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Fic: Sheppard and the Mud Frogs (Gen, PG)

Title: Sheppard and the Mud Frogs
Author: icarusancalion
Recipient: aqualegia
Characters: John, Rodney, mud frogs, and a shiny, shiny stargate
Rating: PG
Notes: For sga_santa 2013 edition. I got a very open request so I hope this was on your Christmas list. Beta by the ever-forgiving rabidfan and sarka.

Summary:
The fact that they'd landed at all, let alone in one piece, would've left NASA breathless in wonder. But they were used to pulling off miracles.


-o-


The wind buffeted around the Jumper where Rodney pressed closer, crouched, feeling the cold metal seep through the shoulder of his jacket. They'd been coming from--well, not exactly a tropical paradise, but it had been spring on Arctus 24 and he'd dressed accordingly. Not that the whole mess had been his fault. Elizabeth should let him and John attend negotiations and not use them as shuttle service. The fact was, they should've been back in Atlantis by now.

He held the cup between his knees, not having a convenient working surface that was out of the wind and also out of John's view. With a totally inadequate knife he shaved bits of his last chocolate bar into the cup.

"Nice day, isn't it?" John's voice startled him into almost dropping the whole thing.

"Man working here!" Rodney complained, ducking over the cup to hide it.

Fortunately, John was just bored, not curious. He tipped his head back to the rarely seen sun, adjusted his sunglasses and said, "Days like this you could almost get used to the place."

Wind flattened his hair like prairie grass.

"Uh-huh," Rodney said.

Around them, in all directions, stretched salt flats. A marshy swamp, dotted with misshapen scrub tortured and twisted by prevailing winds. The only feature, if you could call it that, was a half mile long, Jumper-sized muddy trench leading to their back door, and a circle of muddy footprints around their current home. One of the drive pods tipped up at about a thirty degree angle while the other--in front of Rodney--was half-buried in muck.

~*~*~


"It's an insult we're not allowed to attend negotiations!" Rodney said, going through their pre-flight back to Atlantis.

John slouched in the copilot's seat, legs stretched out, ankle crossed over the other, eyes on a hand-held video game. It bleeped and a little high-speed electronic death march played. "Never be good at something you hate," he said, restarting the game. His fingers worked as it blipped and beeped and made tiny firing sounds.

The Jumper lurched and Rodney took them up, up, gliding through clouds, up above the atmosphere to hover at the space gate. Elizabeth had figured a world cut off from gate travel would be hungry for trade opportunities.

"She makes us leave the planet," Rodney groused. He hit the DHD and the glowing blue puddle formed against stars. "It's just the principle of the--" They cleared the event horizon before he finished his sentence.

They came through into a tornado. That was Rodney's first desperate thought as the Jumper kicked up, clanged backwards into metal and the gate spun over them.

John grabbed his controls, shouting, "The gate's in atmosphere! Hang on!"

"Why-what, why?" Rodney swore. "Why are we in atmosphere?"

They pinwheeled like Darth Vader's tigh-fighter. "Got bigger problems right now!"

Rodney called up schematics, one after another, talking through his panic. "The right drive pod is out! We've lost attitude control-!"

"Tell me something not obvious!"

But Rodney scrolled through charts and their gate address, skimming through Ancient script. His eyes went wide as he looked up at the spiraling stars. "Oh no."

"Don't worry, I'll have us home for Christmas!" John yelled, turning the Jumper in a slower bullet spiral, headed for the planet.

"How?" Rodney snapped, turning to John. "This isn't the planet we dialed!"

~*~*~


Rodney had his titanium cup about an eighth to a quarter full of chocolate flakes. He dug in his pocket for a plastic-wrapped packet from their emergency supplies. He shook it, tore it open, and dumped in cream-colored powdered milk.

