Title: The Ones You Leave Behind
Prompt: Skin and Bones
Word Count: 30,190
Pairings: McKay/Sheppard (Minor Keller/McKay)
Warnings: Squick; Sort of major character death
Summary: "I love you," Rodney said. "You can't die anymore."
"I'm so sorry. I am so awfully sorry about this," Chief Minister Absalom said again.
Rodney, Ronon and Teyla were in the Chief Minister of Armament's private office. Rodney watched Ronon pacing out of the corner of his eye, a lion in a cage, and wished it made him feel less claustrophobic. Rodney knew he'd be pacing himself, except somehow he couldn't seem to move.
Chief Minister Absalom was a tall man but completely unimpressive, thin and lost in the thick, overly elegant trappings of the room. His long, anxious fingers were clasped together in front of him like a man at prayer. Praying for their forgiveness, maybe. After all, John had been with Absalom when he was taken.
"They must have--there must have been a spy for the Melorists at the introduction ceremony," Absalom said. His eyes were as big and beseeching as a kicked dog's. He actually flinched when Rodney glared at him.
"Well, that much is pretty fucking obvious! And how, exactly, is that going to help, here?" Rodney snapped. Normally Teyla would have at least looked at him admonishingly for using such abusive language with potential allies, but she didn't say anything. She was standing with her hands fisted, face stoic and calm against the fear Rodney was sure had to be churning underneath.
John and Absalom had already been missing for five hours when the Gendarmes found the Minister, bound and gagged in a warehouse frighteningly far from the munitions factory he'd been so eager to show his new Lantean Friends. Absalom's suit was ripped and dusty, and he had gobs of sticky residue at the corners of his mouth, left over from this world's version of duct tape. Normally Rodney might have found that funny, except the Minister's wrists were wrapped with gauze where he'd ripped his own skin trying to get the ropes off, and there was nothing funny about this at all.
The report Rodney had been given on the abduction said there was no trace of John in the warehouse except his tracking device, which had been cut out of his arm. Rodney had tried not to add 'sepsis' to the growing list of things John could be suffering right that second in his head.
"I can track him," Ronon said. "Give me my gun back. I'll find him and make whoever took him pay for it." His fingers kept tapping against his empty thigh holster. Rodney was wondering when Ronon would snap and just go for Absalom's throat.
"I assure you, we have all our available Gendarmes and Warmen searching for him," Absalom said. "They are rounding up suspected Melorists for questioning even as we speak." He looked directly at Ronon with his watery gray eyes. "You would only hinder their efforts."
Ronon bared his teeth. "I'm better than they are." He looked at Rodney. "This is stupid. All this talking's not going to get Sheppard back. I say we go out there, start searching." He cracked his knuckles meaningfully, glaring at Absalom as if he were the target. "I'll find him."
Absalom's face lost what little color it had, and he stuttered over his next words. "W-We have equal or greater technology than you, as you are well aware." He managed to draw himself up a bit. "Everything possible is already being done to find your comrade. Much as I sympathize with you, there is nothing more you can do here. Go back to your home world. We will contact you with any information."
"With all due respect, Minister Absalom," Teyla said, speaking for the first time. Her voice was crisp with thinly-concealed anger. "All the technology in the universe cannot equal a skilled tracker on the ground. Ronon's ability is unparalleled. It was his specialty in the Satedan Forces, and further honed during the seven years he was able to elude the Wraith as a Runner. You will be making a grave mistake if you do not allow him to use his abilities in the search."
"It's not like they can stop us," Ronon said.
Absalom's smile was wan and tight, but he still looked dangerously triumphant as he thumbed on the intercom on his desktop.
"Group Leader Zojep," Absalom said, his eyes on the three of them rather than the screen, "please escort our Lantean guests to the Gate. It's time for them to go home."
"I'm not going anywhere," Ronon snarled, but it was Rodney who stopped him with a hand on his chest.
"It won't help John if we start a war!" Rodney hissed at him. "Come on," he said, normal-voiced to Ronon's murderous expression. "We're not going to achieve anything here." Whatever was on his face must have made sense, because Ronon finally nodded reluctantly and stepped back.
"We will be in contact, Minister," Teyla said.
It was as much a threat as a promise, but Absalom just nodded. "Of course," he said. He gave them a shortened version of his people's overly-elaborate genuflection as the door slid open to show the Group Leader, standing severely at attention.
