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Chapter 2: Milk Run

Sheppard was studying the schematic of the city's layout, trying to determine the quickest and easiest route to the northeast section. Wanting to make sure he had the correct coordinates for the area Kavanaugh's team had just surveyed, he hit the intercom on the wall panel to call McKay and double-check the location. Knowing the workaholic physicist was in the habit of taking his meals back to his lab to eat while he toiled in the name of science, the major was not in the least surprised when Rodney answered almost immediately.

"This better be important. My time is too valuable to be spent answering the phone. I have a critical experiment in process that demands my undivided attention. So if you're trying to sell me something, you called the wrong galaxy." McKay answered the comm signal with his usual sharp-tongued impatience.

"McKay, it's Sheppard. Who're you trying to kid? I can hear you chewing, so I know you're stuffing your face instead of being up to your ears in Ancient widgets, test tubes, or whatever it is you lab rats play with down there."

McKay finished swallowing the piece of muffin he was chewing before he replied in his customary breathless fashion. "Major, don't tell me you retrieved my laptop already? Because if you did, I'll have to seriously reevaluate everything I have ever learned about the relationship between space and time. And quite frankly, devising a way to effectively shield this city against the impending Wraith invasion has pushed writing 'McKay's Grand Unification Theory' to the back burner."

"McKay, what do they feed you? Really, I want to know what winds you up in the morning and keeps you buzzing around like the Energizer Bunny. Is Beckett giving you special megavitamins or is it a cumulative effect of all those Power Bars you consume?" Sheppard was no slouch himself when it came to being energetic, but Rodney made everyone else look like they were moving in slow motion when he was operating at full-tilt McKay speed.

"No, it's just an outpouring of my naturally dynamic and vivacious personality." The astrophysicist replied in a smug undertone. "So do you actually need something, Major, or did you just feel the need for more stimulating conversation than you get from talking to yourself?"

Sheppard rolled his eyes before answering. "As much as I would love to spend time trading witty barbs with you, Rodney, I do have a reason for this call. I want to get the exact coordinates for the location where Kavanaugh left your laptop. The northeast section itself encompasses a good square mile. Call me picky, but I'd like to narrow the search grid a bit, so I don't waste my entire day off on your errand of mercy."

"You mean you haven't even left yet? What are you waiting for? Time is wasting, and I need that data." McKay said in annoyance, giving his patented, rapid-fire double finger snap to emphasize his urgent need.

"Don't get your panties in a wad. You'll get your laptop before the day's out. I'm waiting for Dr. Weir to meet me in my current location before we head out. She had some last minute details to go over with Peter before we left." Sheppard glanced at his watch before continuing. "She's due back here in five minutes. If she doesn't show up then, I will track her down before she can renege on her promise to come with me."

"You're telling me Elizabeth is going with you? As in actually LEAVING her office and venturing beyond the sanctity of the control room into the great unknown?" McKay sounded incredulous at the validity of this piece of information.

"I kid you not."

McKay was still skeptical. "You mean she is really going to delegate overseeing the running of this hallowed city to one of her trusted minions? Our Elizabeth? The Dr. Elizabeth Weir, who never eats or sleeps, but lives and breathes only for the glory that is Atlantis?"

"The one and the same. Didn't think I could convince her to ever take a break from her duties, did you? I'll have you know I used the infamous Sheppard charm. Works every time." The major boasted with a sly smile.

"Who'd have thought it possible? Hmmm...Guess this changes the odds on the current betting pool." McKay mused as his thoughts were momentarily distracted.

"The one on whether or not Weir finally takes a day off before the month is over?" The major inquired.

McKay was interrupted from mentally calculating his future betting pool winnings by the question. "The one what? Oh...erm...yes, sure that one too."

He cleared his throat. "Well, let's get back to the more pressing business at hand, shall we? Give me a second to get you the location of the rooms Kavanaugh checked out."

Faint clicking sounds came over the speaker as the scientist typed away on his keyboard. "According to the information logged into the database, he was exploring the rooms along the main corridor on the second level in that section. That should narrow your search down to about five rooms. Knowing your remarkably bad sense of direction as I do, I've highlighted the exact rooms in red on my computer's schematic along with the best route to get to them in yellow. Sending the data through to the wall schematic above your comm panel...right about now. If you check the city layout at your location, you'll see the rooms as a bright crimson beacon at the end of the pathway I mapped out. So just follow the yellow brick road as it were, and you will get to your destination in just under two hours."

"McKay, my sense of direction is just fine I'll have you know. But thanks for the information. I'll call you when I get back." Sheppard pressed the comm link button to sever the connection as he studied the map to commit the route to memory.

He was turning away from the console and was about to check his watch again when Elizabeth came striding back into the room, carrying a small backpack.