Then he wished he'd thought to open his canteen first. He set the cup down, counting on the mud to stick it to the ground, and fought with the poorly threaded cap. At least they had plenty of water (thank god for desalinization...). Filling the cup three-quarters full, he capped the canteen, set it in the grassiest spot he could find, then stirred the lumpy mixture with his knife.

Finally, he lowered his welder's visor and lit the torch. It was like toasting marshmallows, keeping it the proper distance from the cup.

~*~*~


Some people call themselves brilliant, yet say it with such casual indifference that it's probably true.

John Sheppard would tell you he's an excellent pilot but, okay, a little hard on aircraft. He believed in flying at maximum capacity so he was always at that razor's edge when something went wrong.

Rodney would say that, although as an engineer he could pretty much fix anything standing on his head, theoretical physics was his true calling: he preferred a challenge.

The fact that they'd landed at all, let alone in one piece, would've left NASA breathless in wonder. But they were used to pulling off miracles, so they circled the Jumper, furious with each other in the dark, howling storm. While John held the flashlight in the wind-ripped rain, Rodney rummaged under a right drive pod that looked worryingly bent.

"What did you do? Dial the wrong number?!" John yelled, voice distant, carried away by the wind.

Rodney squirmed out from under the right pod, clothes covered in mud. He said from the ground, "I've got bad news and bad news!"

"Give me the good news first!" John said.

Rodney ignored him and stood. "I don't know what prevented the drive pod from being sheared off but it is badly damaged. That's a design flaw with the older jumpers. You'll recall being stuck in a gate at one point?-and by the way, let me add that when engineers have a 'favorite' jumper, it's never for a superficial reason, so overruling me over which Jumper we take-"

"This one has more leg room," John said. "I've got long legs."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "And that extra leg room is why this particular model of Jumper can't go through the gate with both drive pods extended, unlike the other, newer, far better designs!"

Rodney shook his head, wiping uselessly at the mud. "I'll try to fix it but we're nowhere near anything resembling a parts store or even raw metal, though I do have tools thank god." He looked around at the marsh. "Fortunately we're coming from an unused space gate. I'm reasonably certain that Atlantis can download the buffer before it's wiped like an Etch-A-Sketch.

"And by the way," Rodney added, proving he had heard earlier: "You'd better pray I dialed the wrong address. Because if this is a gate malfunction I've no idea how anyone will ever find us."

~*~*~


Leaving his canteen, Rodney opened the back of the Jumper with his elbow, shutting it against the cold. As usual, John sat in the pilot seat, on the radio. He'd radio himself hoarse by the end of the day.

John's chin lifted as the scent of warm chocolate filled the room. Rodney presented him with the cup. "Merry Christmas."

John looked up in surprise, accepting it. "But I didn't get you anything." He sipped and returned to his radio, on schedule. "Mayday, Mayday... Daedalus, are you out there?"

Rodney eased into the co-pilot's seat. He said companionably, sipping from his own cup, "You could bring a Hive ship."

John snorted. "I'd like to see organic tech survive that turbulence."

Rodney nodded agreement. "What's for dinner?"

John sighed. "Roast goose, a vegetable confit, Teyla's homemade bread... or if you prefer," he reached down into a stash of boxes at the console between them and read the MRE package, "... Jambalaya stew."

"Don't torture yourself," Rodney corrected, fetching a different MRE from the bottom of the pile. "This is a special day: ham slice."

"I always love a good Christmas ham." John smiled, savoring his chocolate.

~*~*~


From inside the jumper the storm's fury didn't seem any less. It would take them two days to learn that the wind rarely let up, even when it didn't rain.

As wet as a puppy, John ran his hand up the back of his head. "Okay, so rescue's our best bet. Atlantis'll be looking for us since we didn't show after our call in." He sagged to the padded seat. "I just don't understand how the signal could've jumped to another gate...."

Rodney admitted, "Um. Actually ... I didn't radio ahead."

"You went through the gate without calling it in," John repeated in a flat voice.

