Word Count: 9400~
Genre: Gen, Angst, H/C
Spoilers: None. Set in Season 5 though no real spoilers.
Characters: Rodney, John, Carson, Teyla, Ronon
Summary: Accident statistics say ninety-two percent of avalanche victims survive if their party digs them out within fifteen minutes. After forty-five minutes, Rodney and the Team were still searching for Sheppard.
Notes: Written for my good friend everybetty. Massive thanks to wildcat88 for all her late night help and beta work.
More notes: I'm not in the medical field. I did extensive research, all mistakes are my own. All temperatures are primarily in Celsius, but the reader will get the gist of the impact of the degrees from the context.
The air was filled with white confetti, billions of flakes highlighted by two large majestic peaks. It was a postcard perfect winter wonderland and he was about to crash and shatter the snow globe illusion.
“You've got to pull up, Sheppard!”
“I'm flyin' with only one engine, McKay!”
The flight yoke rattled between his fingers, violent turbulence batting and bouncing the jumper against rushing air currents. John yanked at the controls, banging his knees repeatedly as the ship was tossed around by furious wind gusts. He was losing altitude, his knuckles turning red from the strain. Inertial dampeners were almost out. Power levels were plummeting faster than his current nosedive.
It was like wrangling an out-of-control rocket.
“Reduce your speed!”
“Stop backseat driving!” John growled into the radio.
“I'm not even there!”
“My point exactly.”
Bolts of blue lightning flashed along his port side, the blizzard dumping heavy white stuff over the glacial valleys below. Steep rocky formations rose twenty thousand feet up, almost the size of the largest mountains on Earth.
Find a nice, soft part of the summit to land. Piece of cake.
Of course he couldn't see crap. Millions of ice crystals rained down on him, reducing visibility to zero.
“Bracing for impact!”
John cut all power, slowing his acceleration. He leveled out the jumper, crashing so impressively that it skidded ninety degrees. His face met the control console with a smack, the rest of his body colliding along with it. John groaned, arms splayed over the fried instrument panel. He forced open his eyes to slits, his entire blurry world nothing but white.
White skies. Miles of fluffy white-covered drifts. And all that white came flooding in with a roar.
By the time his battered brain realized what was going on, the entire front window burst open with tons of rushing ice and snow. There were the sounds of glass cracking, the shock of sub-zero temperatures on his skin, then nothing at all.
Rodney huddled inside his parka, the thick scarf dangling from his face to allow a better look at the massive chunk of crystallized rock ahead. He ran out into the open, the sting of frost biting his nose, his cheeks becoming numb after only seconds of exposure. Ronon and Teyla were beside him, both speechless, eyes glued to the jumper being tossed around like a toy in the angry storm.
Two of the Balvanians stood by in thick coats of animal skins and goggles-- just waiting. Waiting for the inevitable with sleds and dozens of wolf-like creatures barking in anticipation. Carson came bounding out of the shelter behind them, his heavy boots sinking with every clumsy step. “I heard there was a problem. Oh no!” he exclaimed, skidding to a stop with the rest of them.
“Bracing for impact!” John's voice screamed over the com.
They all tensed; the jumper's nose pulled up in time, colliding into the mountainside and sliding all the way around to face the steep incline.
“Holy crap,” Carson breathed.
Then the mountain shook, releasing a large pack of snow into a gigantic wave of powder. The rolling mass crushed trees, enveloped gullies and dips, kicking up a cloud of white that engulfed the jumper.
“Sheppard, come in. Sheppard!” Rodney held his breath, brushing away a layer of fresh white dust already covering his shoulders. “John, respond!”
He didn't have time to panic. Not out loud. “Give me that!” He snatched the monocular device from one of the Balvanians and held it over his right eye. “It hit at thirty-two and fifty-one degrees,” he said, adjusting the pendulum part to determine exactly the spot and double checking it with his LSD.
“I thought you said the life signs' detector was ineffective out here?” Teyla asked, grabbing her pack as she hurried.
“I said it was inaccurate because of the mineral ore, but between it and these crude coordinates, we can pinpoint where Sheppard landed.” Rodney rounded on their guides. “What are we waiting for?” They only had minutes to save a person from an avalanche.
Toffin was beefy with a wrinkled leather face and a crooked nose. He was Carson's contact on M3X-183 and a tough looking old dude. He reminded Rodney of one of those reclusive Tibetan monks who hid away in the rugged cliffs of the Himalayas. “The slope is unstable. The snow pack is deep and the terrain weakened. We must tread carefully or risk another collapse on top of us.”
“Hello! I know about snow,” Rodney growled. “I'm no Jack London but the longer we wait, the less time we have.”
Marla was the tribe's political liaison and elder. Blue eyes radiated from behind her goggles, her milky white skin in contrast to silver locks of hair that hung loose from under her Russian-looking Ushanka hat. Both natives smelled of firewood and wet animal hide. “Revered McKay, the current slope is at forty degrees which is treacherous for more free falls. We will go, but we must adhere to our ways. We have done this before,” she warned. “Revered Sheppard brought home six of our missing people. We owe him many life debts. Now, follow us.”
She reminded him of an older Eskimo version of Teyla and Rodney never messed with a fierce woman. The six of them paired up with the dog-sleds. They were only half a mile away from the crash site, but time was their enemy.
Ronon grabbed Rodney by the shoulder. “Atlantis is sending another jumper. ETA's twenty minutes. Something about another off-world emergency.”
“It can't land on the ice so fat lot of good it'll do us,” Rodney snapped. Stop it. Calm. He needed to be calm, but his heart was a buzz-saw in his chest, sweat breaking out and cooling instantly.
“Have it on stand by,” Carson said, looking between them. “We'll need it for a quick medevac.”
They scrambled to the sleds, Rodney locking arms around Marla's waist. He cursed when they took off, his neck snapping from whiplash. He hated skiing and hated going out into a blizzard on nothing more than an oversized wooden surfboard. The winds cut through his heavy parka, both thermal shirts, and his uniform. He wore double pants that were already coated with thin layers of frost, and he was blind against the snow that blew horizontally. Maybe being clad in dead animals had its merits.