"Oh, there you are. I was wondering if you were thinking of backing out of this little excursion and hiding somewhere in the control room until I left." Sheppard teased her.

"Like you would let me if I tried, Major. No, I was giving Peter some instructions concerning work assignments, and then I stopped by the mess hall to pack us up some food for the trip. After all, we didn't stop for breakfast as we planned." Elizabeth held up the backpack. "I took the liberty of getting us some sandwiches and fruit that we can eat on the way."

Sheppard's eyes lit up at the mention of food as he smiled in gratitude. "You're all right, Elizabeth. I don't care what Rodney says about you."

"Hmmm, I don't listen to what he says about you either so I guess that makes us even, now doesn't it?" Weir responded tit-for-tat with a quirk of her eyebrow and a lift of the corner of her mouth.

"I guess it does." The major winked in reply. "So, shall we head out before Rodney has a typical McKay hissy fit and comes down here to kick our butts to get us moving?"

"I am ready when you are." Weir said as she hefted the backpack onto her shoulder.

"Hold on a minute. Here, put this on first." Sheppard handed her a flak vest that he had already loaded with standard-issue provisions.

"Is this really necessary for a simple walk across town?" Weir asked as she reluctantly put on the garment.

"Humor me, will you? Wearing one is part and parcel of being a member of my team. Since we will be exploring Atlantis on the way, this officially counts as a mission." Sheppard helped her adjust the fasteners. "Besides, all those pockets come in handy for carrying things."

"Since when are you such a stickler for following protocol, Major?" Weir asked of the man she thought of as more of a renegade than a poster child for the Air Force recruitment office.

"I have my moments." He answered as they began walking. "I got the exact location of the rooms Kavanaugh had been checking out from McKay. Anal-retentive personality that he is, he even mapped out a direct route for me."

"He's afraid you'll get lost, huh?"

"I take a few scenic routes on some missions to avoid detection from any unfriendly locals, and McKay gets it into his over inflated head that I have no sense of direction. For the record, I don't get lost. I merely use shortcuts." Sheppard stated matter-of-factly.

"Oh, Rodney has mentioned some of your so-called shortcuts in his mission reports. If I recall, the term he used to describe them was 'circumnavigations of the military kind'." Elizabeth chuckled at the remembrance of certain McKay-isms in that particular report.

The major shrugged. "I prefer the term 'more covert route', but to each his own."

They walked on companionably for the next twenty minutes, chatting about everything in general and nothing specific to pass the time. Once they had left the vicinity of the designated living quarters and were heading into a corridor that branched out from the main passageway, Elizabeth reached into her backpack and pulled out two sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.

"Are you ready to have something to eat?" She asked holding out the food she packed.

"You could say that. The coffee did not do much to fill my stomach before we left. What do you have there?" The major nodded his head at the two wrapped packages Elizabeth was waving in front of his face.

"You have a choice here of either a ham and Swiss cheese on rye or a turkey club on white. I am guessing you'd prefer the turkey." Elizabeth wasn't surprised when the major immediately selected the turkey sandwich before she finished speaking and took it from her hand. "Of course, I may have presumed wrong, and you really wanted tuna salad on wheat."

"Turkey! My favorite. Aw, how did you ever guess?" Sheppard asked as he unwrapped his sandwich.

"What, you mean the sheer quantity of them that you have consumed since we arrived on Atlantis wasn't a dead giveaway? I would think you'd be sick of them by now. What could be so special about a turkey sandwich? Personally, I find they are bit bland."

Sheppard stopped in mid-bite and looked at her in shock. "Elizabeth, do you know it is sacrilege to speak of a turkey sandwich in that way? What's not to like about a turkey sandwich? They're healthy, they're filling, and they taste good."

"So are a lot of other things. Ham and cheese for instance." She replied holding up her own sandwich.

"I'll have you know I have many fond memories of eating myself into a late-night, turkey sandwich-induced coma on Thanksgiving after watching hours of football. My brother and I would be sprawled on the sofa with the empty-plate evidence of our gluttony littering the coffee table." Sheppard smiled briefly at the memory, before his eyes took on the hooded look they did when he seemed haunted by ghosts of the past.

Noticing the look in his eyes, she did not press him for details. She sensed he would volunteer information only when he was ready and not a minute before. For whatever reason, his past seemed to be a closed book that she doubted few ever got a glimpse into. In fact, she was willing to bet that she was the first one on Atlantis to even hear he had a sibling. Hoping he would eventually feel comfortable enough to tell her more about his family, she continued talking about hers.

"Now that must have been a sight to see. Thanksgiving was pretty chaotic when I was growing up. My parents would have a big family dinner with all the trimmings and invite all my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. With all those family members, it would get pretty loud and boisterous with everyone talking at once."

