had spotted him sooner. Like, yesterday, before he'd snatched Rodney McKay off the street in broad daylight, and Goddamn it all, John should've known the moment Ronon said anything. Who else besides Kolya--and the description, that should've cinched it, brown hat and gray coat, he should have known.
But hell, wasn't like there weren't half a city's worth of people who had a bone to pick with Rodney. He left grudges scattered like grain across two nations--not that Rodney had ever said why he'd moved down from up North, but John, watching his squabbles even in a place as peaceful as Gatetown, had an inkling or two. "Grabbed off the street," Ronon had said, and John had thought it was a reckoning Rodney would settle with some of the gold he had stashed in the town bank, as usual.
Except come noon there was still no sign of him coming back to town, and Ronon had been grim. "Sheppard," he'd said, and hadn't that been a nasty shock--good long time since he'd heard that name, and still not long enough. "Sheppard, I never meant to get McKay in trouble."
And he'd told John everything, how it wasn't just coincidence, him hanging around Gatetown for the last month. That Patrick Sheppard had hired him, not to bring John in, just to keep an eye--how his father was fearful for his health these days, and yearning to lure the prodigal home.
The two men who had come to the inn the night before had brought Ronon payment from Sheppard Sr., with thanks. But they'd said nothing about being otherwise employed by Sheppard Works; Ronon had assumed that they'd been asked to carry a message to Gatetown while coming on their own business. But maybe their business was related after all, Ronon started to suspect, with McKay three hours gone.
And John remembered the letter he'd sent Dave, a couple months back--no return address, same as always; he'd paid a girl going back East a good fiver to have it hand-carried all the way to Buffalo before it got postmarked.
Now Rodney had been grabbed off Main Street right smack before Kate's inn. Maybe it was all a coincidence--and maybe pigs could fly.
A wooden fence cut across the plain, barring his path. John settled his weight in the saddle, allowing Jumper shifted his gait in time to live up to his name, clearing the fence with inches to spare and landing with barely a stutter in his stride.
The mustang's black sides were heaving under John's legs, even if his pace never faltered. He patted Jumper's straining neck with one hand, still leaned low, urging him faster. "Come on."
He didn't know what Kolya wanted Rodney for--could guess, but didn't know. But he knew Kolya--and he knew Rodney, too, after all these months. McKay was just the man Lorne had described, back before John deserted, irascible and arrogant and amazing with a gun, even if he couldn't shoot worth a damn. There were folks who'd forfeit a quickdraw contest on the spot if you let drop you had holstered a McKay Special.
Rodney was all that, and then he was nothing like it, either. Lorne had called him impossible to get along with; the best you could do was show him your money and hope he'd tolerate you long enough to finish work on your piece. He hadn't mentioned that Rodney had a library to rival the Sheppard family's, the most books John had seen since he left home; or that he turned up his nose at poker but played a mean game of chess; or the sweet tunes he'd bang out on the saloon piano once you got a couple fingers of whisky in him.
He hadn't mentioned that Rodney had a flying machine, stashed out in the abandoned mine only a quarter mile hike from his shop. And Rodney was going to let him fly it, any day now--they'd gone up a couple times with the dirigible's balloon, floating like thistledown a few hundred feet in the air; but his engine was untested. Faster than the crow flies, Rodney had promised--faster than a train rides, even his special SGC locomotive, and he'd laughed. "If I get this working, we'll be taking daytrips back East to New York City!"
He's been smug, arrogant as all get-out, but he'd grinned at John like he was sharing something, and John had grinned back--just two days ago, that had been, and Rodney had worked most of yesterday on it, too. It had been ready to go, it should have been; he'd expected Rodney to ask him to take it out today.
But Rodney hadn't come by this morning; it had been Ronon instead, to tell him Rodney had been taken.
They should have gone to Teyla right away--Teyla said as much, not aloud, but she didn't need to; Teyla's dark eyes could melt the iron shoe off a horse's hoof without her so much as inclining a graceful brow. But they hadn't realized right away how sticky a situation it was, and by the time they'd gone to the sheriff's office, Rodney had been four hours' gone. John hadn't needed Teyla's glare; he'd already been kicking himself, hard, and Teyla maybe saw it, because she didn't subject him to more than a glance. Just said, calmly, "What did you see, Ronon?" and listened when he explained.
When Teyla went with them back to the Heightmeyer Inn, Kate showed them her registry right away, but the names meant nothing. Mr. Jones and Mr. Jones, obviously phony as John's own moniker, and he'd thought it was a dead end until Ronon said, "Bank." Since Jones and Jones might've been shy to carry on them all they owed Ronon.
Mr. Harriman at the bank was a mite less accommodating than Kate; it took Teyla arching one whole eyebrow before he acquiesced to showing them his rolls. Which was all it took, because Acastus Kolya wasn't a name John was liable to forget.