Rodney had been prepared for a goggle-eyed stare, not this numb shock. "It's redundant. They had our IDC!"

"Rodney," John ground out, slowly, "Elizabeth and I established the protocol of radioing in so that, in a foothold situation, teams wouldn't fall into a trap. Again."

"Well, you never explained that!" Rodney said.

"I shouldn't have to explain because it's military procedure! And my orders. And in this case, would've told us which planet we weren't going to."

"Technologically it's impossible to mimic an encoded IDC signal so--"

"It doesn't matter! It's SOP. How many decades have you been in the military?" John said.

"I'm not in the military. I work for the military. Most of the time that involves working around proper procedures to get the military what they want--or haven't you noticed how many times I've saved your ass by violating basic engineering protocols, not to mention the laws of physics?" Rodney scowled at him, arms folded and defiant.

John stood and paced. Then examined the storm outside the Jumper. "It's no big deal," he decided. "It's just lost us some time, that's all. Twelve hours till Ronon and Teyla's check in?"

"Maybe four if their negotiations went quickly," Rodney adds, trying for hopeful.

"Okay. Twenty-four, maybe forty-eight hours, we hang tight," John said. "But fix that drive pod. Our quickest escape route is still right there." He pointed at the sky.

~*~*~


Snoring, Rodney slept off the remains of Christmas dinner on one of the bench seats in the back. As John kept watch he wondered if the Ancients had once had passenger liners, a spaceship version of the Orient Express, because there was no way they'd ever intended their Jumpers to be "extended stay."

The gate passed overhead in low orbit every sixteen hours. From the ground it looked like a bright twinkling star. It was that close.

On a sudden hunch, John pressed in Atlantis' gate address, the hydraulic whoosh of the seven symbols loud to his ears. He glanced back at Rodney.

The bright twinkling gate blazed blue, like the Christmas star.

John watched it glow for thirty-eight minutes. Then it returned to normal star size.

He murmured to the sleeping Rodney, "Merry Christmas."

~*~*~


John dug in with the camp shovel, flinging aside a toilet paper roll-sized pat of wet mud. They took turns because only one shovel had been stowed on board the Jumper (an oversight Rodney planned to correct the moment they got back to Atlantis). It was tiny and the type you had to assemble, and it didn't work well on mud, which was unfortunate, because soggy, muddy sludge seeped in around the drive pod every night.

"So. How's it coming?" John said, stopping to reattach the blade of the shovel. It also tended to fall apart.

"Mmm ... should have it done in an hour, hour and a half--" Rodney said blithely, "--If I were in Atlantis and not cannibalizing parts from the shields and radiation screens."

John paused. "Uh. Don't we need our shields?"

"Yes! We need everything, but shields don't do us any good if we stuck on the ground." He lifted up his foot with a wet sound. "Literally, in this case."

A few hours later (technically ten in the morning, though that worked out to be lunchtime in this planet's eight hours of daylight), John showed up again. With food, but also with inevitable questions.

"So. Progress report," John opened without preamble, handing Rodney the dreaded Jambalaya.

Rodney decided to beat him down with technobabble. "Well, I've disassembled the modular thermo-reticular array, shortened the crystalline tie wires and harvested the non-essential links plus any and all auxiliary connection nodes. Then I extracted crystal panels from the internal heat sensors--if it gets too hot, let me know--removed and attempted a cold start of the left-hand pod with only one of the fuel control modulaters, without success on that end but it was worth a try. Then I returned the fuel control modulator to the left-hand pod, tested it, and that was a success."

John translated, "You salvaged parts all morning."

Rodney paused. Then admitted, "Yes."

Daylight--mercifully on a day with so little progress--ran out at the equivalent of two in the afternoon according to Rodney's circadian rhythms. On the featureless salt plain, sunset shut off abruptly, like throwing a switch. All that remained was the stars and a couple of larger stars that actually were asteroid-sized moons. Rodney slogged in through the back of the jumper, slamming it against the wind.