"So is that why you become a diplomat? I mean, with such a big family, you probably had plenty of practice mediating disagreements between individuals and breaking up rowdy behavior." The major commented as they continued walking and eating.

"I never thought about it in that way, but maybe it was a factor. My dad worked for the State Department, so we traveled quite a bit and were always going to galas and dinner engagements with dignitaries from all over the world. I have been listening to so many dialects my whole life. I suppose that is how I developed an ear for so many languages."

"So you followed after your father and become a skilled negotiator." Sheppard declared.

"I guess I did. And I never regretted it. So what made you join the Air Force?" Weir asked before taking the last bite of her sandwich.

Sheppard shrugged and looked at her like it should have been obvious. "Simple...flying. I always wanted to fly ever since I was little. Becoming a military pilot gave me the chance to fly aircraft I never would have had the opportunity to otherwise. So as soon as I graduated from college, I enrolled in the Air Force Academy."

"What about your math degree? I read in your personal file that you had earned a Master's degree in mathematics from MIT by the age of 20. Why do you keep that impressive little fact a secret, especially from Rodney? I've always wondered why you didn't use it as verbal ammunition when he was insulting the intelligence of military personnel."

"I might have been born a math geek, but it is not something I am particularly proud of. Besides, I didn't want a life stuck in academia or trapped in the abyss of some corporate think tank. Now flying...flying is sheer joy, is total freedom...is as important as breathing to me. I can't explain it; it's just something I need to feel alive." Sheppard pursed his lips as he attempted to articulate something he tried never to think in depth about.

"And it's escape from all the death around you?" Weir spoke softly without forethought.

Sheppard stopped walking for a moment and looked down at the ground. He had to swallow a few times to ease the painful lump threatening to choke his throat before he was able to utter a reply.

"There is no escape from that." His voice sounded thick and distant as if it were coming from a place inside him he didn't care to dwell.

Cursing her stupidity, Weir stopped herself and reached out to touch his arm. "John, I am sorry. I did not mean to hurt you like that. I wasn't thinking."

"It's okay, Liz. Really." He flashed her a grin, but his misted eyes gave him away.

"No, I should have known you would think of Sumner, Gall, Abrams, and those men who died serving along with you in Afghanistan." Elizabeth let her hand drop as she felt him retreat behind his devil-may-care facade.

"The list doesn't end there, but it comes with the territory. People die. And sometimes, there's not a damn thing you can do about it. So you deal with it and go on. End of story." He shot her a stony look before he wadded the wrapping from his sandwich into a crumbled ball and tucked it into his vest pocket.

"You have to stop blaming yourself for their deaths, John. You shouldn't take it upon yourself to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. You can't protect everyone. You're only one man." Weir insisted.

Sheppard focused on the passageway ahead as they continued walking side by side. Normally, she could easily read his thoughts and emotions just by glancing at his expressive face. But right now, he was as impassive and undecipherable as a cold, marble statue.

"You should listen to your own advice, Doctor." He remarked pointedly, using the formality of her title to further distance himself from the topic at hand.

"Touch, Major. I guess I deserved that. But sooner or later, you'll have to talk about it." Weir was not ready to let the matter drop. Not when she could see that the long repressed emotions were eroding his peace of mind.

"Let it be, Elizabeth. For once, just accept that some things are not open for negotiation." He said tight-lipped.

"John...." She started to reply before he cut her off.

"I said let it go. I don't want to talk about it. This discussion is over as of now." He said curtly, forestalling further conversation on the matter.

"Fine." She retorted, biting the inside of her lip to prevent herself from calling him a stubborn fool. Instead, she shifted her backpack into a more comfortable position and lengthened her stride to keep up with him as he stomped determinedly down the hall.

The next twenty minutes passed in silence, as each of them became lost in their own thoughts. Sheppard, however, was not one to stay angry for any length of time. Before long, he was chatting amiably with her once again though no mention was made of their earlier tiff. Rather than tread on dangerous ground, they kept the conversation to more upbeat topics related to the people and the city of Atlantis.

It took them another hour of walking before they neared the section recently explored by Kavanaugh and his small team of scientists. Looking around at their current surroundings, they were surprised to see scattered evidence of previous flooding in various halls and doorways. Watermarks stained the walls and the air still faintly held the stale odor of salt and long-decayed seaweed. At first thinking they had wrongly detoured into an abandoned sector, Sheppard consulted a nearby wall schematic to check their location against the coordinates given to him by McKay.

"According to the map, we are in the right area. I didn't expect to find any damage in it though, especially since we are above sea level on this floor." Sheppard was a little concerned about what other surprises they might find when they began to search the rooms.