With that puzzle piece, the picture was easy to assemble, enough to get the gist--enough for him to remember the Sheppard family's local holdings, the ranch from their failed cattle venture, where he'd stayed out at the first month in town. It was close to the train tracks, too, if the locomotive was the target, and John was fair certain it had to be; no sense to it otherwise. Rodney knew that train like the back of his unnatural hand, he'd built the damn thing. If Kolya had been hired to shut it down--who better to bulldoze onto that job than its inventor?
John wasn't rightly sure how much Teyla or Ronon had followed of his explanation, truth be told; he'd been running for the stable as he gave it, shouting back over his shoulder and not much caring if they kept up. Not when he could too clearly see Kolya, and Rodney--Rodney, who was lily-livered as a priest in a whorehouse and almost proud of his aberrant unmanly cowardice, up until a point; and then he'd dig in his heels and the worst mule ever birthed would be less stubborn. And he had this habit of not taking to people--he'd never fix up the gun of an outlaw, or anyone he thought might be an outlaw, or if he took a dislike to a man's choice of hat or how he beat his horse--Rodney had opinions, something fierce, and wouldn't be budged from them.
Kolya wouldn't like that. Not one bit.
So now John rode as with all the guilt-ridden fires of tarnation on his heels, and Teyla and Ronon somewhere behind him, hoping they wouldn't be too late.
Attending as he was to the ground before him, guiding Jumper's unflagging gallop, John didn't see the sign. Not until they passed the next fence, putting them on Sheppard land, and he raised his head to see if the ranch shack was in sight.
The shack wasn't, but it would be blasted hard to mistake the column of black smoke winding up to the clouds, the breeze bending it at a long slant, a checkmark slashed across the sky.
John stared a good two seconds, Jumper slowing under him as he sat back. "Damn it, Rodney--!" Because if there ever could be a clearer sign that McKay was at a place, he couldn't picture it.
"John!" Teyla cried, some distance far behind him, and he raised one hand to show he'd seen it without looking back, kicked Jumper back into a gallop.
In another minute he reached the shack--or what was left of it, weathered boards folded in like a house of cards blown over. Jumper pranced as John reined him in only a few yards from the disaster, tossing back his head, wild-eyed from the billowing smoke. John threw himself out of the saddle, looped the reins around the closest fencepost and sprinted for the shack, pulling his gun as he ran. "Rodney!"
The ride had whipped grit into his eyes; they were sore and watery, and the smoke stung in them. He waved it away--no open flames that he could see, but some of the wood was smoldering. Nothing moved, when he scanned the wreckage, and he didn't have a damn clue where to start looking. "McKay!" he shouted again, and when he heard no answer he started digging, heaving up the fallen boards and throwing them aside.
He didn't realize Ronon and Teyla had arrived until he reached one of the support beams, was struggling to budge it when the heavy timber suddenly lifted almost out of his grasp, and there was Ronon, more grim-faced than John had seen him be--if that was what his bounties saw coming for them, no wonder they surrendered on sight. He didn't say anything, just helped John shift the debris.
"John!" Teyla called suddenly, "there's someone here!" and they ran to her, but when they displaced a few boards, the groaning, half-conscious man under them wasn't Rodney.
Not Kolya, either; John didn't recognize him, but Ronon said, "Him. He was the other one."
"Okay," John said, and he hauled up the skinny mudsill by the shredded collar and smacked him hard across his scratched face, and again, to get his eyes to roll open. When they did, John leaned in close. "McKay," he said. "You had him here. Where is he?"
The man gaped like a landed fish, plumb streaked. Teyla said quietly, "John, if you would," and she pried off John's grip, sat the man down amidst the strewn remains of the shack and crouched before him, her sheriff's star angled to gleam gold in the sun. "You and your associate kidnapped Dr. McKay, this morning," she said, calm as a Sunday morning. "Is he here?" and when the man didn't answer, she grasped his hand in hers and bent the little finger back, almost to breaking.
"Yes!" the man choked out, pale and sweating under the cuts and smudges. "The loco son of a bitch set off the dynamite. He lit it somehow. He was over there--" and he waved his free hand toward one collapsed wall.
Ronon was already there, tearing through the wreckage like the devil mowing down sinners. He tossed aside half a table and hauled up a man by the back of his coat--gray coat, brown hair, and he hung limp, blackened with blood and dirt. Ronon let him drop onto his stomach, face turned to show his profile against the ground--Kolya's hawk features, and whether he was breathing or not wasn't in John's scope to care.
Rodney was curled under him, pulled himself in like a turtle gone into its shell, but Kolya and the table hadn't been enough of a shield. He was scratched up as bad as the other guy, splinters drawing blood on his face and arms and legs through his clothes, and he wasn't moving.
