Recipient: astridv, for Sticks & Snark
(Other headers at Part 1.)
Rodney clutched his coffee and glared at the other patrons of the cafe, trying not to resent Teyla for looking so relaxed. Morning people made his teeth ache. Yet here they both were, waiting on some mysterious other morning person, far earlier than any reasonable person should have to deal with humanity.
This was what he got for responsibly posting a call for information before he had gone to bed.
He gulped down the last of the coffee and was contemplating another when a terrifyingly familiar voice called across the room. "Rodney McKay? I don't believe it!"
No. Oh no. Rodney closed his eyes and indulged in banging his head gently against the table a couple of times. A hand blocked his path on the next attempt, and he looked up to find Teyla watching him with a mixture of amusement and concern.
"Hey, McKay? Remember me?" The little weasel had reached their table, because of course he would never have the decency to vanish from the face of the earth.
"Unfortunately," Rodney muttered. "Turns out fifteen years isn't nearly long enough to forget." At Teyla's pointedly inquiring look, he sighed. "Earth Teyla Emmagan, Malcolm Tunney."
Tunney's smile dimmed a bit. "I guess maybe you weren't around when I finished my dissertation. Doctorate in inanimate physics," he supplied to Teyla with epically false modesty. He couldn't even accept a blatantly deliberate snub properly.
"A pleasure," Teyla said cautiously, tilting her head to him.
"Wait, did he say 'Earth'?" Tunney pointed to her jacket and then Rodney's. "Hey, you went through with that, huh? Wow. A real fire wizard."
"Gotta say, you always were lucky, everything just falling in your lap like that," Tunney blathered. Rodney had never seriously considered attacking another person before, but he very nearly explored new territory in that moment. Teyla's hand squeezed his knee, though, startling the hell out of him. "Guess that's why you disappeared on us," Tunney continued, oblivious.
"No," Rodney gritted through clenched teeth. "No, it's not."
"So you were both at school together?" Teyla interjected.
"Sure were!" Tunney said. "Graduate physics — though McKay here was trying to do about four other programs at the same time. Surprised he settled on anything at all, really." He shoved lightly at Rodney's shoulder. Teyla's hand tightened on his knee, and Rodney nearly bit through his tongue holding back.
"Really?" Teyla raised an eyebrow at Rodney. "I only knew about the two doctorates and … was it two other Master's?" she inquired sweetly. She turned that smile to Tunney while Rodney was still trying to figure out what the hell was going on. "I never knew he had worked in yet another field. Even as close as we are, Rodney still manages to surprise me. So does your arrival here this morning mean that you are the 'DifferenceMakr' we intend to meet?"
Rodney had just worked out that she had been taking his side, in that evil subtle way she had when she wanted to, and he really would have liked a moment to savor such an unusual occurrence. Her last comment made everything fall together, though. Of course Tunney was behind the rampant stupidity they had found the day before.
It really was too early for coherent thought, or he would have put that together much sooner.
"That's me," Tunney said, puzzled. "How do you … oh, no way! You're 'Paradigm Shift'?"
Rodney just nodded wearily.
"Wow. Small world, huh? I guess I owe you thanks — a couple of your discussions online really helped me get my project going."
It took a couple of seconds for that to sink in. "Oh, no you don't," Rodney said. "You don't get to blame me for — well, no, actually, yes, you absolutely need to give me credit if you're stealing my work, but no, you don't get to blame me for whatever idiotic catastrophe you're working on!"
It was possible he shouted part of that, because the cafe was weirdly quiet and Teyla's hand was now steel-tight on his arm. "We should move outside," she said firmly.
There was no way he was resisting her, and Tunney caught enough of a clue to keep his mouth shut and accompany them out. Once they were on the sidewalk, Tunney opened his mouth, looking offended, but Teyla spoke first.
"Dr. Tunney," she said, very formal, "Are you aware in any way of a mechanical device, with the exclusion of common firelighters, that manipulates or attempts to manipulate elemental forces, used within the past ten days or fewer anywhere within Los Angeles County?"
Rodney hadn't thought their contract deputized her, but it was possible, and he hadn't actually read the details himself. He certainly wouldn't risk it, if he were the target of that question. Tunney just smiled at her, though. "Why, sure."
By Teyla's pause, she hadn't expected that response either. "You are?" she said finally. Then she firmed her voice. "Please explain."
"I've been working on an elemental manipulator for years now," he said blithely. "I got funding to build it a couple of months ago, and I ran my first activation test last week."
Rodney and Teyla stared at him before finally attempting to speak at the same time, so Rodney's "You have to register with the federal government" and Teyla's "Under the terms of California Penal Code, Section Three Hun-" got all muddled together. Teyla put up a hand to quiet Rodney, took a deep breath, and then said simply, "Show us."
The two of them worked out directions to some building somewhere while Rodney focused on making sure he did nothing to get himself arrested or fired. That took every ounce of willpower he possessed, because he couldn't stop thinking about the months he had spent negotiating with the EPA for the official right to tinker with simple firelighters. He couldn't stop thinking about the officially sanctioned "Back to the Earth" clubs on every campus he had ever attended or the slurs they had lobbed at Fires like him with impunity. He couldn't stop thinking about the way Tunney had half-assed his way through the program with his aw-shucks grin while Rodney had been working his ass off at multiple programs and juggling the requirements for the ultimately Faustian reciprocal-commitment scholarship program that had been his only option.