All that time in Siberia and Antarctica started to swirl together into random pieces of data. Times when fellow geeks got caught in storms or the military lost one of their goons between shuffling expedition members. He'd been obsessive about survival as a kid. Living near a frozen lake and vacations in the mountains were good teachers for such accidents; however, Rodney had never been put to the test. He spent the time racing across a freaking arctic wasteland trying to recall rescue courses and safety manuals.
If you see someone swept away in an avalanche, you are their best hope for survival. Accident statistics say ninety-two percent of victims survive if their party digs them out within fifteen minutes.
Of course most ski resorts had St. Bernards and locator beacons at their disposal. They had John's sub-cu transmitter signal that bounced in a thousand directions thanks to the mineral deposits around.
It took ten minutes to arrive at the approximate distance to where Sheppard was buried. He didn't wait for the sled to stop and forced rubbery legs to move, sinking knee-deep into the fresh snowfall. He pulled down his scarf. “Let's go!” he yelled, the wind swallowing his voice and stripping the skin off his lips.
He wallowed through the thick bank, surveying an endless white-out. “We need...”
“We'll use these.” Marla rummaged through her equipment, pulling out a bundle of metal poles. “Each of you take one.”
The poles were segmented, unfolding to two meters long. Rodney would have snapped his fingers if he could. “Good, depth sticks.” These people lived in an arctic tundra; of course they knew how to search for victims in their rough terrain.
Ronon started to unload the rest of their gear, but Rodney shouted over the howling wind, “Leave it by the sleds. We can't risk adding more weight to the evacuation site.”
“Walk shoulder to shoulder to go over all possible areas,” Marla explained.
“And zigzag to cover more ground,” Carson shouted. Rodney glanced up in surprise. “What? I was stationed with you at McMurdo. I've had the same training. I've also been here over a month. This isn't my first rescue,” Carson reminded him.
The snow was packed tightly, the depth sticks grinding in slowly through layers of ice. The act of finding the jumper was more like chiseling at granite than sinking through slush. Rodney glanced at his weather resistant watch, the screen frozen over. The temperatures out here were at minus forty below, comparable to the furthest reaches of Siberia.
Rodney tapped his com again. “Sheppard, come in!”
All he could hear was the creaking old door of the wind, the crunching sounds of boots, and the labored breathing of those frantically searching a space the size of a baseball diamond. The sun slowly rose over the horizon, with two tiny luminous spots of lights on each side and the beginnings of a halo. Beauty lost in the midst of life and death.
“Time?” he shouted.
Toffin looked to the sky. “Twenty of your units.”
Only about twenty-five percent of victims survive after forty-five minutes.
Rodney ignored the foreboding figures in his head and slammed his pole against the unforgiving surface. They weren't going to lose Sheppard to a form of H2O.
John's head pounded, his thoughts lost in the thick sludge of his mind. He blinked away tiny ice crystals from his eyelashes only to discover that he was alone in pitch blackness. His chest wouldn't expand, his lungs choking on panic and tenuous air. He was surrounded by blackness; arms, legs, and shoulders all pinned by an unforgiving weight. Trapped in a goddamned tomb.
Easy, John. Easy.
He gulped between chattering teeth, his facial muscles twitching in the mind-numbing cold. He couldn't wiggle his fingers; they tingled and felt like fat sausage links. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that was good. Sensation was intact; the nerves were not dead yet.
The thin layers of his uniform were unable to protect his skin from becoming one with the freezing slush. He was buried over his head with a couple of inches of free space between his nose and the ice creating an air pocket. It seemed the entire mountain had decided to fill the inside of the jumper. He risked salivating enough to drool, the spittle sliding back down to indicate which direction was up. He swallowed, taking a deep breath to keep the snow from settling around his mouth and nose.
“Sheppard! Come in!”
John squeezed his eyes from the razor-sharp voice, the pain lacing through his head. Oh, yeah, he was concussed on top of things. “McKay?”
“Oh, thank God! We're going to dig you out, just hold on.”
Dig him out? With what, a bulldozer? He tried to control his inhalations; the warmth of his breath could melt the snow, which could re-freeze into a non-porous layer, preventing any new oxygen.
Suffocation or hypothermia. Those were his choices.
“John? Are you still there?”
Yeah. Until the CO2 built up.
John felt like he was drifting in the vast emptiness of space, except someone had stolen all the stars. It seemed the same, movement impeded by something heavier and more confined than a bulky suit. The loneliness was familiar, with only a tiny voice speaking in his ear, compounding the feeling of distance. His body shivered despite being submerged by a mountain.
“Yeah,” he rasped.
John's forehead touched the ice, his hair beginning to freeze on contact, his breath solidifying into a cloud around his cheeks. His brain was fusing with his skull and all he could do was envision the rainbow-colors of the auroras he saw perched on the horizon earlier and wonder why he could see them now.
Carson whacked the slate ice before him in quiet desperation, trying not to dwell on things out of his control. Like what if the ship was buried deeper than the poles could reach? The Balvanians called this mountain Tembla Kahnrought. 'The bringer of long sleep'.
“Colonel, this is Beckett. How are you feeling? Has the ice penetrated the jumper?'” His voice sounded so tiny out here, sucked way by winds and falling snow. He needed to assess John's condition and that began with determining his exposure to the elements.
It took a moment for the colonel to respond. “Yeah, Doc. K-Kinda feel like a Popsicle.”
Crap. Carson had hoped the ship would have provided shelter, given them time in their race against the temperature. “And are ya wearin' your parka?”
“....no. It was on the co-pilot's seat.”
Carson exchanged worried glances with his teammates. Clothing provided insulation from cold weather by trapping the warm air that the body produced. The colonel had been ferrying Balvanians who had traveled too far herding their packs of pluka, polar versions of bison. He'd even located some of Toffin's missing villagers and had been searching for one last guy when the blizzard had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. John would have shucked his heavy coat once inside a climate controlled jumper and now he was virtually unprotected. Carson thought he noticed teeth chattering with the colonel's voice. “Are you shivering, son?”