Ronon picked him up carefully, set him down on the ground clear of debris on Teyla's coat, which she spread out for him. One of his legs was at the wrong angle, and in the sun shining through the settling dust and smoke, his face was sheet-white, screwed up with fear and a set-jaw stubbornness that was McKay to the core, even unconscious.
But he whimpered when Ronon put him down, scarcely more than a rusty hinge would squeak and not what you could call aware, but enough for the fist that had closed around John's heart to unclench. With an ugly grin he kicked Kolya in the side, hard enough to roll his deadweight over onto his back, stood over him with his gun and debated the merits of wasting a bullet, just to be sure.
"John," Teyla said, and he hadn't known her for that long, but while he hadn't before heard this particular tension in her usually maddenly calm voice, he already knew he never wanted to hear it again.
He left Kolya, corpse or close enough, went to them. "How is he?"
"Not good," Teyla said. She'd torn strips from her shirt and from Ronon's to bind Rodney's cuts, and the white cotton was soaking through with fresh red already. "There's these wounds, but I fear the worst are those we cannot see. As well..."
"His hand," Ronon said, moving his knee so that John could see.
Rodney always wore a glove on his right hand, except on occasion when he was working, and even then he was quick to pull it on whenever anyone came by. It was only a month ago that John had gotten his first good look at it, thanks to half a quart of bumblebee whisky and a bet that Rodney should have known better than to make--like John couldn't pick out ten constellations in a night sky clear as a mountain stream, even pie-eyed. He'd insisted on the lantern being lit, had peered close at all the intricate, tiny cogs and cranks of the metal mechanism. Most of Rodney's inventions, he asked how they worked; but this he hadn't, this one vital device that Rodney preferred not to boast about, contrary to all habit.
But the leather glove was gone now, and under it the polished metal was blackened, shell cracked and the delicate gears within twisted and wrenched apart. A couple were still turning, clicking faintly like a broken music box, whenever Rodney twitched, spasms running down his arm.
"It is hurting him more, I fear," Teyla said softly, "but I do not know what the best course would be."
None of them were surgeons--even Rodney's degrees weren't in medicine--and injuries this grave needed more than bandages. But moving a man so injured was risky, and horseback was too rough. John remembered back in the cavalry, three hours back to camp, riding his horse into the ground with Holland bleeding in his arms, and the captain had breathed his last before the surgeon came out to meet them.
Wouldn't do any good to get him back to Gatetown anyway, not with no hospital there. But Denver was hours away, even by train, and the train wouldn't come through until tomorrow morning anyway...
Faster than even his new locomotive, Rodney had said, and Rodney could make a cock rooster look modest, but he didn't fib, didn't need to invent stories when what he actually invented was amazing enough.
"Keep him still," John said. "Get him to drink some water, if you can."
"John?" Teyla asked.
John grabbed Jumper's reins from the fence. The horse's black hide was lathered with sweat, but he was breathing easy and his ears pricked forward to follow John, still ready to run. "I'll be back in an hour," John told Teyla and Ronon. "Hopefully. You just keep him going until I get here." He swung himself up onto the mustang and kicked him into a gallop, tearing back toward Gatetown.
The sun was dropping in the sky, so Ronon's long shadow was enough to shield Rodney from the worst of its heat. Rodney did complain so when he burned, skin delicate as a Southern belle, for all he'd been out West for years, longer than Teyla herself, as far as she knew.
He wasn't bellyaching about the sun now, though; wasn't bellyaching about anything. Teyla poured a little water from her canteen into her handkerchief, dabbed clean the scratches on his face. It was a useless bit of nursing, but she had naught else to do. With Ronon's help she'd straightened his broken leg as best she could and tied it between two boards, and they'd wrapped the rest of his open wounds, but if there was more wrong with him it was beyond her ken to right it.
Still, she spoke to him quietly, like he was a feverish child to soothe, even if he was beyond hearing. "John will return directly, Rodney, he'll bring a doctor, it will be all right."
"So, he your lover?" Ronon asked abruptly. Teyla glanced up at him. Ronon's arms were crossed as he stared down at her and Rodney, brow furrowed, in thought or frustration.
"No, he is not."
"Rodney is of no relation to me," Teyla said. "I've only known him for the past couple years, since I came to Gatetown."
"But you're close with him," Ronon said. He sounded, if not angry, then powerful confused.
Teyla was unsurprised. Rodney confused a great many people. She rocked back on her heels, studying McKay's still face. "Rodney campaigned for me to be sheriff," she said. "Of all the men I have met, he sees less the weaknesses of my sex or the shade of my skin than any other. Save perhaps John Smith, and with him I never know if it is that he doesn't notice, or simply that other things interest him more."