"So? Got it fixed?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, I've held back all afternoon to spend extra time communing with the mud frogs of Planet Salt-lick."

The only indigenous life appeared to be fish, worms, and the tiny jumping frogs they had to shoo out of the Jumper.

"How long do you think it'll be?" John asked. Then added generously, "Ballpark figure."

"At this point? We need to stick out our thumbs and flag down a semi," Rodney admitted. "I'd welcome a Dart or two just so we could shoot them down for parts." He sagged in a slump on the bench. "I thought it was bad slapping together hybrids of Earth, Ancient and Wraith technology, but here? I don't have what I need--or rather, I do, but it doesn't do me any good because they're all in the other drive pod."

John turns away from the radio, pulling his headset off. "That's what I thought." He pulled up the controls for weapons, and as Rodney watched, squeezed off a single drone.

It impacted on the closest moon. "Bullseye!"

"What are you doing?!" Rodney said, aghast.

"Face it, Rodney. It's been three days."

"Two," Rodney corrected.

"Two Earth days," John agreed. "We're outside the window. If Atlantis knew where we were, they'd be here by now."

"But nothing would've erased that buffer!" Rodney insisted. "It's a spacegate, and without a DHD on the ground. I'll grant you that if this were the Milky Way we'd be screwed, but the Atlantis gate system would've preserved our address until someone dialed out from that gate."

"Rodney, you said it yourself: this was probably a gate malfunction," John pointed out. "All of us could dial Atlantis half-unconscious, with heavy blood loss and maybe even a missing arm. There's no way you dialed the wrong address. No one would."

Rodney mutely agreed. He could think of dozen primitive worlds on which he'd hate to be marooned, and this place still fell to the bottom of that list, even below the planet with the kids. They at least had decent weather.

"On the plus side, Santa's coming to town."

"Santa's late," Rodney grumbled.

"I lost track! It's these sixteen hour days. They run me ragged," John complained.

"Yeah. It is like being on a nineteenth century factory schedule," Rodney said.

"In any case, get some rest. Santa should be here by midnight." John added, "And no peeking! Remember: he sees you when you're sleeping."

"That thought never failed to creep me out as a kid," Rodney said, though he obediently rolled himself into his sleeping bag.

~*~*~


The gate rose, a pinpoint of light only a little bit smaller than one of the moons. John had figured out why it twinkled so much.

He shook Rodney awake. "I was thinking of letting you sleep through this, but, just promise you won't yell at me, okay?" He returned to the cockpit and began punching in the Atlantis address.

Rodney rubbed sleep out of his eyes, sitting up in his sleeping bag. "Nothing good can happen after words like--"

He was cut off as the stargate lit up in the sky, a bright blue, glowing star. It looked like it could've hung over Bethlehem.

John then brought up the viewer for a closeup. It showed the stargate, spinning lazily, end over end. Twinkling as it reflected light from the sun. Full-sized in the viewer, it lit the entire Jumper in brilliant, glowing blue light. Its spin had probably slowed but it was still going from when they hit it three days before.

Rodney was breathless. "You can't get us off the ground, even if you could control our trajectory and spin in the air. Not with just one drive pod."

John simply grinned.

"You knew? The DHD works from the ground and you knew? You idiot! Get the radio--gimme that!" Rodney said, snatching John's headset. "Atlantis, this is Rodney McKay, come in! Come in, Atlantis!"

"Uh--" John warned.

The squeal and crackling static blasted Rodney loud enough that even John could hear it. Rodney yanked the earpiece off and threw it aside.

"Tried that," John explained, watching the gate carefully.

Timing the spin for when the gate edge faced them.

Then John fired.

The drone streaked towards the gate like a tiny comet. It was like his video game. The gate was almost vertical when the comet hit, striking a glancing blow off the edge. Bullseye. Almost.