“How'd ya guess?”
“Alright, lad, we'll get you out in a jiff. I want you to conserve oxygen for the moment, but I'll be checking in with you every five minutes.” Carson slogged up a few more steps, plunging the depth stick ahead of him.
Shivering was the first sign of hypothermia. The rapid contraction and relaxing of muscles was the body's way of generating heat by burning calories. Hopefully the colonel had a good breakfast, all his fats and sugars acting like logs to a fire. John was alert and he'd need to keep interacting with him to monitor his reactions. It would be a constant battle for air. There was no telling how much the colonel had and he didn't want the man wasting it, but it was imperative to keep his patient responsive.
They worked fast, but not fast enough. Fresh powder fell by the inch, while they only covered a fraction of needed ground.
“We need to spread out! Maybe even split up,” Rodney snapped.
“Let's not be getting ahead of ourselves.” Carson tried to calm him. Even behind the coarse black scarf and heavy hood, McKay was radiating doom.
It was obvious that Ronon was getting restless, channeling his frustration with every dip of his metal pole. “If two of us went further ahead, started at the top—then we could--”
“We stick together,” Carson interrupted, “We start getting reckless, we could move right over the location of the jumper.”
Rodney's rapid breathing came out in clouds of vapor around his protected face. Even muffled by layers of clothes, his voice was venom. “He's going to freeze to death! That's scientific fact! It's below zero out here and any exposure over thirty minutes will lower his core temperature beyond survival. It's about heat loss! And if we keep poking holes all day long all we're going to do is recover a frozen body!”
“Rodney,” Carson snapped. “This isn't helping.”
McKay was a bundle of shaking fury. “You're a doctor; you know that I'm right!”
“And you're allowing your panic to effect your judgment.” Carson rubbed at his burning mouth with the sleeve of his coat and took a precious moment to collect himself. “We have to consider body size, percentage of body fat, age and physical condition. He's not in motion, which means he's conserving heat. The human body can compensate to its environment. Now get a grip, Rodney.” He didn't mention that John's lean physique would be working against the odds.
They trudged up further, dissecting their makeshift grid meter by meter. Carson knew the clock was ticking. Realistically John could survive fifteen to forty-five minutes in these conditions. Five minutes had slipped closer to eight since he'd engaged with his patient. Too much time wasted on bloody arguing. He tapped his radio for another check-in. “Colonel, how are ya doing, lad?” He waited and tried again. “Colonel Sheppard?”
“Yeah. How are ya feeling?” His question was met with silence. “John?”
“F-feelin'? N-not s'sure.”
Damn it. The colonel was slurring his words and that sent a spike of adrenaline through Carson's system. Blood flow was slowing to John's brain. “Are you still shivering?”
“Shivering.” Carson needed to know John's reaction to the temperature. If the pilot's body had stopped trying to get warm, they were in big trouble. “Are you still cold?”
“We'll get you somewhere nice and toasty soon.”
“Don't go to sleep, Colonel. You hear me!” Carson ordered. From the confused and slow responses John was at stage two of hypothermia. His blood vessels would be constricting, slowing his circulation. Soon they would begin depressing the colonel's heart and lungs. Then they would find themselves in the middle stage three and finally death. “John. Talk to me. What's today's date?”
Damn it. There were definite signs of cognitive deterioration. Carson whirled on Rodney. “See if you can keep him talking.”
“About what?” Rodney fumbled with his depth stick, hands shaking from cold and nerves. “Fine, fine. So, Sheppard. I was going over Liouville’s Theorem and his Construction of Transcendental Numbers and--”
“For bloody's sake. Nothing too complex!” Carson exclaimed.
“I hope you know that Liouville's constant is not---”
“Rodney!” Carson counted to three in his head. “Keep the subject matter easy to follow. We're tryin' to keep the man awake.” He could feel the indignation radiating from here. “Colonel Sheppard's not going to be fully lucid. Think of something that'll hold his attention.”
The wind whipped furiously, knocking supplies off the dog-sleds, but no one wasted a moment grabbing stuff that would be useless soon. The rescue team picked up the pace and Rodney tapped his com again. “So, who's hotter? Wonderwoman or Catwoman?”
Carson studied Toffin and Marla, catching their body language and glimpses at the sky to tell time. He'd gone down this road with them before, bringing back men and women at the brink of death and those who never had a chance. Half an hour had passed, and they were entering the phase of slumber. When people buried by Tembla Kahnrough fell asleep and never woke back up.
John hadn't been on a bender since his freshman year. Not that he did those often; excessive drinking only dulled the pain temporarily. He felt sloppy, his head spun while his thoughts circled the drain. Was he lying on the floor?
Ugh. He wanted a few more moments. Exhaustion sucked the marrow out of his aching bones, his internal fuel tank choking on fumes. He had a splitting migraine; pain throbbed through his temples and created knots of tension in all his muscles. And that voice! God, there was a nagging voice that kept on bugging him. Now it was something about the stupidity of The Flash.
“Damn it, Colonel, answer me!”
Did he fall asleep mid-conversation with someone? “Hmmm?”
John opened his eyes, thinking the lights on without success. Where was he? He was so groggy, too many sleepless nights and hours of stress. It was warm here, and he wanted to snuggle and capture the feeling. In fact, the heat needed to be turned down.
“Wolverine or Gambit? Whose hair do you model yours after?”
Why hadn't he recognize McKay's voice earlier? He could ask him to fix the wonky environmental controls.
“I'm thinking Wolverine. Gambit actually shaves half the time.”
On instinct, he reached up to scrub a hand over the thick layer of stubble. Nothing happened, no movement, no control, and his face—it was on fire. “Hot,” he breathed into the darkness.
“What? Sheppard? What did you say?”
Not just his face, heat radiated throughout his body which was odd because he couldn't wiggle his fingers or toes. “W-hysssssit sso warm?” Words felt funny; his tongue tingled, like he’d swallowed Novocaine.