"McKay campaigned for you?"
"I saved Rodney's life from the Wraith Gang, some two years ago. After that, it seems he trusted no one else with Gatetown's safety, or his own." She laid her hand on Rodney's arm, unduly still but for the way he was shivering, even in the day's heat and with her coat under him. "Perhaps an unfounded trust."
"Man like him asks for trouble," Ronon said. "Seen 'em before. Too big for his britches and too clever by half."
"By whole, I should say," Teyla remarked, smiling a hair in spite of herself.
Ronon hunkered down next to them. Even squatted he was tall enough to keep Rodney's face shaded. "He's really that quick?"
"Truthfully, I cannot say how clever Rodney is," Teyla said. "His reputation as a gunsmith I understand, but the inventions he's built are beyond me."
Ronon peered down at Rodney, considering. "Think he'd fix up my piece? Heard he doesn't much care for bounty hunters."
"After this, I believe he would make an exception," Teyla said. "That is, if he..." but she stopped herself in time, unwilling to tempt fate. He would live. She must believe that; God made no life without hope.
John had said he would return. She didn't know John Smith well, and yet she trusted him when he said that, as she had trusted him following him here. As she had trusted him when he first rode into town, five months past, and had told her his story, when she pressed. He'd given her the truth, and she'd granted him faith back. But that it should be tested like this...
"Is that why you accompanied us?" Teyla asked. "That Dr. McKay might fix your gun? Or was it to keep watch on John?"
"No," Ronon said, flat and honest. "Came because this might be my fault. I don't live owing any man. If I did McKay wrong..."
"You did only as the Sheppards paid you to do, did you not?" Teyla replied.
"They sent me looking for John Sheppard. Not McKay."
"Sheppard..." It was so faintly hissed it might've only been the breeze through the grass, but for Rodney's eyes cracking open.
"Rodney!" Teyla leaned close, smiling gladly, but Rodney's face was screwed up with pain, and his roving gaze wouldn't settle.
"The locomotive," he said, "they're going to--the train, Langley Gorge, tomorrow--"
"Rodney," Teyla said, placing her fingers gently on his cheeks to turn his face toward her. "There is no danger; the men who took you will do nothing." She spared the abductors a glance--Ronon had made sure they were both bound hand and foot, trussed like calves, though the older man had yet to even regain consciousness.
Rodney wouldn't calm, though, twisting his head back and forth and mumbling, "Sheppard Works--they sent--"
"Rodney, it is all right. Please calm yourself," Teyla told him. "You are wounded, and will hurt yourself more if you carry on this way. John is getting help--"
"Smith!" Rodney's eyes snapped open wide; he tried to sit up, and only Ronon's strong hand on his shoulder stopped him. "John--he was lying all along, he's not--his real name--"
"That he didn't give us his real name does not mean he lied," Teyla assured him.
"No...he was working with them. Son of the Sheppard family, it's his company, too, that's why--why he came--"
"I do not believe that true," Teyla said.
"You knew," Ronon said abruptly. His figuring gaze was on her face. "About Sheppard. From when I first told you who I'd come looking for, you knew who it was."
"I knew John's true name, yes. He told it to me, when I asked him, shortly after he first came to town."
"Took me two weeks to be sure," Ronon said, "and then I cabled the family, three weeks ago. Then these men turned up."
"John didn't know they had come," Teyla pointed out. "He didn't even know their names."
"He said," Ronon said. "Maybe he didn't want to go home, gave them McKay instead."
"John would not," Teyla said firmly, tamping down the cold doubt suddenly winding through her gut, like a worm burrowing into an apple.
"Ran from his family, deserted the army--if he ran now, it'd take me a while to track him down."
"Teyla?" The pained, uncertain quaver replacing Rodney's usual brusque surety tore at her.
"I am here, Rodney."
"My--my hand, I can't--I can't m-move it--"
Teyla could not bring herself to give the blackened metal more than a glance. "It is damaged," she said, "but you will easily fix it, when you are well."
"D-don't think it's that easy..." Rodney coughed, a terrible dry rattling sound, and her heart turned over when she saw dots of fresh red speckle his lips.
"Easy for you, if no one else," she told him, and reached over him to take his good hand, flesh and blood, but cool now for all it was damp with sweat, and that too was a bad sign.
Ronon stood. "I'm going back to town, fetch back a doctor." He caught Teyla's look and shrugged. "Or help Sheppard get one, whichever."
"Ronon, I do not believe--" Teyla started to say, and then stopped because Ronon had raised his hand to shade his eyes from the sun as he stared up into the sky.
"What the devil is that--"
Teyla turned and stared up.