And he couldn't stop thinking about how very much he loathed the sort of flashy, shoddy science Tunney had always embraced.
Tunney headed off to … somewhere … and Teyla led Rodney to her car. She didn't pull out until a bright red convertible — of course — stopped just ahead of their space and honked lightly for their attention. She then followed Tunney closely as he drove eastward.
A good five minutes had passed before she spoke. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked softly.
And Teyla, miracle of miracles, left it there. She squeezed his shoulder lightly for just a moment, though. He abruptly felt sorry for leaving her to deal with everything, but he seriously felt about ten seconds away from exploding and he just didn't know what to do with any of it.
Several minutes later, she spoke again. "I believe that model has terrible suspension. Do you think it would be unethical," she asked slowly, "if I were to open a few potholes and then bid for the contract to fix them?" When he turned to stare at her, she wrinkled her nose thoughtfully and continued, "Of course, it would be irresponsible to attempt a working while driving. At the very least I would have to ask you to hold the wheel while I worked, but I wouldn't want to involve you in anything improper."
He was startled into laughter because she was usually so serious that he managed to forget she actually wasn't at all. And if his laugh was a little shaky, Teyla — may she be blessed to all four points — didn't comment.
She had broken the tension enough for him to spend the last ten minutes of the drive regaining his composure. They pulled up outside a very large building, some sort of warehouse or even former hangar maybe, considering the shape that could have been an airstrip off to the south across the desert. Whatever the building was, it was big. Teyla parked at the edge of the paved surface and walked a bit out onto bare ground before turning to consider the building, tilting her head for Rodney to join her. They stood there briefly, waiting for Tunney to park his precious compensation carefully across two spaces in the completely empty lot.
Teyla put a bracing hand to his lower back, just below the bottom of his pack, and he abruptly felt a lot calmer. He glanced down and smirked to see that she had slipped one foot a little out of her flats, with a twist that would have broken his ankle if he had tried it, to make contact directly with the ground. The minor working would have had more effect on an Earth, and with skin-to-skin contact in any case, but since they were bound to the same Wheel it did help, and he kind of loved her a little for bothering. "Thanks," he muttered, and she nodded slightly as she slipped her foot back into its shoe properly and took her hand back to herself.
Tunney finally climbed out and then waved them over impatiently. Teyla set an unhurried pace to join him, but Tunney still just looked impatient rather than annoyed when they reached him. He turned to unlock the main door. "I don't really need all this space, but when a backer offers you a building, you don't refuse, right?" Rodney very calmly managed not to kick him.
The interior didn't really match the exterior. The building had apparently been divided inside into smaller rooms, and the height of the entryway and first hallway suggested multiple interior stories as well. Tunney led them on into a windowless office that immediately made Rodney start to feel claustrophobic — it wasn't really all that small, but it wasn't large and it looked like the sort of room someone could toil in for forty or fifty years, doing something profoundly dull like billing reconciliation and waiting to die. He shuddered.
Tunney flicked on the computer and spread out blueprints while the machine booted. "No stealing my work, McKay," he grinned, and it was a damn good thing Teyla had grounded Rodney first. "See? It's really quite elegant, if I do say so myself."
Teyla reached over and took a recorder from a side pocket in Rodney's pack. Switching it on, she said, "Teyla Emmagan, Certified Wheel Elementalist - Earth, Licensed Wheelhouse Manager; and Dr. Rodney McKay, Certified Wheel Elementalist - Fire; interviewing Dr. Malcolm Tunney. Dr. Tunney, do you recognize that we are certified Elemental Agents, working under contract to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as public safety proxy to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors?"
"Sure, of course." Tunney's attention was on his blueprints.
Teyla shot Rodney a worried look but continued. "And do you acknowledge designing, manufacturing, and/or operating an unregistered elemental manipulation device?"
"I already said I did, didn't I?" He finally noticed the recorder and gave them an amused look. "Come on, don't get all worked up. I was just doing a proof-of-concept run. I'll get it registered, all nice and proper. It's a true breakthrough, so that'll be a real snap."
From what Rodney could see of the blueprints so far, it wasn't any such thing. It was, in fact, the sort of thing registration was meant to prevent. The only innovation was that he had gotten something of that scale working at all, which Rodney would have admitted was very slightly impressive except that it required completely ignoring every safety regulation and fundamental principle that existed. He kept quiet with a serious effort in deference to the recorder. This part of the state wasn't likely to have any judges who disliked him personally, but some were still prejudiced against Fireworkers, and just having his name and affiliation listed at the start was risky enough.
"Do you grant us full permission to examine and copy any plans, records, or measurements of the aforementioned unregistered device?" Rodney had no idea if Teyla memorized huge chunks of legalese for this sort of thing or just made it up as she went, but he was impressed either way.
"You can check it out all you want, but no copying. This is proprietary," Tunney answered. Rodney was first annoyed at him, but then he realized that Tunney had just proved he really was listening, so the recording would hold up as waiver of a warrant and official-agent search. He dove into the blueprints with relish as Teyla started working through the computer.