“You hear that? He's hallucinating! Thinks he's hot, probably believes he's in a freaking desert.”
Rodney was in full-out-stroke mode. Normally that would set off warning alarms, but John couldn't bring himself to care. Sleep sounded like an amazing thing. It'd been weeks since he was this beat and willing to submit to the warm fuzzy arms of the sandman. He'd just push the rest of his blankets off to get cooler.
“La'er,” John mumbled. His head throbbed oddly, reminiscent of eating a whole gallon of ice cream too fast. He tried to take a deep breath, his lungs seizing with sharp pin-pricks. “Hurtsss,” he slurred to no one.
“Just hold on, Sheppard. I promise we're almost there! How about multiplication tables? That too much? Fractions or...hey-- name that odd or even number game?”
“Colonel? Wake up you reckless, no-good smart ass!”
Heavy, so damn heavy. His limbs, his eyelids. Air. Delicate fingers of lethargy stroked his hair and whispered soothing, sweet nothings in his ear. John let go, surrendering to her soothing ministrations.
Rodney cursed and insulted Sheppard over the com, using every epitaph he knew, and a few more he learned from the Marines. This was an exercise in futility; they'd have more luck using metal detectors in the middle of an iron mine. He needed a target. Someone to blame and, shake his finger and rail against until he was breathless. The easiest scapegoat was the very man he was so desperate to find.
“You selfish bastard!” Rodney sneered. “You had to go do one more survey of the area. I warned you about the winds and the thunderstorms. Do you know how freaky it is to see lightning during a blizzard? Saw it in Russia and it always scared the crap outta me.”
His depth stick wouldn't slide out of the ice and he gritted his teeth and tugged and tugged, sailing backwards to land on his ass when it finally came rocketing out. He sat there losing himself to anger and impotence. Rodney had no way of wiping his runny nose; his gloves were iced over catcher's mitts, and his teeth chattered so bad it was a miracle he hadn't gnawed away his tongue.
And he had nice warm clothes on and was above ground.
Rodney summoned all his energy, all his extra reserves, and started dragging himself up when he heard the most magical words.
“I think I hit something!” Teyla shouted.
Suddenly Rodney's blood pumped in his ears and he scrambled towards the spot where Teyla jammed her pole. “There is something under here,” she said breathlessly.
“Leave the pole where it is,” Marla ordered. “We do not know what direction the ship faces.” For a walking antique, the tough snow bird was there before anyone else. “We must dig across so we do not cause any snow to fall inside,” she said, jamming her shovel into the ground and plowing away.
Toffin joined Teyla and Carson, while Rodney, sweating and shaking, dug alongside Ronon and Marla. The dogs could sense the adrenaline and fear, barking and dragging their harnesses as they stalked back and forth.
Dig. Dig. Dig. DIG!
They created a mini-storm shower of their own, scattering flakes and piling up snow in mounds behind them. The six of them fell into a rhythm, avoiding each others shovels, scooping and chipping away layer after layer. Rodney's eyes burned and itched from staring at a ground drained of color. His vision glazed over in a sensory overload of blindness, when he thought he couldn't dig anymore, all their shovels clattered upon metal.
His eyes lit up on a patch of green so stark against the white-out, that his brain hiccupped processing the imagery. “Time?” he yelled, praying that this wasn't the rear of the ship.
“Who cares?” Ronon gruffed. He looked ready to use his hands, but continued clearing the way with his tool. “We found him,” he said, scraping the metal surface and revealing the busted remains of the front window where the avalanche poured inside.
Rodney's chest squeezed like a vice. It'd been over half an hour, maybe even forty minutes since the crash and all that time John had been cocooned in ice.
Carson jumped into the small opening, using a hand shovel to burrow towards the pilot's seat. “Rodney! I need my pack!”
“What? But, I should be...” Rodney clamped his jaw close, scampering and slipping on the ice. This wasn't the time for talking. They needed supplies and things to keep John warm. Ronon could barely fit in the space alongside Carson. Let them drag Sheppard to the surface.
His legs felt weak, blood congealed in his veins like day-old coffee. The sleds seemed so far away, but he felt a hand on his elbow, going with him. Rodney smiled at Teyla, both their expressions and anxiety hidden by cotton and fleece.
“I will help,” she said, breath billowing into vapor. “The pack looked very heavy.”
Teyla had a way of understating things. Carson's equipment was stuffed inside a duffel the size of a suitcase and there was a smaller black leather bag near by. Rodney snagged it while Teyla wordlessly heaved the larger pack and they both ran, legs sinking with each step towards the activity ahead.
Marla and Toffin had scrambled toward their own stuff, shifting through gear and removing excess weight. Then somehow the twin old timers beat them to the evacuation site, dragging the sled behind them and already setting up what look liked a giant square umbrella above the hole.
“This isn't a beach,” Rodney squawked, almost hitting his head on the edge of one of the corners. Toffin ignored him as Rodney ducked under the thing and noticed his face wasn't bombarded by a cutting wind. He gave the foil above him a closer look. “Huh. This makes a good shelter.”
“It is for protection against the outside elements,” Marla explained, grabbing two wool blankets and laying one crosswise and the other lengthwise on to the floor of the sled.
“We have him!” Carson's brogue was thick and heavy. “Careful. Careful,” he warned. “We can't jostle him.”
Ronon held John's back against his chest, his hands supporting the limp body under the armpits while Carson dealt with the pilot's lanky legs. “Easy, lad. Let's lower him gently.”
Rodney could only stare at what looked like a frozen corpse. John's face was puffy and red, all the blood vessels constricted in order to preserve heat. His hands were in worse shape; the skin purplish in some areas, swollen in others.
“Lay him on his side,” Carson ordered, pulling down his hood and revealing his own raw looking face. “Cover him with another blanket,” he ordered while digging through the black bag Rodney dropped within reach.