The puddle shut down.

Rodney wasted no time to tear into him, "Have you any idea how much power there is in a drone?!"

John redialed the gate. He had timed the shot right. He just needed another chance to drop the drone in the basket.

But nothing happened.

John swallowed. "Could be we're out of range."

~*~*~


The next morning John woke to find Rodney in the copilot's chair, running calculations.

"It's possible," Rodney said, turning to him. "I hadn't considered the drones as an alternate to the drive pods." The math, more advanced than anything John could follow, scrolled across the viewscreen. "We'd be ballistic, and we'd have no control beyond the drones' guidance system--"

"A drone-based JATO...." John marveled.

"Jet Assisted Take-Off, yes, in a sense. Only much, much more powerful," Rodney warned. "And I'd have to replace both the drive pods. It wouldn't technically be jet-assisted however, because that would imply we'd have something left after the drones ran out."

"I landed with one drive before. Can't we--?"

Rodney shook his head. "The power differential is too great. We'd spin so fast it would knock out the inertial dampeners."

"Thus crushing our vital organs and never mind," John agreed, "I don't want to be a bug on a windshield."

"This option is all or nothing."

"Like that episode of Star Trek where Spock nearly burned everyone up in the atmosphere," John said, feeling hopeful regardless.

"Please. Like he could've ever collected enough energy for a take-off from a couple of phasers." Rodney rolled his eyes. "Meanwhile, I'll be using something with enough power to detonate a Goa'uld mothership." He looked positively gleeful at the prospect.

John bobbed his head. "Okay." He glanced at his chronometer. "You start work in ... seventeen hours." Rodney's face fell, so John explained, "Listen to me for once. There's no point in your going through all that effort if the gate's, ah ... malfunctioning."

"And we all know whose fault that would be."

"Thus you get a day off while we wait for the gate to rise," John said, squirming. "Consider it indoor recess." He handed Rodney the video game in wordless apology.

~*~*~


The knocking sound was so unfamiliar, Rodney's sleep-addled brain provided a dozen alternate explanations, all impossible-tree branch on a planet with no trees, anyone?-before he realized someone was actually knocking. The sound came again from the back of the Jumper.

"Anyone home?" The muffled voice came through the metal alloy.

John sleep-snuffled awake, though it showed the measure of Rodney's surprise that John still managed to shamble to the hatch before Rodney was fully cognizant of what was happening.

"'Lo," John said. Cold air whooshed in.

There were humans on this planet after all? How could they have missed that? Rodney checked the time. It was two hours before gate-rise.

"Someone call Triple-A?"

The voice was Major Lorne. Who was smirking at them from the doorway. Behind him clustered a team of marines-as impossible as ghosts-and then Ronon. For some reason Ronon being there made it all suddenly real.

"Yeah, we got a flat," John said blearily. "I thought we were outside your service area."

"Well, someone was pretty insistent. They fired a drone at the gateroom."

"It went in? Wow. Hey, you had the shield up, didn't you? There was no IDC," John growled at him, suddenly turning back into the base commander.

"Drones are pretty powerful," Lorne drawled. "We've called a decorator but the shield's been down for the last several hours."

"Crap," John said.

"So," Ronon asked, hip cocked. "Need a ride?"

John stroked his chin, musing, "Well, Rodney's got this plan to reconfigure the drive pods to use the drones. We were gonna fire ourselves at the gate and since you're here, obviously the gate works, so ... we pretty much have it under control." John shrugged. "But a ride would save time, yeah."

All of it sounded silly from a guy standing there in boots and long johns.

"Cool." Ronon nodded, approving the plan.

Rodney, already getting dressed in a hurry, chirped up, "Of course, there's a chance we'd impact on the gate and die in a naquadah enhanced fireball, so it's just as well you showed." He stomped his feet into his boots and stood. "Which way to rescue? And, more importantly-coffee."