It was worse than he feared. Much, much worse.
"Teyla," he said sharply. When she looked up, he said, "Seven. Maybe eight."
She understood the severity shorthand immediately and nodded once. She controlled her expression well, but he knew her, and he knew she was just as alarmed as he was.
"What the hell is this thing for, Tunney?" Rodney demanded.
"Industrial refrigeration, primarily. Meat lockers, factory air conditioning, that sort of thing. Heat wave mitigation eventually, though, once it's paying for itself."
Rodney held onto his patience very, very tightly. "And where does the heat go?"
Tunney just looked confused. "What do you mean?"
"Elemental physics, inanimate physics, the principles are similar. Basic thermodynamics. Cooling is actually removing heat, and heat doesn't just magically disappear. Where does the heat go?"
"Oh, I see what you're getting at." Tunney, unbelievably, relaxed. "My backer gave me the key to that, actually. Elemental energy is a self-balancing, closed system, so it's not a problem."
Rodney would have seriously considered banging his own head against the wall, if he didn't value his brain too much. "No. No, it really isn't. If you had ever paid the slightest attention to elemental theory, you would know that. You would know why the world isn't already littered with machines that tap elemental energy at will. You would know why everyone who has even the most rudimentary understanding of what's involved focuses on either incremental improvements or fusion theory."
He sagged against the table. It was still early in the day, but dealing with this much stupidity exhausted him. "Yes, it's a closed system, but no, it is not self-regulating, not the way you've assumed. If you draw elemental heat from one region, that heat doesn't just politely redistribute itself evenly across the planet. It destabilizes the system within a scale-limited range, which means concentrated fire energy tends to manifest somewhere it really doesn't belong. Such as, for one example, a proto-volcano at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains."
Tunney actually laughed. "Oh, come on. That's ridiculous."
"I assure you it is not," Teyla growled. "Did you think we were only here on some form of vacation?"
Tunney's grin faded. "But the test worked perfectly … and my backer said that it —"
"Who is this backer?" Teyla demanded.
"Well, I ... I don't actually know, to be honest."
They both stared at him. "How can you not know who's paying you and giving you buildings and telling you blatant lies about elemental theory?" Rodney asked.
"I've talked to him, but that's always been by phone or email. I don't actually have a name. Everything goes through a corporation. Arctic Front."
"Oh, right, that doesn't sound suspicious at all."
"It didn't!" Tunney protested. "People use corporate structures all the time. He knew what he wanted my invention to do and he told me enough elemental theory to make it work. He just didn't know how to build it. That's why he needed me."
Unfortunately that meant Tunney would probably weasel out of this, too. The Sheriff's Department would have to track down some shadow behind a shell corporation, and Tunney could deny responsibility while claiming cooperation with the investigation. Teflon Tunney, yet again. Miracle Mal.
"Rodney, please locate and secure this device. Mr. Tunney, assist him. Do not attempt to hinder him in any fashion." Wow, Teyla was almost as pissed off as Rodney was. She gave Rodney a meaningful look, and he nodded. "Secure" meant making certain the device wasn't currently running, wasn't likely to randomly start running, and in fact could not be started once he had gotten his hands on it. He was more than happy to see to that, even if it did mean spending alone time with Tunney.
She put on her earpiece and mouthed radio at him. He nodded again. He had taken a touch-to-talk cell phone system and modified it to work with touch- or voice-activated earpieces, giving them an effective and cheap private radio system — normally just a field convenience, but a reassuring touch of caution at the moment. He would freely admit he liked knowing that at a word from him, Teyla could have emergency services racing. Tunney had admitted to building one abomination of science; what else might be lying around?
He slipped his earpiece on as he and Tunney left the office, switching it to always-on mode and asking just where the device was stored. Tunney said that it was towards the other end of the building, for safety, which very nearly made Rodney laugh at the irony. Teyla quietly confirmed reception.
They walked for what had to be nearly the entire length of the building before Tunney finally stopped at an oversized door and unlocked it. The room they entered was much larger than the rest of the ones they had passed had been, over twelve meters to a side and several stories high. Rodney had underestimated the scale of the device slightly — based of course on his own more elegant design aesthetic — and he found himself facing a hulking machine somewhere between a large SUV and a tractor in size. It looked, in fact, rather like an unholy union of the two vehicles, just without the actual wheels.
Something about it seemed ominous, beyond even the damage he knew it could wreak. He scowled and forced himself forward, examining it to find the most effective way to disable it.
So of course Tunney's cell phone rang. Rodney glared at him.
"It's just … I have to …." Tunney shrugged and took the call. Rodney firmly ignored him, tracing out the control paths.
Tunney finally finished his call. "That was my backer —"
"Oh, now you tell me?" Rodney would have liked a word with this alleged backer.
"Well, he wants me to get the loading dock ready. I guess he's sending in some new supplies."
"Your backer is coming here?" Rodney asked carefully, to make sure Teyla had caught that.