Carson snagged a stethoscope, placing the bell under the colonel's shirt. “Pulse minimal.” He leaned his ear close to John's mouth, feeling for signs of breathing. “Very shallow respirations.” The physician rummaged through the huge knapsack while Ronon draped a heavy blanket over John. Carson grabbed a portable oxygen tank and placed a mask around the pilot's face. “Radio the jumper to stand by. I want to get a core temperature reading before we transport him.” He took a thermometer and stuck it inside John's ear. “This won't be too accurate, but it's a start. Rodney, could you prepare the chemical heat packs?”
Rodney's gloved fingers searched for the bags, ecstatic that he was doing something other than gawk. He found three, pinching the triggers, releasing the exothermic reaction, and activating the sodium acetate. Yes, he could do this part, watch science in action as the plastic heated between his own numb flesh.
“His temp is at twenty-seven,” Carson exhaled, snagging the packs.
Rodney's knees almost gave out. Even converting it to eighty-two degrees Fahrenheit to make it sound better failed. Thirty-seven degrees was the body's average temperature. He couldn't imagine dropping a degree every two minutes, feeling yourself literately freeze to death in the time it took to wait in line in the mess hall and eat dinner.
“How bad is that?” Ronon asked in a crouch near the sled.
Carson struggled with John's stiff icy shirt, placing the heat packs near his heart and around his abdomen, tucking the clothing back the best he could. “He's on the border of severely hypothermic. We must hurry. His body is shutting down.”
“Wait,” Marla said, stepping forward with a pouch. Carson and Rodney were about to protest, but the Balvanian pulled her gloves off with her teeth, revealing leathery skin and arthritic knuckles. “This salve will preserve against the bite of ice.” She was quick, applying a gel to Sheppard's blistered cheeks and face then adding a helping to John's hands under the blanket. “So he does not lose any fingers,” she spoke softly.
The jumper waited a safe distance away and Toffin and Marla took the reins to the sled, pulling their patient towards awaiting help. Rodney was in awe of their strength, and each of his teammates grabbed part of the leather strips and tugged along. They kept a steady pace, not wanting to go too fast as any large movement could be enough to stop John's heart. This was the part Rodney hated, knowing just enough to scare the hell out of him. If the colder blood started circulating with the warmed-up blood, it could kill him.
John appeared tiny and fragile huddled on his side under the thick blanket. He didn't look like a military commander, or hot-shot pilot. He seemed more vulnerable, and in need of human contact. It filled Rodney with a sense of protectiveness; he wanted – no, needed - to let him know he was there, that they all were. All he could do was grab a lumpy piece of fabric and give it a firm but gentle squeeze.
It had taken so long to get to the crash site and no time at all to reach the jumper. Some random lieutenant waited for them anxiously, hovering long enough to know he was in the way and hurrying back into the pilot's chair to do his job.
“Okay, let's transfer him as smoothly as possible,” Carson ordered at the back of the hatch.
Ronon took the brunt of the burden, carrying the colonel with the utmost care. Teyla spread out more emergency blankets over the floor of the jumper, folding one for John's head. Ronon lowered their friend onto the nest while Carson held on to the O2 tank.
Rodney palmed the doors closed. “Go, go, go!” he yelled at the nameless lieutenant.
Carson nearly ripped all the snaps off his heavy parka, unzipping and tossing it on top of the colonel. He grabbed his stethoscope to do another vitals check. “Teyla, could you hand me the saline from my pack?”
No sooner had Rodney collapsed where he stood, did Carson start making panicked noises and gestures.
“Oh crap, no you don't, Colonel!” The physician shoved away the pile of clothing, pulled up John's shirt, pressing his ear to an unmoving chest. “Lost his pulse.” He bent over John’s face, stethoscope dangling uselessly. “Bloody hell!”
Teyla nearly popped the IV bag in mid-air. “What is it?”
“I can't detect any spontaneous respirations. Grab the defibrillator!” Carson's blue eyes pierced Teyla with intensity. “Can you assist me in CPR?”
She answered without hesitancy. “Yes.”
Rodney felt his own heart try to lunge out of his chest. “How long until we reach the 'gate?”
“ETA, three minutes,” the pilot responded.
“Make it faster!” Rodney snapped.
Carson didn't have time to second guess warming John in the field. Without a medical facility to monitor vitals, it was a risk heating up the colonel's body actively. He gambled and failed. His patient's pulse had been dreadfully slow, beating only thirty times a minute, now it fluttered and skipped irregularly.
He slapped on cardiac leads that didn't want to stick, the monitor showing erratic J-waves on the EKG. “Clear!” he yelled, pressing the paddles to John's chest, a jolt of electricity passing through the colonel's body. “Still showing an arrhythmia. Adjusting the setting.”
Once again Sheppard's body arched up and thudded down. “No change. Come on, you bugger!” Carson growled.
“Do you need epinephrine?” Teyla asked, waiting to dig out the hypo.
What a lass. She was such a great student. “Can't. We'd risk further arrhythmias.”
“What do you call that on the etchasketch?” Rodney accused, finger jutted at the monitor.
“I won't risk stimulants that could cause more complications!” Carson snapped. He charged the paddles higher and hit his patient again. Damn it! “No change. We'll have to do CPR all the way to the infirmary.” Keeping the colonel alive with their own hands. “Ready?” he asked Teyla.
“You're giving up? Give him more juice! We've done this before!”
Rodney was practically breathing Carson's air he was so close. Thankfully Ronon strong-armed him back. “This isn't helping,” the big man warned.
It didn't matter. Mount McKay was erupting. “And you don't go into a fight with a knife when you have explosives and automatic weapons. You should know that!”
“His core temp is in the damn cellar; electrical defibrillation is almost always ineffective at that temperature.”
Carson's answers were never good enough. Rodney stared at the monitor's readouts, fear and confusion clouding his voice. “But he still has a pulse.”
“Aye, but his heart's not pumping properly which can be just as deadly. We'll have to conduct CPR until we're at Atlantis where we can re-warm the colonel properly,” Carson explained, beginning chest compressions and keeping a mental count in his head.