Behind him was one of the brand-new war robots the Keshirans were so proud of. It was large enough that Rodney could only see one of its massive legs, its metal hull shining with an odd mixture of dull bronze and silvery-green. The munitions factory John had been going to was full of these, apparently: enormous, unfinished golems, each one bigger than a Jumper and more powerful, better armored and faster than a modern tank--at least according to what John said after the very long demonstration they'd both been forced to attend. John had been excited as a kid, thrilled at the idea of going to the manufacturing plant. He'd whispered to Rodney that he hoped Atlantis could trade for one. Now one of the robots was going to make sure the remaining members of John's team left him behind. It wasn't really an irony, but it was bitter as acid all the same.
The robot's featureless, gun-sight head turned slowly as the three of them left the Minister's chamber, following them like targets. Rodney didn't look behind him, but he could hear the robot trailing them and its Gendarme master like a silent, vicious dog. It was too large to go through the tunnel upright, so it dropped to all fours, knuckle-walking like an ape. Rodney could hear its ponderous steps along the carved stone floor. The vibrations reverberated like a slow drumbeat up his spine.
Kahla was in the Main Hall, looking lovely in her dark blue suit with the sash showing her rank as Officiate for the Ministry of Armament. She was standing near one of the meters-wide tapestries showing how the Keshirans first hid from the Wraith, and she all but leaped away from the wall when she saw Rodney, her pretty bow of a mouth already open to speak. But Kahla stopped as soon as she saw Rodney's face. Her mouth shut and she retreated, turning and walking swiftly away.
Rodney scowled after her, wondering what she could have wanted. She'd been his constant companion the whole day--gorgeous and perky and smart and hanging on his every word, reminding him so much of Jennifer that he'd started flirting despite himself. She'd breathlessly pressed herself against his arm almost every time she spoke, and Rodney had only felt distantly guilty when she'd begged him to come with her to the Library of Physical Sciences instead of going to the munitions factory with John. John had looked disappointed at not having anyone to geek out with over the killer robots, but Rodney had been too flushed with a pretty girl's attention to care.
He shouldn't blame Kahla for his not having been there at the factory. Rodney knew that. He was sure she'd been going to apologize anyway, just like Chief fucking Minister Absalom was so good at, and the last thing Rodney wanted to hear was another apology. He'd already heard enough of them, and they wouldn't help get John back.
One of the interchangeable military personnel grudgingly brought them their weapons, and Rodney was surprised at how much of a relief it was to have his P90 and M9 back. He was handed John's weapons as well, which felt so much like getting John's last effects that he immediately shoved them at Ronon. Ronon just shouldered the P90 without comment, keeping John's Para .45 pistol in one hand and his own blaster in the other, like he was about to start a firefight. Rodney noticed Zojep quietly draw his own sidearm in response, and just rolled his eyes. The Group Leader's small pistol-like weapon would be either useless or overkill, with the giant robot right behind him.
The stiff young man who held the position of Gate Watch snapped into ramrod-perfect attention as he saw Group Leader Zojep approach. He was standing next to the DHD, but meekly stepped back when Zojep waved him aside and wordlessly gestured for Rodney to dial in the address. Rodney put in the chevrons for one of the alternate Alpha sites, knowing that anyone with a keen memory would be able to follow them right to Atlantis otherwise. The Keshirans might have been falling all over themselves to be Atlantis' allies, but that didn't mean much, especially with Melorist spies apparently all over the place and able to murder Gendarmes and abduct Ministers and off-worlders on a whim.
And John was still out there, somewhere, down one of the scores of tunnels that made up the Keshirans' underground civilization. Lost and alone, and the three people who cared about him most in the universe were helpless to do anything.
Rodney could feel the weight of the robot's blind gaze on his back, all the way through the event horizon.
"No," Rodney said, rubbing the skin between his eyes. "We really, really weren't able to avoid the introduction ceremony." He lifted his head to glare at Woolsey, who was reminding him of Chief Minister of Armament Absalom, which wasn't doing anything to calm him down. "Maybe you're not aware of this, being new here and all, but we're not exactly in the habit of flaunting the ATA gene all over the Pegasus galaxy!"
"Rodney," Teyla said.
"What?" Rodney snarled, whirling on her. "John's been missing for--" he glanced at his watch, "damn it! Nearly seven hours and we have no way of knowing where he is or of going after him! I should be figuring out a way to track him, instead of wasting time repeating myself saying things that aren't even important!"
Woolsey drew himself up. He was considerably more imposing than Absalom had been, which still didn't impress Rodney much. "I think it's important to establish why they might have been interested in abducting Colonel Sheppard in the first place, Dr. McKay," he said stiffly.