"Probably not," Tunney called as he headed over to the far wall. Rodney repeated that in a mutter, disappointed, as Tunney said something about delivery men. Of course it wasn't that easy. Tunney pressed a few buttons and the wall — no, an enormous access panel, basically a garage door on steroids — rose jerkily. The bright desert sun glared through the opening, turning Tunney into a backlit shadow and making Rodney blink rapidly to clear the spots from his vision.
He turned resolutely back to the machine yet again, determined to disable the thing. The door creaked and groaned its torturous way up, deafeningly loud in the echo-magnifying chamber, and the room grew steadily brighter. The entire process seemed designed to draw out the annoyance as long as possible.
Tunney might have said something, but in the racket Rodney only knew he was approaching because his shadow loomed ever larger against the machine. "You really need to oil that thing," he called, wincing at a particularly shrill metallic shriek. He straightened, turning to glare at Tunney. "It's seriou—"
"Rodney?" Teyla tapped carefully at her headset. "Rodney, are you still there?"
Silence answered her.
No, that wasn't true at all. She was still getting sounds from her headset — the insufferable metallic screeching had finally stopped, but she still heard soft shuffling sounds and an occasional grunt. She wasn't getting silence. But she also wasn't getting Rodney.
"Rodney, please answer."
He might have dropped or dislodged his headset. The service might be malfunctioning — she had been surprised at how good their coverage had been in the desert, but it could always drop out. The headsets themselves might be malfunctioning.
But the sudden dread deep within her argued otherwise. It might be irrational, but she was convinced something had happened to Rodney.
She raced to the file cabinet. Long experience with the Caldwell offices and projects had taught her how to locate building plans quickly, and she found the basic floor plan and utility diagram in the second drawer she checked. Not completely updated — she cursed at that, then winced at her slip, then hoped desperately that Rodney had heard — but it gave her basics. She gave herself one minute to study the building's layout.
Then she shoved the diagrams into a pocket of her jacket and knelt, putting her hands flat to the floor, but the building's materials were too long inert and responded only sluggishly. They would register only large-scale effects, and a single person — or even two, if Tunney was still with Rodney — just wasn't enough. She would eventually be able to map out the regular lines of walls and isolate the many possible items that weren't walls, but it would be faster to search the building by foot.
More muffled shuffling through her headset was punctuated by a very final metallic sound, and then she really did hear only silence.
She started talking then, as she headed for the other end of the building, just repeating the same pleas for Rodney to respond. She moved quickly, heading for the part of the building the plans showed had loading access, because she thought the two men might have been in that same room … but she had to keep an eye on each room she passed, to make sure nothing matched what she had overheard.
A groan interrupted her as she was a little more than halfway down the building. She responded immediately. "Rodney? Rodney, please answer me."
"'m up," he mumbled.
Why must this building be so large? "No, I do not believe you are. Please, you must speak to me."
A dazed, "Ow," was his only response.
"Are you injured?"
"My head hurts." His voice was vague and unfocused, even slurring.
As much as she hated to waste time, she stopped. "Tell me why your head hurts."
"Um. I don't know. Ow. There's blood. I think I hit my head." He sounded confused rather than panicked.
With a soft curse Teyla turned and ran back to the office. It had taken her several minutes to get this far, quickly but not at her top speed. She hated to lose yet more time, but she had to take the certain option. Rodney's adaptations to their phones let her speak to him, but that meant she could not then use her phone to call out without losing her only connection to him, snapping that tenuous thread. The only other phone she had so far seen was in the office. "How did you," she asked on one breath, and then, "hit your head?" on the next, hoping not to alarm him by sounding winded.
Rodney only said he didn't remember, spurring her on.
"Can you tell me," she asked, "where you are now?"
After a few seconds of consideration, Rodney answered, "No. I don't know."
"Describe it," she ordered. "Talk."
"Injured man here," he complained, sounding a little more like himself. She did not let relief slow her. Rodney continued, "I'm on the floor. Which … not really comfortable." After a bit of shuffling and grunting, he said, "Now I'm sitting on the floor. In … some kind of room." He sounded a little clearer but still worryingly vague and halting.
She was almost back to the office. "The room with … the device?"
"No. That was big. This … isn't. Um. Really isn't." His breathing began to quicken. "Really, really isn't."
"How large is it?"
"I just —"
"No. You did not. Tell me. In numbers." He had always been very good at spatial estimation, and specifics usually calmed him.
"Two … two and a half meters. By not quite four. Square. I mean rectangular." Finally, finally she reached the office, as he continued, "Two and a quarter high. It's just … there aren't any windows, and everything's metal. Even the door."
She snatched up the phone, relieved beyond measure to hear a dial tone. "Hold on for just a minute, Rodney," she said as she dialed 911. "I will be right back. Keep the line open, please."
She covered the microphone extension of her earpiece as best she could as she spoke to the dispatcher. She stressed the head injury and several minutes of unconsciousness elements of the situation and soon had a promise that an ambulance would come. The dispatcher wanted her to remain on the line, but she couldn't, since she had to locate Rodney if the ambulance workers were to be any use, so she explained that very briefly before disconnecting.
"Rodney, you said there is a door? Is there only one?" She double-checked the floor plans, but as she had remembered, no rooms that size were indicated. The plans outlined only the division into floors, the structural supports for that stage, and the larger spaces like the one with the loading access.