"After you," Lorne said with a polite sweep of his arm.

~*~*~


The first sensation as they stepped out of the Jumper into Atlantis was the rush of warmth. Ah, city-wide central heating, there was nothing like it. Even a Jumper's heating system was more like the heat you got in your car: warm while it was on, dissipating quickly once you turned it off.

The second was the blessed sound of people. People laughing, people talking, complaining, the scuff of footsteps, the tap-click of a pen being dropped on hard floor.

The third was the smell of Elizabeth's shampoo as she gave Rodney a relieved hug. Interestingly, she and Sheppard didn't hug. But then again, nobody hugged Sheppard. He always ducked out of hugging range. Only Jeannie had ever captured him; no one escaped a Jeannie hug.

After that first wash of warmth, however, Rodney noticed the draft. Plastic sheeting ballooned over the windows above the gateroom.

"Um. Sorry about the mess." John thumbed at the damage.

"I'll take it out of your allowance," Elizabeth quipped. "In the meantime, since you missed Christmas, we saved you pie."

Ronon added, "A whole one."

"Pumpkin, I believe it is," said Teyla.

"And there's presents." Ronon folded his arms. "I got you something."

John slapped his forehead. "I haven't wrapped anything."

Elizabeth steered them towards the kitchen. "There's plenty of time for that. We're just grateful that you're safe."

As they navigated the halls to the mess, John asked Teyla, "So. How did the negotiations go?"

Teyla took a breath. "Very well." She paused. "At first."

Ronon gave a feral grin. "Yeah. They were pretty upset when you wrecked their gate."

Rodney spluttered. "They can't possibly blame that on us! They didn't even know they had a gate until we told them."

"Your streak continues," Elizabeth observed. "I can't even send you two near a negotiation."

"It's a coincidence!"

John nudged him with an elbow. "Gift horses, Rodney. Gift horses."

~*~*~


With a mug of hot chocolate in front of him and a day off, Rodney of course was back in his office. John stop by to chide him, but Rodney waved John in without getting up, his casual manner showing he really wasn't working.

In fact, he was playing a simulation on his computer. "I want you to see this."

The display showed a Jumper with super-sized drive pods. They ignited and the Jumper launched from the planet's surface towards a gate in orbit.

It hit the gate at an angle. The Jumper exploded.

Rodney typed in new numbers and the simulation began again. The Jumper launched from the planet, went through the gate at an angle. And still exploded.

"The two little people burning in the cockpit are a nice touch," John noted. "I like how they thrash around."

"Zelenka wanted me to add us leaping out of the Jumper in parachutes to our doom, but, as we didn't have parachutes, I thought I'd stick to a greater level of realism."

Rodney clicked the spacebar. The Jumper launched again, this time from directly below the gate. Once again it impacted, though the resulting explosion was the size of a continent and shattered one of the moons. Debris scattered over the planet.

"That's the one where the pod hits the gate and sets off a chain reaction in the naquadah. Only a 0.2% probability, but spectacular when it happens," Rodney said easily.

"So what's our success ratio?" John said, taking a sip of his own hot chocolate. Mmm. Instant cocoa.

"So far?" Rodney said. "Zero percent." He smirked up at John. "Apparently, if you launch a missile at a solid object, it explodes. Who knew?"

"I think we would've beaten the odds," John said with a smile.

"This isn't 'odds.'" Rodney laughed. "This is certainty."

"Yeah," John said. "But it's us." He gave a rakish grin and thumped Rodney on the shoulder. "C'mon. It's your day off. Let's go play a real video game."

Rodney snorted. "Someday your American exceptionalism is going to get us both killed." But he bounced up to follow John, grabbing his coat from the back of his chair. They walked side by side down the Atlantis hall. "If you try to sell me on another first person shooter, I'm pulling out World of Warcraft."

"Now, now," John shook his head, smiling. "Would I steer you wrong?"
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