Rodney snapped his fingers, voice shrill and loud in the deadly silence of the jumper. “Re-heat him? He may be frozen, but he's not some prepackaged meal to pop in microwave until he's done.”
“If ya don't put a sock in it. I'll have Ronon stun ya,” Carson literally spat. “Now wrap yourself in a blanket, drink some fluids, and eat a power bar.”
He wouldn't allow himself any more distractions. There were far too many variables up in the air and after being out in the wild tundra, it was hard enough to find the energy to keep up with the strain of constant CPR. Teyla bagged and he continued to manually pump his patient's heart despite arms made of molasses. It was almost time to switch duties when the pilot informed them of their arrival.
“The med teams are standing by, sir.”
Carson wanted to sag in relief, but this battle was far from over. Once the jumper docked in the bay, it'd be all hands on deck.
Overseeing any emergency situation required a clear mind, steady hands, and ease of mobility. Carson scored two out of three, but layers of clothing had him sweating like a stuck pig and his heavy boots were a hazard on a floor made slippery from tracked in slush. They continued chest compressions, rotating members of the infirmary at five minute intervals until they could artificially handle the situation.
Dr. Elstrodt finished intubating John, taping the endotracheal tube in place and checking the readout on the ventilator. “Setting it at 1.2,” she said.
Carson nodded. Extreme cold events were overly taxing on the body. The vent would relieve the stress on John's lungs while providing humidified, heated oxygen.
Two wonderful nurses had already stripped the colonel of his clothes, replacing the thermal packs and piling on heated blankets. “Started warm saline at forty-five degrees,” Lt. Harrison informed him.
He looked at the chief nurse and shook his head. “Let's go to sixty. What's his core temp?”
“Twenty-eight,” she replied.
Carson peeled back John's eyelids, shining his pen-light across them. “Pupils are fixed and dilated. Sluggish response to light,” he said out loud. He studied the low-level EKG, frowning at the brain activity, then glared at the next monitor. John's heart was still dangerously slow and erratic. Every stuttering beat, Carson feared would be his patient's last.
“Here's the resuscitator,” Harrison said, handing him over a device only in the experimental stages on Earth.
“Thank you.” Carson took it and placed it over John's chest. The instrument had four nodules to correspond with the chambers of the heart. The tiny miracle would take over cardiac resuscitation until John's body warmed up enough and hopefully regained a normal sinus rhythm on its own. He shook his head, not wanting to think about the bruising and cracked ribs caused by fifteen minutes of physically demanding CPR.
“Want us to start warm gastric lavage?” Dr. Elstrodt asked.
They had to get John's temperature up and that required aggressive measures. “Aye, and let's begin a cardiopulmonary bypass. We'll see how he responds. And we'll have a tank on standby for warm-water immersion in case we need it.”
“I'll be ready in two,” Elstrodt responded, not batting an eye. He'd only worked with her once, but she had a good reputation as a trauma doctor. Jennifer had been on the previous shift although he knew Rodney would be waking her up despite being technically unfit to really help.
Using active re-warming measures were a double-edged sword. It risked sending John into cardiac arrest by mixing the cold and warm blood too quickly, but they'd needed his temperature to go up to correct his heartbeat. He was thankful that his patient hadn't flat lined, avoiding the need for cardiac massage. The poor lad didn't need his chest cracked open on top of everything else.
He stepped away to receive the tests results from John's blood draw while one of the staff helped remove two of Carson's shirts so he wasn't suffocating. He wouldn't be assisting with the bypass simply because his own exposure to the cold compromised the coordination needed for minor surgery.
Atlantis's staff was the best in two galaxies and he watched as they gently handled their patient. Harrison pulled back the covers around John's left leg to prep him for the bypass, while keeping the rest of him layered and protected. One of the other nurses applied more of Marla's salve to his cheeks and forehead, careful not to disturb the intubation tube. Carson recalled shoving the pouch to one of his colleagues with instructions to keep administering it. He was grateful as the nurse rubbed the medicinal gel on John's frostbitten fingers.
“Core temp is at twenty-nine” Harrison reported, watching her nurses’ careful ministrations with a small smile.
Good. Gradual increases were what they wanted. “Go ahead and set up a portable x-ray for a chest series. We need to find how his lungs are faring.” Carson stared at John's electrolyte levels, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “One thing at a time,” he muttered to himself.
Elstrodt had quickly gloved and gowned to perform the emergency bypass, cutting a small incision in John's thigh. “Inserting the first one,” she stated.
Carson observed the procedure on the overhead screen, blood filling the tubing and circulating through the pump on the machine.
“What the hell is that?”
Only one man had the ability to make Carson's hackles rise. “Rodney,” he warned. “You're not allowed in here.”
“In refers to parameters of a specific location and the last I checked, there were no walls separating here,” he pointed to his spot on the floor, “from where I was forced to wait on some exam table. And fabric curtains don't count.” Rodney strode forward, eyes nearly bugging out at the procedures before him. “What barbaric ritual are you performing? When did medicine become the world of Bram Stoker?”
“Don't ya come any closer. You're not sterile,” Carson hissed.
“Well, I certainly hope not, but considering the amount of radiation I'm exposed to on a daily basis-”
“Rodney!” Carson hissed, exasperated.
“This wasn't an operating room last I checked.”
“No, it’s a bloody emergency area!”
“More like Frankenstein's lab!”
Rodney was scared to death. He couldn't express it in words, his emotions spilling out unfiltered. Carson was a convenient punching bag and he endured the naked rage and grief. “We're placing catheters in Colonel Sheppard's femoral vein and artery. The blood's pumped through the counter-current warmer then circulated back into outflow port,” he pointed to the LCD screen above. McKay grimaced, turning his head away from the surgical procedure.
“I promise this method has the lowest mortality rate and is very successful at re-warming patients.” After explaining what was going on with facts and reason, Carson watched the lines around Rodney's face lessen. He gave his friend a moment before laying a hand on his shoulder. “Please. Give us room to work. I'll update you guys as soon as I can.”