"Just one," Rodney confirmed. "Are you coming? You should be coming here. I mentioned the head injury, right?"
If only she knew where. "I am trying. I know you should not move, and I am sorry, but can you tell me what is on the other side of the door?"
He huffed. "Completely contraindicated, you know," he grumbled, launching into a long sequence of little complaints.
Teyla did know, particularly given how much trouble he had pronouncing the term, but she had little option. Once they were home, she fully intended to task him with designing some way for them to find each other easily when in the field.
His mumbling broke off. "Oh. Well. No."
"Can't tell you. It's locked. Not even hinges on this side."
Teyla put one hand to the sticks at her belt for reassurance. She normally carried them only for security — and as a warning that she was no helpless woman, though most people seemed to assume they were talisman-related — but she was abruptly glad she had them with her. Rodney might have hurt himself accidentally, and he might even have wandered into another room in a daze, but with the locked door in addition, it seemed much more likely that someone had hurt and then moved him.
She had no proof, but she was sufficiently concerned that she went back to the phone to request police support as well. She had to emphasize that they were contracted to the Sheriff's Department for that, but she did finally get assurance that a deputy would be sent. Just then Rodney squawked loudly in her earpiece and then kept sputtering. "Rodney? What is it?"
"Water! There's water, just pouring in here. There's this … sort of pipe, right up at the ceiling, and it's dumping water, and it's cold."
Teyla ended her call to the emergency dispatcher quickly, snatched up the plans, and shoved them back in a pocket as she headed out of the office. "Try to stay as dry as you can. I'm on my way."
"It's a little late for that. Just what I needed, a side order of hypothermia with my skull fracture."
"I'm sure it will not come to that," Teyla said, walking as quickly as she could while trying to remain cautious. She silently cursed the size of the building once again.
"Teyla." Rodney's voice was suddenly very clear and very serious. "This room is watertight."
"What?" She shook herself. "Are you certain?"
"Considering the water's nearly up to my ankles, yes, I'm certain! Listen, everything's metal in here, and every angle is reinforced or soldered or both, and — okay, ow, bending over bad, but … no, definitely no flow around the door."
"Look, I know you probably have other things you'd like to do, but if you wanted to get me out of here sometime today —"
"I am coming," she said, not bothering to mask her shorter breath.
"Okay, good, great, except didn't you say you don't know where I am? So where are you going? What if you're going the wrong direction?"
"You were not … unconscious … long. You must be … nearer … the loading end. I will be … closer."
"Unless — what if I'm not in the building anymore? What if I'm in … another building, or some kind of truck?"
"Radio," Teyla answered, clipping the wall with her shoulder rather than slowing as the corridor jogged a few feet to the right. "And there are … no other buildings near."
"Radio. Radio? Oh, right, the range on these things. I … I forgot. Except, a truck —"
"With a chamber of that size? And a water reservoir?" It was actually very remotely possible that a stationary trailer could have a water line attached, but Teyla had to concentrate on the more likely option that Rodney was still somewhere in the building, and the far end of the building would still have to be closer to him than the office was.
"Right. Right. I can't think. Is this what ordinary people's brains feel like all the time? How can they live like this?"
Teyla was torn between offense that he would ask her, and honest surprise that he phrased it as they rather than you. She might as well split the difference … though, of course, it was always possible he hadn't actually been asking the last question of her but had simply been commenting to himself. She decided not to ask for clarification. "Can you force the door?"
"Of course I can't force the door. Who do you think I am, Ronon? Which would be ironic, when you think about it, because he would probably love —"
"… Oh. Right. I don't … oh, but I could try to warp the seams, or work out some of this solder …."
She finally reached the vast room Rodney and Tunney had been in. She had to shade her eyes against the bright desert glare coming through the loading door, so she carefully moved around the edge of the room so that she could put her back to that light. She saw no objects of the size Rodney had predicted, but as she worked her way cautiously back across the room, she found a small amount of liquid on the floor.
There were a few smears streaking towards the door she had come in, but nothing like a trail, which might have been gruesome but would certainly have been helpful.
"Okay, no, no, I was not trying to short out the light!" Rodney's voice held a note of genuine panic.
Teyla stood and headed back for the door. "What happened?"
"I can't do a damn thing here, that's what happened. Strangely enough, having a head injury and being halfway submerged in water turns out to affect my control. I'm pushing hard enough that I should be in danger of boiling the water in here, since I'm effectively standing in an gigantic cooking pot, but I'm barely getting any response at all, except the light tried to short out. And if there's one thing I need more than drowning in my immediate future, it's drowning in the pitch dark!"
Teyla cursed herself viciously. She knew there was some doubt that Rodney could call on his element. She should never have allowed him to continue working. "Even if you use your rod?"
"Oh. I didn't … wait. It's not here." She had told him — "I don't have it. I don't have anything. My rod's gone, and my pack, the secondaries — I don't have anything."
Rodney would part with his pack only if an actual limb was his only alternative. That suggested he had been stripped of any useful equipment, yet he had been left with his radio and headset. That detail disturbed her greatly.