High as it was, level with a vulture on the wing, it was difficult to make out, and even as it began to drop it took her more than a moment's thought to place it. No bird, clearly, and just as clearly no storm-cloud or other natural phenomenon. It was as unfitted to the sky as a pig in a ball-gown, an unwieldy oblong shape, sharply pointed at one end and rounded at the other. It had wings, but unlike a bird's they were fixed, stiff flippers stuck out of its sides, like a whale escaped the sea for the skies instead.
And yet it was flying, impossibly--and flying fast, too; she could not appreciate its speed in the air, but as it approached it became apparent, and her eyes widened. The bladder above the oblong length was filling, expanding, and as it did she identified it--a balloon, and not just any balloon.
Rodney's balloon--Rodney's flying machine, which she had seen airborne before, but never with the engine. He had once spent some long hours explaining its use to her, how the balloon was only to get the dirigible aloft, and once up the engine would push it through the sky, fast enough that nothing else would be required to keep it lifted, no more than a shot arrow is in need of wings.
It had sounded quite unbelievable and fantastic when Rodney had described it to her; watching it now, Teyla thought that perhaps he had not made it sound fantastic enough.
Ronon had his gun pulled, wasn't aiming at anything in particular but his eyes showed white around the irises, like a spooked horse. "It is all right," Teyla told him. "John's returned."
When the thing shot overhead, it was still higher than the tallest treetop could reach, yet fast enough for them to feel its passing, their hair and coattails whipping in the wind, like being caught in the wake of a speeding ship. "Here!" Teyla shouted, waving up at it, and the flying machine banked sharply, wheeled around and dove, an unlikely falcon.
As Teyla recalled it, the dirigible's balloon was supposed to inflate again when the engine stopped, to safely cushion its landing, but either Rodney had changed his mind or that precaution had not yet been taken, because the dirigible hit the ground at a goodly clip, plowing up a great long furrow of earth before finally coming to a stop. She and Ronon both stared at it, the flabby, half-full balloon drooping atop a vehicle like the skeleton of a winged rowboat, a rough canvas tent spread over its sturdy frame like a covered wagon.
The canvas parted, and John scrambled out. He stumbled when he jumped to the ground, steadied himself against the wooden side. "Holy Jesus Christ in heaven!" he shouted up at the blue sky, hoarse as a man who'd been screaming for minutes on end; and then he waved at them frantically and ran over. "How is he?" he gasped, skidding to a halt between her and Ronon, staring down at Rodney.
"He is--he's holding on, but he needs a surgeon's care, and soon," Teyla said, breathless herself, like the airship had crashed into her chest instead of the ground. "John, this--"
"Next stop, Denver hospital," John said, dropping to a crouch beside Rodney. "Help me get him in."
Rodney stirred when John gathered up his shoulders, started and stared about himself. "What--"
"We're getting you to a proper doctor," John said with a wild-eyed grin. "Feel like test-flying your dirigible?"
"My--" Rodney rasped, looking dazed and more than a little wild-eyed himself, as Ronon picked up his lower half, careful of the broken leg.
"You were wrong, by the way," John panted as they carried him to the flying machine. "Two hundred miles an hour isn't pushing the jet engine at all--I bet we can break three hundred, easy."
"But--you were--" Rodney flailed as they settled him in the rear of the dirigible, before the massive round block of the engine. He grabbed for Teyla with his good hand, fingers catching on the trim of her vest. "Teyla, Smith--Sheppard--don't let him take it--not a company's, it's mine--"
John's eyes went wide, and his rowdy excitement stalled like a horse tripping mid-gallop. Teyla took Rodney's hand in hers, squeezed comfortingly. "Rodney, trust him," she said, and she smiled at John.
"It's going to be okay," John told her, or maybe he was reassuring Rodney, or maybe he was telling himself. "I swear, we'll get there in time."
"I know," Teyla said, and stepped back, as John slid himself back in the dirigible's seat as confidently as he got in the saddle. He pulled the reinforced canvas over his head and hooked it in place, as she and Ronon retreated to a reasonable distance.
The balloon expanded quickly, inflating with the hiss and wheeze of pumped air, bobbing up in the air like a cork in water and pulling the dirigible up with it. It was scarcely higher than Ronon's head when John started the engine, which roared to life with a deafening, rushing shriek that called to mind the hungry howl of a twister.
The implausible contraption angled up its nose. It hung there for an instant midair, a fly stuck in an invisible web, then shot forward, blasting toward Denver faster than anything right and holy ought to move, leaving only a long trail of gray-white smoke to mark its uncanny passage through the blue sky.
A good long time passed in a blur of pain and ether and laudanum, and when Rodney finally swam up from that daze back into full consciousness, he was more relieved than shocked to find some three whole days had passed that he could scarce account for. By his body's aches, head pounding and leg stiff and his arm throbbing as it hadn't for years, he was tempted to put down his head and sleep for another three at least, give in to whatever opium compound the doctors had numbing him now.