"Perhaps, this area sustained some damage from the storm. If the wind and waves had broken any windows, water could have washed in and temporarily flooded the corridor. There doesn't appear to be any water left standing, so we may get lucky and find the damage is minimal."

"Do you recall if this location was designated as having been especially hard hit by the hurricane?" The major asked as he inspected an archway in a connecting corridor.

"No, but not all the sensors were operational. We had to shut many of the scanning systems down to conserve energy before we evacuated most of the personnel to Manara. If any damage occurred while the sensors were offline, it may not have been recorded in the data once we turned the systems back on." Weir speculated.

The major continued to glance around, taking note of any possible structural problems in the supporting beams. "And I take it scouting teams have not finished inspecting the entire city yet?"

"No, in fact, Kavanaugh's team was the first to investigate this region of the city."

"I was afraid of that." The major hit his radio headset. "McKay, this is Sheppard."

"Back yet?" The scientist could always be counted on to answer quickly.

"No, we are not back yet. We just arrived in the northeastern section."

"So why are you calling me now?" McKay complained at the interruption to the work he had in progress.

Sheppard ignored the astrophysicist's petulant tone. "Did anyone on Kavanaugh's team report storm damage in this location?"

"No, there is nothing noted in the computer files at the moment. But then again, Kavanaugh has a tendency to be lax on filing his expedition reports in a timely manner. With the exception of his dedication and diligence for self-promotion, the man is procrastination personified. Why?" McKay volunteered.

"We're noticing some water and possible lightning damage. I wanted to know if there had been any particular rooms tagged as areas we should avoid for now." Sheppard explained.

"Oh, hmmm. Well, I haven't spoken to Kavanaugh about any details of his survey. You witnessed the only contact I had with him since he returned. Both Sullivan and Turner were with him, but they were needed on another project, so they probably won't get a chance to download any data until later today."

Sheppard sighed in resignation before replying. "Okay then. I guess we will just have to keep our eyes open and check out the area ourselves."

"Good. Good. Good. Let me know what you find. And, Major, just be careful." McKay warned.

"Aren't I always?" Sheppard quipped before cutting the transmission.

"Do you think we should be worried about staying here?" Weir asked with look of concern.

"Well, I think we should stay alert for any possible hazards and not dawdle too long. We can send a better-equipped engineering team out this way later. In the meantime, let's go find McKay's laptop and get out of here." He motioned Weir to follow behind him as they began inspecting the five rooms on their search grid.

The first two rooms yielded no misplaced computer and displayed little hints of water or electrical strike damage and looked relatively unscathed by the storm surge. In the third room further down the hallway, however, they observed signs of potentially severe destruction. Several windows were broken and the remains of the glass lay shattered across the floor. One wall had developed stress cracks where small rivulets of water slowly seeped, indicating that remnants of a floodtide were still trapped between the bulkheads. Several overhead beams were badly scorched, either from the lightning that had been channeled throughout the corridors after the grounding stations had been disabled or from a subsequent electrical fire caused by water hitting the conduits. Worse yet, an ominous metallic creaking noise sounded intermittently and echoed down the hallway.

"I have a bad feeling about this. Let's not stick around here too long. Why don't you stay back in the doorway while I just quickly look around to see if I can spot the laptop?" The major pointed back in the direction they just came from.

Sheppard couldn't shake the sense of foreboding he felt as the hairs on the back on his neck tingled. He cautiously advanced into the room, but he waved his hand at Weir to tell her to remain where she was. If there were any danger of the room collapsing, he did not want her in harm's way. As the feeling of dread grew stronger, he began to have misgivings about talking her into this excursion. He should have known better than to bring her into a possibly dangerous situation. The sooner he got her out of here, the better he would feel.

Making a quick survey of the perimeter of the room, he saw Elizabeth appear at the edge of his peripheral vision as she ignored his warning and stepped forward to move behind him into the room.

"Dammit, Elizabeth. I told you to stay back!" He growled at her to disguise his concern.

"If it's safe for you, it's safe for me. I can see Rodney's laptop from here. It's on the console in the corner." She hurried over to retrieve the computer before he had a chance to head for it himself.

Muttering to himself over her pig-headedness and her blatant disregard of his orders, Sheppard trailed after her determined to watch her back. While she was picking the laptop up from its resting place, he heard the unforgettable sound of weakened metal rending apart. Glancing up at the direction of the sharp and sudden noise, he saw the over-stressed support beams groaning and bending as if under tremendous weight.

"Elizabeth! Look out!"

Sheppard shouted out a warning as he frantically dove in her direction. She felt two strong arms shove her forcefully aside mere seconds before all hell broke loose. A flood of debris rained down as the world shuddered with violent intensity, and then collapsed around them. Weir didn't have time to wonder what hit them before all went suddenly and mercifully dark.


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