Rodney nodded mutely, shuffling away. Carson planned on checking up on the team once the colonel was stable. They’d all been out in sub-zero temperatures for fifty minutes. Once the adrenaline wore off, they all needed bed-rest.
“Here, drink this.”
Carson turned, accepting the mug of broth from Harrison. “Thanks, love.”
“And let's get those boots off. Jana has some fresh scrubs to change into. Colonel Sheppard's not goin' anywhere while you take a few seconds for yourself.” Harrison took an elbow, leading him away to a curtained area.
Carson rubbed his eyes, taking a long deep breath. “Has Jennifer ever told you what a wonderful lass, you are?”
“Not recently,” she smiled. “Now change and eat something or Elstrodt's not going to allow you to keep practicing medicine.”
“Aye,” Carson acquiesced.
He didn't close the curtain all the way, keeping an eye on his patient. While not technically cleared for duty, Carson was the one with the most experience in dealing with cold-stress emergencies after his time with the Balvanians and would remain on duty until the colonel was out of danger.
He changed into blessedly warms scrubs, slipped on a robe, and sat on the edge of the gurney, allowing the chicken broth to flow through his body. As soon as he felt thawed out, Carson heard footsteps running over. “We need you, Dr. Beckett.”
“On my way,” he said, scrambling to his feet. This was going to be a long night.
Rodney sipped on his third cup of coffee, hissing when it burned the tip of his tongue. “For crying out loud. Now I'm not going to be able to taste my food for a week.”
“Maybe that's a good thing,” Ronon grunted.
“Coming from the guy who doesn't know the definition of taste since he swallows meals whole,” Rodney shot back.
“Gentlemen,” Teyla scolded. “This is not the time.”
The three of them had been cleared to go with the orders for warm fluids and plenty of sleep. None of them had left, each huddled with their own blankets. Teyla waited drinking tea; Ronon hot chocolate after being threatened with an IV. Rodney couldn't be idle, his brain too lost in memories of hell in Siberia. Woolsey had stopped by hoping for an update, but he was even worse when it came to waiting, retreating to his office when none was forthcoming.
“It's been over an hour,” he complained, checking his watch. It had begun working again a while ago, igniting a kernel of hope of something oddly symbolic. “I'm not waiting any longer.”
“McKay,” Ronon warned.
“There'll be none of that,” Carson sighed, rubbing a hand over his haggard features. “Sorry, this was the soonest I've been able to pull away.”
“And?” Rodney prompted.
“We've raised his temperature five degrees total, so he's sitting at thirty-two.” Carson saw the two quizzical faces of the rest of the team. “That's eighty-nine Fahrenheit, but all in all it means we've gone from severe to moderate hypothermia. It's good progress.”
“You've gotten to the progress part. What about the prognosis?” Rodney folded his arms, not trusting his friend's cautious approach.
“I can't give you that right now, and before you start blowing a gasket, hear me out.” Carson held his hand out. “The colonel regained a normal sinus rhythm ten minutes ago and it's held steady. That's a huge step. And he's still bradycardic, but I think it's safe to begin administering the drugs needed to help improve his pressure.”
“I'm still hearing another but,” Rodney pressed, tempting to just walk past the physician.
Carson looked at all three concerned expressions. “He was hypoxic when we found him and I don't know how long he went with such low levels of oxygen.”
“Great. So he could be brain dead.”
“No, Rodney. I'm just saying that we're gonna have to take a wait and see attitude. Right now my main concern is getting him to a healthy temp and monitoring his heart. X-rays rule out any edema, so we've jumped that hurdle.”
Ronon's eyes were glazing over while Teyla's posture got tenser and tenser. Carson must have caught a clue, cutting his lengthy doom and gloom speech, and blew out a breath. “Come on, I'll take you over for a short visit.”
The three of them were escorted to a private corner and the closer they got, the more uneasy Rodney's steps became. They gathered around a bed that supposedly held their friend, forcing him to find any signs of life from the form hidden under a mountain of blankets. His eyes went from the unmoving lump to the hissing devices on each side of the gurney. One machine worked for John's lungs, the other warmed and circulated his blood.
Teyla startled at so many machines and barriers but wouldn't let them get in her way. She sidestepped wires and tubes and ran her fingers through John's hair, the only thing that didn't seem connected or covered. “We are here,” she whispered.
Rodney felt a lump grow in his throat. He didn't know what to do, searching the equipment to find some elusive answer in various hums and blips. “You couldn't even leave his ears alone?” He asked, appalled at the tiny leads attached to them.
“The ear lobes are the only place that can give us accurate readings about his O2 stats and pulse. His skin is too cold anywhere else,” Carson said softly.
Ronon searched the layers for a foot, patting it then disappearing in three quick strides. “Where are you going?” Rodney asked. Before he could gear up for a rant, the big guy returned with a chair and sat down with no intention of budging for a long time.
“Now wait just a moment,” Carson argued.
Ronon ignored him, plopping his legs up on the end of the gurney. Teyla followed suit, retrieving two more chairs, filling what little empty space was left. She handed the third one to Rodney wordlessly and he accepted it, ready to wait however long it was needed. He looked up at Carson who was readying for a long-winded reprimand. “We dug him out of a freaking avalanche and rescued him with the help of two Eskimos and a damn wolf-dog sled team. Nothing about this day has been normal, and I think we can exempt the rules until it's over. And he wakes up.”
Carson pulled out a PDA from his pocket, jabbing his stylus with the newest readings. “Don't get in the way of my staff. The second one of those machines sneezes, all of you will leave. I'll have someone bring you all dinner.” He turned on his heel, pausing by the curtain. “Marla and Toffin helped saved the colonel's life. Don't call them Eskimos.”
“They live in giant looking igloo-cities,” Rodney said sheepishly then added, “Fine. But they'd give my old Russian pals a run for their money.”
All he remembered was dying alone in the darkness, breath freezing on his face, millions of knives slicing open his skin. Strangely his last thoughts had been being lost in Superman's fortress of solitude, clawing at the walls to get out, only to slump to the floor.