But there was the puzzle of his continued survival, which was an unexpected twist, now that he was awake to appreciate it, and one not easily ignored. Just as great a mystery was the bed he was in, which was not his own, not as comfortable as his own special-order mattress by half, and the sheets drenched with a distastefully sweet fragrance to cover worse odors of decay and disease--a hospital smell.
And greatest of all, the enigma of the man seated in the chair beside his bed, with his boots propped on the end of Rodney's bed and his hat tipped down over his eyes--a black Stetson cavalry hat, and its battered brim was nonsensically familiar.
The folded copy of the Denver Gazette on the nightstand told Rodney the date, and the bandages wrapped about his arms and legs and chest offered a hint as to how he was still breathing, despite the final circumstances he could remember. But why the man beside his bed should have a snore like John Smith's was harder to reason out.
At last he resorted to reaching for the newspaper with his left hand, joints creaking like an old man's, picked it up and threw it at the man, knocking off his hat and revealing Jumper John Smith's unmistakable hair.
Smith started awake, rocking back the chair and only just wheeling his arms in time to right himself before he fell. "What--hey, Rodney! You're awake!" He tempered this ridiculously obvious observation with a grin that would have done proud a Cheshire cat.
"Smith," Rodney said, and then he remembered, and swallowed, looked aside.
Smith--Sheppard--shut the grin away like he was slamming a door. "Don't suppose you'd take my word for it that I've apologized," he said quietly, scrubbing at the back of his head with his fingers.
"Guess you wouldn't remember--you weren't rightly with me for most of that flight. Gave me a nasty turn there at the end, I wasn't sure you were breathing, when I brought us down on the hospital roof. Damn near just plugged the balloon and let us drop to save time, but I didn't think your broken bones would appreciate another bump."
Rodney blinked at him. "This isn't something I say lightly--I might never bring myself to say it again--but I have no earthly clue what you're talking about."
"Right," Sheppard said. "Sorry, I haven't got much in the way of shut-eye, the last few days. What do you remember?"
"I was kidnapped--they wanted me to--no!" Rodney sat up straight, which sent pain ripping through his chest and down his leg in a way that stopped his breath cold; and a twinge down his right arm that was all too familiar. He shut his eyes against all of it and concentrated on cajoling his lungs into taking in air again.
When his head cleared he realized Sheppard's hand was on his back, that Sheppard was muttering reassurances, cosseting him like he was a colicky infant. Rodney shrugged him off, gasped urgently, "I need to speak to the local law--no, they would've already done it--the paper, damn it, did they--" The accident would make headlines all the way back East, they'd said; Denver would surely be talking about it still--
"No one did anything, Rodney," Sheppard said. "There's nothing in the papers."
"But the train, they wanted--"
"If you're talking about the SGC Horizon, your locomotive's running fine, fast as ever. It's already left for Gatetown today. If you're thinking of tinkering with it, I'm sure none of the boys in the railyard would argue, but it doesn't need any mending. No one's touched it. No one's going to," and Sheppard's green eyes went yellowish for a moment, an alloy changing color when heated past the melting point. "Kolya and his man are locked away in Teyla's cells right now."
"But they--" They work for you, Rodney almost said, then thought better of it; perhaps if Sheppard didn't know that he knew the truth...
"They don't work for me," Sheppard said, and Rodney gaped at him, reached up--almost with his right hand, but he caught himself in time and kept it tucked under his blankets--and prodded his own head, wondering if maybe his skull had split open, so people could read his thoughts even when he wasn't speaking them aloud.
Sheppard grimaced at his look. "I've sat here for the better part of the last three days," he explained, "and you haven't exactly been awake, but you haven't exactly been quiet, either."
"Ah," Rodney said. "Well. If I, er, if I've misapprehended the situation...don't mean to impinge on a man's reputation..."
"No, you didn't." Sheppard rocked his chair back on the rear legs. "It was my fault," he said grimly. "They didn't work for me, but they came because of me. It was my fault that they knew about you. My family. I'm the Sheppard scion--or I was, before I deserted, and I thought I'd shaken them off a long time ago. Didn't realize anyone was still interested."
He scratched the back of his scalp again. "My brother, Dave, he's the only one of them I ever kept up with. I send him a letter or two a year. No return address, ever, and he's never tried to seek me out. But the last one, I bragged about my friend the mysterious inventor, whose locomotive patent had the Sheppard Works knickers in a twist. Just to get Dave's goat. Didn't give your name or nothing. I didn't think that'd be worth tracking me down for."
"Sheppard Locomotive Works tried to buy the patent from me before the SGC did," Rodney said. "I turned them down. I...take issue with certain of their business practices."