"You still don't even know where I am, do you?" Rodney said suddenly. "I've managed to accomplish exactly nothing here, and you'll never get here in time. If … if you don't … talk to my neighbor, okay? She'll take my cat. Hates me, but loves my cat. She'll take care of him."
"I will find you," Teyla said firmly. With a querying of the concrete that left her feeling a little dizzy from the effort required, she confirmed that the slight marks just to the left of the doorway were very recent damage to the surface. She had overshot slightly. She moved carefully along the corridor, trying to find other marks.
"I seriously don't think you realize how fast the water is rising in here. Just promise me you'll get Tunney for this. I don't want him profiting off my work or off my … my death."
"Please just keep trying, Rodney. Clear your mind. You must focus."
"Focus. Right. Because that's so easy right now, with the whole minutes from drowning thing."
"You can —"
"I know, I know." He drifted off into muttering, which was not the most common meditative technique but sometimes did seem to steady his nerves.
She stopped to examine the floor at the next junction, because she doubted she could have overshot by far but she didn't dare risk assuming the wrong direction. The inner divisions were reasonably new, but the material of the floor on this level had been processed decades earlier, losing most of its responsiveness to earth energies — but nearly everything retained some minimal responsiveness. She cast her search in carefully widening circles, seeking any fresh damage, no matter how slight.
She had just found enough of a mark to take the turn when she realized Rodney was not simply muttering, he was … humming. Or … it wasn't quite singing, because the melodic line he was trying to recreate was not the vocal line, but she recognized the tune of Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance".
Song and dance were both reliable evocation tools, but to hear Rodney tell it, they were amateurish nonsense. She had long suspected he would sooner fail outright at a task than resort even to whistling. For him to try music now spoke more clearly of his desperation than his panicked words had. She moved rapidly down the new corridor, fighting down the fear that he was right and she would not be in time.
"Dammit, no — no good." She first thought his voice was shaking, but that was not quite right. No, he was shivering, badly enough to affect his speech. "What else, what … um, Einstein, James Dean … something about a — a winning team — okay, ser— seriously, that just figures. Someone actually writes an … effective evocation and it's all American history."
Water was heavy. It might now make enough of an impression to be detectable. She tried the walls, which should be more responsive and would feel the outward pressure of the rising water. She didn't find a response nearby, but she did find a new scrape against the wall that confirmed a turn into yet another corridor. The scrape was low and caused by contact with some kind of metal, which was puzzling, but she couldn't stop to consider what it meant.
"That song is difficult to remember even for those who have studied American history," she told Rodney, trying to keep her tone light. She could vouch for that. They both had an outsider's perspective, but she had pursued citizenship after the United States had taken in what remained of her people. Even though she had come to the country as a young teen, she often found she knew American history better than its natives seemed to. That in no way led her to think she could remember all the words to that song without guidance, especially with the proper melody and rhythm, which were essential.
She was not at all surprised he would remember something of a song that mentioned Einstein, but … "Is that song not about stopping fire? Fighting it?" She suspected the words should not matter, but it was the rare singer whose mindset was not affected by the lyrics they sang. That certainly seemed to be true of the composers, because every effective evocation song she knew had relevant lyrics in some fashion, or was at least titled to reference the affected elements if instrumental.
"No, no, it's … continuity. Same things over again, no matter what … people do. Enduring. Which would be helpful right n-now. Except I can't … can't keep it straight, and the melody on that one's too l-level without the patter effect. And Arthur Brown really isn't effective at all, and the Doors are just awful poetry. Even the Eng—" He fell silent abruptly.
"Rodney?" she prompted, nervous. She paused to try the wall again.
"Nothing. I just … why can't I do anything? I can't …." He paused for several seconds and then began shouting, "We don't need no fire, let the —"
"Fine, fine, that doesn't work anyway! It's just it's that or 'Disco Inferno', and I really don't — oh, oh crap —" He sputtered noisily. "It's … never mind now, there's nothing, I can't —"
His words were more spaced out, breathless. "If I can't get any response anyway, I certainly can't do it while I'm swimming."
"Is the water truly that high?"
"I can stand or breathe. Not both. Picked breathing."
"I am glad you did." Between his height and the height he had estimated for the room, she was nearly out of time. "Did you say there was a light?"
"Yes. Flush. Looks like the panel's screwed in." That scuttled any hope that he might somehow use the light's supply of electricity, which might not be elemental but which was far more responsive to Fire Elementalists than this cursed dead stone was to her. "Not sure it's watertight, though," he added. "So if I don't drown fast enough, maybe I can be electrocuted instead."
"I know. Sorry. I'm just … I'm not good with certain death."
"It is not certain." She had to find him in time. She would.
He answered that with only a short, pained laugh. After a few seconds of silence, he said, "I appreciate it, though. It's … reassuring, that you tried."
"I am still trying. And I will find you."
She was suddenly angry that he did not believe her. She embraced the anger, because she would use it and she would prove him wrong. She would prove it, because if he was right, then she would never be able to confront him, she would have no right to be angry, and she was furious.
She said nothing, because she had to save her anger for when she found him, and he spoke again, his voice soft and shivering without the anger that had so briefly strengthened it. "Look, I … I have a sister."