Rodney let out a huff of frustration. "Their 'advanced technology' is dependent on a lot of Ancient tech, most of it reverse-engineered," he said, making air quotes. "And they've been underground so long that they're all a bunch of drooling, inbred hicks who barely have enough combined natural ability to turn on a light bulb, let alone actually run the majority of their supposedly superior equipment."
"They have recently begun turning their knowledge towards building war materiel to destroy the Wraith," Teyla said. Rodney didn't miss the twitch of Woolsey's mouth as he winced, since the 'recently' had been since John had inadvertently woken the Wraith fifty years early, though as usual Teyla was far too generous to actually say it. "But their new weapons require the ATA gene to initialize them. The introduction ceremony is also a means to see if any newcomers possess the gene, since it is rare in Pegasus. They were therefore extremely pleased when both John and Rodney were able to illuminate the ceremonial Ancient device."
Rodney snorted. He should have figured that would blow up in their faces.
Woolsey was nodding interestedly as if this was a board meeting and not an urgent tactical discussion. "And the Chief Minister believes that the...Melorists have stolen some prototypes, and abducted John to activate them?"
"To overthrow the legitimate government, yes," Teyla said. She looked calm enough to go on with this tangent for another few hours, and Rodney fought the urge to just start screaming obscenities or punch the wall.
"Who cares what they wanted him for?" Ronon demanded, echoing Rodney's thoughts. "Why are we standing here talking?" He slapped the wall, hard enough that the glass sang in its casing. "I say we go back now--Absalom can't kick us out again if there're enough of us."
"We've got a platoon available to search," Major Lorne said. He'd been standing silently with his hands behind his back until this point, with the same closed-off expression all military people seemed to get when things went to shit and they had to dig their way out. "From what you've described, though," he added, looking at Rodney, "I don't know if we could successfully take on one of those robots."
"You can't," Rodney said. He signed in frustration, rubbing his forehead again. "Believe me. I looked at the specs for those things in the Keshirans' library. Nothing short of a Jumper would take it out."
"So we fly in a Jumper," Ronon said. "If it's cloaked they won't know it's there until we start firing."
"And that would start a war, Ronon!" Rodney said, fear feeding his anger. "I don't think we want to make enemies of the people who have John's life in their hands, do you?"
"Dr. McKay is right, I'm afraid," Woolsey said to Ronon. He really did look like he regretted it, which Rodney supposed had to count for something. "The Keshirans made it very clear that they didn't want our help in the search, and short of creating an interplanetary incident, I can't see any alternative but to respect their sovereignty in this matter." He ran a hand over the ribbon of hair at the back of his skull. "I don't like this any more than you do," he said, "but we can't afford to antagonize these people. Not only for the Colonel's sake, but because the last thing we need is another enemy with potentially as much destructive power as the Wraith."
"So we're going to do nothing, sir?" Lorne asked. He sounded horrified.
Ronon let out a burst of anguished rage and walked stiffly out of the room. Woolsey wisely let him go.
"We are going to do something, Major," Woolsey said as soon as Ronon was gone and his office was quiet again. He smiled, but it was more ironic than anything. "My background is in law, and I've managed to...convince people to see things our way before. I'm hoping that with the right incentive, Chief Minister Absalom will agree to let us continue to the search for Colonel Sheppard."
"That could take weeks," Teyla said.
Woolsey let out a breath, nodded. "Let's just hope that they find him quickly enough that this all becomes a non-issue."
Rodney nodded tightly in return. All he could think was that, even if Woolsey succeeded, it would be too late.
John's warm arms slid lovingly around Rodney's waist from behind, and Rodney was so happy they'd found him and brought him back, safe and sound. And in his dream he was going to turn around on his lab stool to kiss him, and it was right and perfect that they were lovers and always had been. And then he jerked awake and the morning sunlight was slicing sharp and merciless through the laboratory window, and the arms belonged to Jennifer, and John was still gone.
"You told me you were just finishing up some things," she said. Her voice was worried, not accusing, but Rodney bristled anyway.
He didn't push her away, but shifted in a way that might as well have been a push, and she let go and stepped back. She stood there, clean and pretty in her yellow hair and yellow stripes, and she looked so young and vulnerable that for a moment Rodney didn't even recognize her, couldn't even imagine how this had been the woman he had dated, made love to, promised things he wasn't certain he even wanted just to see her smile.
I'm sorry, he wanted to say, the words already trembling on his lips, nothing but the flick of his tongue to push them out. Easy, automatic; he was used to being the person she thought he should be.