"Like the ones that get you kidnapped and blown up."
"Among others, yes. They never could do anything about it; our only correspondence was through my lawyer back in Chicago. I stay anonymous in all my corporate dealings nowadays. If I'd known you were part of the family--"
"I'm not," Sheppard said savagely, with more ardor than Rodney had ever heard out of him before. The flash of his eyes was nothing like the nonchalant deadbeat gunman Rodney had gotten to know in the last five months, who couldn't be bothered to show up at high noon, more often than not.
Perhaps he'd never really known Sheppard at all. "I'd wondered why you were so interested in the dirigible," Rodney said. "And my other inventions--never met anyone except a few scientists who took to them the way you did. Other scientists, and company bigwigs bright enough to see profit in another man's vision. I should have guessed--you're looking to prove yourself over your father, right, make money where he couldn't--"
"It wasn't for any God-damned money!" Sheppard snapped. He jumped to his feet, looming over Rodney's bed, all riled up, and Rodney might've had a moment of consternation, save that his last clear memory was Kolya's face before him, eyes widening as he realized the dynamite had been lit.
After that, Rodney thought with a touch of deserved conceit, it's harder for a man to convince himself he's still a coward. "Then why? Forgive me if I'm having trouble fathoming why one of the richer heirs in the nation chose to settle in a pissant parish like Gatetown, just to hang around my shop shooting the breeze. And don't say it's for the pleasure of my company; my own sister could hardly bear that, I know better than to expect so much from non-relations."
Instead of snapping back, Sheppard rocked on his boot heels, anger draining from his face like a plug had been pulled. "Huh," he remarked. "Teyla might be a touch surprised to hear that. Unless she was lying here," and he reached under his vest, took out an envelope and handed it to Rodney.
His name was written on the back, blue ink in Teyla's elegant, ladylike script. "It came with the train yesterday," Sheppard said. "Along with a note asking me to give it to you when you woke up."
Rodney opened the envelope, struggling a bit to manage it one-handed--it had been a long while since he'd needed to practice that--and took out a pressed flower card from the Brown store. Inside, Teyla had written, Dear Rodney, John has sent word that you are on the mend. I pray that you recover quickly, Gatetown is not the same without you, and my dinner table is too quiet in your absence. She'd signed it, "Sincerely."
Underneath Teyla's signature, an unfamiliar hand had printed in rough block letters: Sorry bout this. Owe you. & Will pay for gunwork.--R.D.
Rodney frowned. "Ronon Dex," Sheppard said. "He'd like you to fix up his piece, if you're willing."
"I don't do guns for American bounty hunters. They're a bit too eager about the first part of 'dead or alive'."
"He knows. But Ronon helped dig you out of that shack, so maybe you could extend him that consideration."
"Eh? Why was he there?"
Sheppard ducked his head, barefaced ashamed for some reason. "Tell you later. But he thinks he owes you. And it's worth it, having a man like that on your side. You might not have made it without him and Teyla's care, before I got you here."
"Yes." Rodney tapped the card on his good knee. "Smith--Sheppard--"
Sheppard looked put out. "Yeah?"
"How'd I get here? Presuming that 'here' is Denver's hospital. We're a ways from Gatetown."
"Yeah." Sheppard's grin took Rodney by surprise. "Got here in an hour."
"Hour and twelve minutes, technically, but most of that was in landing, took a bit of maneuvering to set us down safely on the roof."
"What in hell are you--" Rodney sat up, heedless of the pain this time. "The dirigible? The dickens, Sheppard, did you--it wasn't tested--you actually--you took me up in the untested dirigible? When I was bleeding to death?"
Sheppard's grin was brazen as a strumpet's. "Didn't have much in the way of options, Rodney."
"I'd be more inclined to credit that if you weren't smirking like the fox in the henhouse," Rodney grumbled, but he couldn't help himself. "How fast did it--"
"Broke three hundred, according to your gage, though it wasn't--"
"--calibrated for speeds that high. I'll have to adjust that, and also, are you insane? Pushing it like that on the very first test flight?"
"Well, I did have the engineer along," Sheppard said. "Admittedly you were delirious or fainted for the whole trip--"
"Passed out--and I'd have to be, before I let you go 300 miles an hour--you could've expended the fuel, we would've dropped out of the sky like a giant rock. The balloon uses the engine's exhaust to reinflate, and without any thrust the frame's not particularly built for gliding--"
"Didn't have much choice," Sheppard said. "And I knew I could count on it. You built the thing, after all."
"Flattery will get you nowhere," Rodney informed him, lying through his teeth, and by the way Sheppard kept grinning, he knew it. "So where is the dirigible now, Sheppard, if you didn't sell it off?"