Teyla stopped walking entirely for a moment, despite the urgency. "You have never mentioned her," she said finally, forcing herself to move again. He had in fact strongly suggested he had no family at all, refusing to fill out next-of-kin or emergency contact information when she had hired him.
"We're not … not close. But she sh-should know. And tell her I'm sorry we're not. Weren't. Don't tell her I'm sorry we fought. I'm not. She's quite bright. She could have made a real … real difference. Or run her own 'house. You Falling types are good at managing people. But she drop … dropped out, married, had a kid. Wouldn't listen. But she's family, and I'm not … good at that. And I wish I … could have been."
"You will tell her that yourself," Teyla growled. She would of course honor his request if necessary, but she did not want this burden, and she did not want him to give up now that he had passed it to her.
"Don't think this is … the right time to call her," he said after several long moments, with what might have been a trace of amusement in his tone.
At last, at last she found traces of weight out of proportion to the rest of the building. She raced in that direction. "You will tell her that yourself, in person," she insisted, but he only made a soft disbelieving noise.
She rounded a corner and knew she had found it. One side of the hall was a metal wall, unlike the drywall everywhere else. Rodney's pack sat against the metal wall, his talisman propped forlornly against it. A powered hand truck was further down the hall, explaining the marks she had found in the earlier wall.
"How high is it now?" she asked, heading for the door. She considered telling him she was just outside, but she did not want to raise his hopes and risk dashing them.
"Um. High. About … a foot left. Maybe."
It was unlike him to mix systems of measurement. She bit back further encouragement as she tested the door. It was locked, and she saw no way to unlock it, nor any key handy. A thin trickle of water seeped around it, far too slowly to make any difference at all. The metal was dull; she could warp the latch mechanism, but not in time.
"You'll take care of everything after, right?" Rodney's voice was slow now, and it sounded steadier, but only because he seemed to have stopped shivering. "I'd prefer a pyre. Old-fashioned, I know, but cremation just seems so abstract. No real sense of ceremony. But I know you might not be comfortable with that, so I was thinking … burial wouldn't be so bad. Traditional, of course, none of those weird chemicals. Not usually my sort of thing, but being wrapped in your element … I think I'd like that."
Teyla had to put her hand back onto the wall to steady herself. To cross the elements for the dead without their explicit direction was profoundly offensive, even profane. Such requests were vanishingly rare and made only to join the element of close family, a deeply beloved friend, or a spouse.
"Rodney —" she started, shaken.
"Just don't — don't leave me like this," he said, his voice small now. "Not in water. Anything but that."
"I will free you," she vowed. "I will free you if I have to shake this building into dust."
"Don't … don't try a skew. This room has to be reinforced. You'd just bring down the rest of the building, and that'd probably kill you, and then there'd be nobody to find me." She was fully prepared to excuse the egocentrism this once, considering the circumstances, but he surprised her by adding, "And I don't want you to die too."
"I will not," she promised. She had never seriously considered a skew, both for the reasons he had given and for the simple problem of the time it would take to reach the active ground below the building and then reshape it. But the building plans, however outdated, mapped at least some of the utilities, and the nearest official water line ran past the next juncture. If she could stop the water, she could buy more time.
She was elated to find that the line was in fact there — exposed, rather than running behind one of the walls, but heavy metal she could not breach swiftly. The line that ran from the main one towards the room was not on the plans, but there was an in-line cutoff valve near it. She seized it and jammed the line shut, sighing with relief.
She put a hand to the pipe, just to make sure — and detected water still running within.
Disbelieving, she tried the cutoff again. It moved far too easily. It was a fake.
She slammed her hands against the wall in frustration, but then she straightened. No. She would not play by someone else's rules. She traced the line and found an elbow up-flow from the illicit pipe and within a short distance. She could not have taken the time to search much farther, but this one should do. The elbow itself was of thicker metal, but the pressure and turbulence just to either side of that point would better suit her needs than the straight line would.
"Rodney, tell me if the water stops."
"Still … coming," he said flatly.
That was not what she had meant, but she had no time to explain. She pulled out her firelighter and positioned herself so that she could use the corner as shielding. A firelighter was not the most precise tool, but it was very effective at drawing fire energy … particularly when used by an Elementalist, and even better when used by one who was not a Water.
"I guess the Wheel always balances." Rodney's voice was soft, resigned, as he offered the words of acceptance he had always before mocked.
But there was no balance in a Fire claimed by water, in an Elementalist felled by violence, in a man sentenced by the failure of a trusted friend. In Rodney McKay, of all people, giving up. "Don't you dare," she demanded.
She aimed the firelighter carefully and channeled through it as she pressed the release.
Raw fire energy lashed across to the metal and, conducting through it to abundant water, reacted explosively, bursting the pipe. Water gushed out, immediately soaking the wall and floor and flowing down that corridor.
"Has it stopped?" she demanded.
"What did you just do? And no, it hasn't stopped, why the hell would it … oh. Wait. It's … stopping?"
Teyla sagged against the wall, letting out a breath she had not known she was holding.
"You stopped it," Rodney said, sounding numb. "You made it stop."
"Yes. I will get you out, but now we have more time." She headed back to the locked door.