Then it'd been miles of endless nothing. John fought to wake up but couldn't feel his body and his mind had been consumed by the void he was stuck in. Slowly he made his way back, the blackness fading to gray and then to bright white. Sensation followed, numbness giving way to pain and an army of gnawing pinpricks.
His world collapsed around him, and he struggled to breathe, to work through all the hurt. His flesh burned for hours, the fire finally receding to an unforgiving chill. John's teeth chattered; his limbs shook so violently that it cracked open the ice trapping him.
“Shouldn't you add more heat packs or something?”
“We have, Rodney. Shivering is a natural reaction to being cold.”
“And it's your job to keep him warm.”
“He's still mildly hypothermic; this is a great sign.”
John struggled with sticky eyelids, vision blurring into fuzzy halos.
He blinked, clearing away some of the haze, but grease still stained his sight. “Yeah,” he rasped.
“Can you look at me, son?”
No. John drew a shaky breath, his chest trying to crush his lungs.
A blob appeared in front of him, stabbing him in the eyes with a laser. John groaned, unable to swat away the offending thing.
“Pupils are reacting normally. Colonel, can you hear me? How are you feeling?”
“L-like...l-like, I died,” he stuttered, unable to stop shaking.
“Aye. We'll talk about that later.”
“Mmmm, ss-o tired.”
“Go back to sleep.”
There was no fighting that command.
John woke up to someone flexing his fingers. It took a moment to focus on them, realizing that it was difficult to feel his hands. The scent of lilac and sweet oils told him it was Teyla and he was rewarded by her smile and copper hair.
“It is good to see you awake, John.” Teyla dabbed her fingers into something, applying a soothing a gel over his blistered flesh. “This medicine is healing the layers of your skin and restoring the tissue and nerves.” She finished smoothing the stuff and starting splinting his fingers.
“They still work?” he asked.
Teyla rested his hands on some kind of soft cotton cloth, elevating them on a small pillow. “You do not remember our talk yesterday, but yes. They will return to normal.”
“I crashed the jumper,” John said, bits and pieces flashing through his mind.
“Lightning took out an engine and you landed but triggered an avalanche. That was five days ago.”
He recalled a sea of white, of being encased in ice. “Yeah.”
“You have been very sick.” Teyla brushed the side of his cheek; the skin there felt rough and raw. “You are doing better now.”
“Okay.” He trusted her and his lids started to droop. He didn't ask about anything else, too exhausted to talk.
“Rest. One of us will always be here.” Teyla's words filtered through his head.
The next time he was fully aware, he tried sitting up, only to collapse from the agony in his chest.
“You have a few cracked ribs.”
“Really?” John huffed, sarcastically. Felt more like a couple of bowling balls had been dropped on top of him.
Ronon stood over him shrugging. “Carson's stronger than he looks. A few nurses helped, too.”
It was weird discovering he'd been dead for a while. Well, not exactly dead, but close enough. John still couldn't hold a spoon properly with his fingers cradled in protective gauze. He stared at his soup, his stomach growling.
Ronon pressed the button to tilt the bed up then folded his large frame in the tiny plastic chair. John gripped the stupid spoon like a caveman and managed to swallow a few sips. “Glad I don't recall.”
“It was kind of cool. How they took your blood and heated it back up.”
John's thigh still itched from the incisions there. “I guess.” He'd been laid up a week and still didn't have the strength to feed himself.
“The Balvanians invited us to go ice fishing when you're better. Think it'd be fun,” Ronon said, grinning.
“You just want to see one of those bison-looking things,” John snorted.
“Think I'll pass.”
“Sometimes it's good to face the things that almost defeated us. Stare it in the eye.”
John rested his head against the pillow and tried not to think about it.
He stared out at the sea; the warm air on his face. The saltiness filled his lungs and John closed his eyes to the sounds of the waves lapping below.
“You wheel yourself out here again, lad?”
“Yeah, tired of watching the paint dry.”
Carson stood next to him, admiring the view. “You'll be released in a couple of days.”
John nodded absently, eyes focused on the liquid blue ahead. “I never got to thank you.”
“Don't mention it, Colonel. It's my job. Just as yours is to protect us and this marvelous city. It's what we do though don't ever scare my wee heart like that again.”
“I'll try not to.”
“You want a push back?”
“No, going to stay out here a while. If that's okay with you?”
Carson patted his shoulder. “Sunshine's good for ya. I'll leave you be.”
The sun beat down on him, causing him to break out into a sweat. Beads of perspiration rolled down his face, reminding John of times spent around arid sands dunes.
“There you are.”
“Where else would I be?” John asked McKay.
“Oh, I don't know. In the infirmary.”
“There all day and night.”
Rodney ignored him, leaning against the railing. “I think the ocean's greener here.”
“There's also more chop.”
“Find that out surfing?”
“I'm sure you'll have some down time before returning to duty. Maybe make the best of it.”
John wiggled all his fingers and toes. “Sounds like a good idea.”
“I'm going back to M3X-183 next week, see if I can get more of that salve for study. Could lead to new advances in tissue regeneration.” Rodney bumped his wheelchair with his foot. “Want to come with me?”
No, he didn't. John squinted against the sun's glare.
“You know, when we searched for the whales on our old planet, it wasn't easy. After almost drowning and everything before.”
John knew what McKay was driving at, ready to retort or make a joke. Instead he kept staring at the sea. “What was the scariest thing about it?”
Rodney must have been reading his mind. “Dying alone. Always thought I'd get blown up or something.” He rested his elbows on the railing. “I didn't though. Did I? Die alone, that is.”
“No. You didn't.” John sat there, watching the sun rise in the sky. “Think Ronon wants to check out the wildlife.”
“Teyla hit it off with that Esk—I mean Marla. She might want to come, too.”
John backed himself away from the balcony before Rodney took control of his wheelchair and steered him back inside, babbling. “Of course I think during a return trip we should bring portable heaters. That is, when you're up to it.”
“I've got some vacation time due. Nothing like snow boarding on fresh powder.”
“Think bunny trails, Sheppard.”
John grinned. “No promises.”