Sheppard winced. "I haven't gone by that name in years," he said, "not too keen on starting to again."
"So what am I supposed to call you?"
Sheppard shrugged. "John's okay by me."
"All right--where's my dirigible, John?"
"The hospital roof, at the moment," John said. "Passed a local boy two bits to keep an eye on it. And I got to the reporters before word spread too far. Though you can't do much about rumors..."
Rodney buried his face in his arms. "So every flush dude back east and every gold digger west is going to beat a path to Gatetown to order themselves a dirigible."
"A Smith Special Flying Machine. Yeah, maybe," John said.
Rodney put down his arms. "'Smith'?"
"You rather I'd said McKay? I thought you wanted anonymity."
"I thought you didn't want money!"
"Best way to keep folks from trying to steal it is make them think it's not one of a kind," John said. "So I might've implied it wasn't. I never said I was selling them, it could've been any Smith. Though I have gotten a couple orders..."
He trailed off. Rodney looked over at him to see that John was looking down at his stomach--no, not his stomach. At his bandaged right arm resting across his belly.
Self-consciously he moved it down to his side again, but it was too late. With a sigh he lifted it into plain sight, the stump of his wrist clear under the wrappings, too-short and lumpish.
"I..." John coughed, then bent over the nightstand by the bed. "Here," he said. "I wouldn't let the docs get rid of it." He brought out a packet of brown paper and unwrapped the metal handpiece, blackened and damaged beyond repair, Rodney saw at a glance. He ran the fingers of his good left hand over the broken shell, tried to bend one of the warped joints.
At least he still had one left. Small favors and all that.
"Can you fix it?" John asked hopefully.
Swallowing, Rodney shook his head. He folded the paper back over it, shoved the heavy little lump of metal away. Not something he wanted to think about now. He had his life, and that--that would be enough.
He wasn't prepared for John's open, obvious sympathy. That hurt more than the throbbing ache of his damaged nerves in his arm, still agitated from the handpiece being ripped from them. They'd never really healed, never really got used to not having a hand, fingers, to control; that was the point. It was painful, but the helpless rage and guilt showing in John's eyes, that was worse.
Rodney let go a long breath. "I never got around to telling you how I lost it the first time, did I?"
"No," John said
Rodney shut his eyes, but the memories were stronger in that darkness, so he opened them again. "Eight years ago, I was in Chicago, working for the 51st Area Consolidated Research Firm. There were three of us, me, and two European scientists, Radek Zelenka, and Janos Bartok. We designed technology, industrial, military, transportation, anything. It was fantastic, the discoveries we made, the patents, the money..."
"So?" John prodded. "You had an accident?"
"Not an accident. There was a rival company, the Gould Trust, and their scientists weren't up to snuff with 51st's. So they decided to even us out, paid off a lab assistant...there were dangerous pieces, some of what we built, and we took precautions, but not enough, not with our own people. So you see, Sheppard Works, Kolya, their games are old hat. Minor players, really."
"Did you lose anyone?" John asked quietly.
"Not anybody, no. Bartok got off lucky, just a few scars. But Radek lost a leg and an eye, and me...well. None of us were particularly keen on company work after that. Bartok left town as soon as he was out of the hospital. Radek and I were there longer, and Radek was friends with a doctor, Carson Beckett. You've maybe heard me mention him before, he's still in Chicago, I visit him annually. Beckett had some fascinating theories he wanted to test, about the mechanics of the body, the power in every tiny cell. And Radek, you see, was an engineer, he had a gift for the delicate and the intricate, clockwork mechanisms. And I had experience with electricity. So we worked together. To overcome our mutual...impediments."
John glanced down at Rodney's bandaged arm, then too quickly away.
"It wasn't that bad," Rodney said. "Really, it turned out to be a boon for my detail work, steadier than my old hand ever was. And I fine-tuned it to manage a piano a couple years ago. Nothing like how I used to play, but..." His arm twitched, no fingers to move under the wraps, and he sighed. "Was a boon, rather. Your flying machine company's going down before it starts, and I won't be a lick of good with Ronon's gun or anyone else's. Not with only my left hand."
"Why?" John asked. He nudged the paper-wrapped, useless lump of metal. "You built this before, can't you rebuild it?"
"Even if I could, without Dr. Beckett to graft it--"
"So wire Chicago for him to make a housecall."
"But Radek's gone back to Europe, as far as I know. We correspond on occasion, but I haven't seen him for years."
"You didn't keep the designs?"
"Of course I kept the designs. They were my designs, Radek only advised. That's not it. To rebuild it, to do that kind of work, I need more than this." Rodney lifted his left hand, waggled his fingers. "I can't do it one-handed."
"So?" John said, and held up his own hands, pointed to himself, to Teyla and Ronon's card. "You've got six good ones, right here."