"Okay. That's good, that's …. But I can't … it's not airtight, but … the exchange isn't great, not with these dimensions, and I can't stay like this much longer …."
"I know. I will work as quickly as I can." It was a matter of minutes, but she had not truly had those minutes before.
With one hand to the lock and the other on her talisman, she found the points of greatest stress on the bolt and the strike plate. The water was placing tremendous pressure on the door, doing much of the work for her. It was slow, and it was draining, but she carefully weakened the metal until it was just short of failure and then stood back.
"It didn't work? I felt you working, but —"
"It is working, but you will have to hold onto something now." She put his pack onto her back and clipped his rod to her belt.
"There's — onto — what? There's nothing!"
"Please, you must find something. A hook, or some sort of projection —"
"Did you miss the part where there's nothing?"
"Are you absolutely sure? This will be very dangerous, and if —"
"Crap. Wait. Okay. There's … it's useless, but it's something. You'll have to give me a ten-count."
His tone worried her. "What —"
"Say when." He left no room for discussion.
She pressed herself as flat as she could against the wall, on the hinge side of the door, moving one hand as far as she could reach toward the lock while still keeping it in contact with the wall. She prepared herself and then said, "Ready … now."
She began to count to ten. On three, Rodney drew a deep breath and then her earpiece produced only a muffled silence. She couldn't stop now, so she just continued counting. When she reached ten, she hurled energy along the wall and into the weakened points of the lock.
The door slammed open, very nearly catching her fingers before she could snatch them back as it bounced off the wall. A wave of frigid water cascaded through the opening and swept into the hall, swirling up as high as her knees before draining away down the corridor.
She hurried into the room as soon as she dared move. Rodney lay flat on the floor, face-down, arms extended away from the door. She rushed to his side, worried to see that he was not moving.
He had not exaggerated anything about the room. Droplets of water wept down the walls, some from within six or seven inches of the ceiling. There was nothing at all to hold onto except a few strange seams running across the floor, not even half an inch tall. The tips of his fingers were locked on one of those seams.
"You can let go now," she told him gently, but she had to help him release his hold. His fingers were stiff and cramped, his skin like ice.
Once she had helped him up as far as his hands and knees, he started coughing wretchedly. "Tell Ronon," he gasped, "his element … sucks."
Teyla reached up and shut off her earpiece, disoriented by doubling of his voice. She hadn't even considered the question, but her equipment manager was a Fire, so of course everything was waterproof or at least water-resistant. "We will tell him together," she assured him. And then she started laughing, because they would. They would, together, because she had found him in time.
He squinted up at her. "What …?"
She helped him sit up properly. "Nothing. I am only pleased to see you." He looked terrible, soaking wet, hair plastered down, a nasty wound on his temple that was starting to bleed sluggishly. He looked terrible and wonderful.
The only thing she could think to use was the sachet for her secondary talismans, so she moved the feather and vial to her pocket and then pressed the cloth pouch lightly to his wound. He started to flinch away but she held him still, guiding his hand up to take over. He would know best how much pressure he could bear.
He was frowning dazedly. "How did you … I thought I felt Firework?"
"Yes, I used fire to stop the water."
"But how … I mean, you only had two secondary talismans." He gestured with his free hand toward her pocket.
"I use a firelighter." It seemed strange he wouldn't know that, but he usually took care of Firework when they were together, so perhaps it made sense.
He still looked confused. "Why would you have a firelighter? You don't need one."
She could in fact manage the minor Firework the lighters were commonly used for, but that was not the point. "You gave it to me, and it is an effective talisman for more complex tasks. Do you not remember?" She lifted his chin to check his eyes, which were not focusing quite properly.
He pulled away from her. "Of course I remember. You kept that?" He sounded far more puzzled than the question warranted.
"Of course I kept it. What did you think I would do with it?"
"Toss it in a drawer? People usually do." He looked … not even resigned, but merely as if he were mentioning a scientific fact.
"No. It was a gift from you, and I'm very happy I had it with me today."
"Oh. Right. Me too. And I'm sorry I, you know, doubted you." He reached over to give her a hesitant pat on the shoulder and added somberly, "But there is in fact more earth than sea."
If he was quoting Earth/Water balance songs to her, she was definitely concerned about his mental state. His eyes still looked unfocused as well, and he must have been running on adrenaline, which would now be rapidly fading. She helped him to stand. "I would like to leave this building," she suggested, slipping an arm around his waist to help his balance. Chill water promptly started to seep through her sleeve.
"Yes, excellent idea." He moved with her willingly.
She gave herself a moment to remember the course and then led him to the room with the loading dock, watching carefully in case anyone awaited them. Rodney was remarkably pliant the entire way, but he tried to draw back when he noticed the room. "No, no, I don't —"
"We can get outside more quickly here," she pointed out, urging him forward. "I would prefer not to make our entire way back within this building."
He made a face but stopped resisting her. They got all the way out onto the loading dock before they stopped again, and this time it was Teyla who stopped them.
A ramp sloped down from the asphalt towards the base of the loading dock, to accommodate the wheels of trucks and allow their cargos to be level with the dock itself. At the base of the ramp, nestled up against the dock, lay Malcolm Tunney, snoring gently.