But he had been running simulations for two days, trying to improve the General Hammond's sensors until they could cut through deep layers of rock, find the people hiding beneath them like insects under stones. Rodney had a theory, a possibility he clutched to him like hope, that if they could just see, into the tunnels they'd be able to find him. If they could see, they'd be able to beam a team in where they wouldn't be immediately surrounded.
"I was working," he said, which was both a defense and excuse. He turned back to his laptop, squinting at the blurring numbers on the screen. He ran his fingers through his hair, gritty with dirt and old sweat. He hadn't left his lab to do more than piss in nearly two days.
"I know," Jennifer said. She reached for him again, curled her hand around his arm, and part of Rodney marveled at how small it was. He could barely feel it. "But you've been working for over forty hours. You're making yourself sick. You need to sleep."
"I need to find Sheppard," Rodney snapped. "The General Hammond is leaving in three days! If I don't find some way of boosting the range of the scanners before then, our best chance of finding out where John is will be gone!"
"And what if you collapse from stress? Or have a heart attack or an aneurysm? How will you be able to help him then?" Jennifer demanded. She put her hands on her hips, glaring at him like an angry doll. "At least go to the mess and get a proper meal, Rodney!" She gestured at the lab table, littered with ripped plastic and foil and empty coffee cups. "You're driving yourself into a breakdown! How can you possibly be effective like this?"
"I don't have a choice!" Rodney shouted. He stood, suddenly angry, so much so that he was trembling with it like the effects of hypoglycemia or a rush of adrenaline. "The Hammond's been recalled to Earth, and Sam can't put off the SGC any longer!" She'd been helping him as well, aboard her ship, but she was also the commander and the time she could devote to non-priority projects was limited. And Rodney had found out years ago just how little of a priority John Sheppard was to the SGC. He might be military commander of Atlantis, but he had never been considered irreplaceable. "I've got three more days to figure out how to get Sheppard back," Rodney said. "And if I don't do it now it's not going to happen! He'll be gone!"
"He's already gone!" Jennifer shouted back at him. "It's been nearly a month! If there was any hope of getting him back, it would have happened by now!"
"Don't say that!" Rodney yelled, so loudly and fiercely that Jennifer actually backed up a step, flinching away from him. It made Rodney feel guilty but he didn't stop. "The Melorists wanted him for a specific purpose--there's every reason to think he's still alive and all right!" There wasn't, of course, but Rodney still clung to it like a board in an ocean. Otherwise he could only think of the horrible, more plausible things: John quadriplegic, other people moving his numb, useless hands; John brain-damaged; limbless; dead. And if Rodney did that, he wouldn't be able to work, wouldn't be able to function.
"Rodney," Jennifer said. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead with two fingers, a gesture so remarkably familiar Rodney was certain she'd learned it from him. When she looked at him again her face was guileless and terribly sad. "He might not even be on the same planet anymore." She drew a breath, the medical professional steeling herself to deliver bad news. I'm afraid the cancer's not operable. "I think you need to consider the possibility that he's not going to come back."
"No," Rodney barked immediately. "No. I'm not considering that possibility. I'm not even going to think about it. Not until John walks through our Stargate or--or we get some other information about him." His heart was beating against his chest like it was trying to get out, like his whole body knew he was lying.
Jennifer looked at him for what felt like a long time. Rodney straightened his shoulders almost unconsciously, crossed his arms. She nodded, finally, but Rodney didn't know what she was confirming, what she had seen.
"Okay, Rodney. Okay," she said quietly. She turned to walk away, then stopped and turned back to him. "If you don't go and get some real food, then sleep for at least six hours, I'm confining you to the infirmary. Woolsey will back me up on this, you know he will."
Rodney's eyes shot wide open. "Don't you dare do that! I can't afford to sleep! The Hammond--"
"The General Hammond will still be there in six hours, Rodney," Jennifer said tightly. "And you'll make better progress if you're rested!" She crossed her arms. "Don't you owe that to the Colonel?"
Rodney swallowed. "You little bitch," he said.
For a second she looked like he's slapped her, and he supposed he might as well have. "I'm sorry," he said quickly. He rubbed an eye socket with his hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."
Jennifer stared at him. "Get some rest, Rodney," she said.
Rodney had turned back to his computer by the time she walked away.
Woolsey called Rodney into his office the day after the General Hammond left, over a week behind schedule. The new upgrades he and Sam had cobbled together improved the scanners' range by almost fifty percent. It still hadn't been good enough.
"What?" Rodney snapped as soon as the door closed behind him. Woolsey had accomplished nothing in a month of negotiation, and Rodney had no patience for him anymore. "What was so tremendously important that you had to tell me in person?" He was only barely surprised to see Ronon, Teyla and Lorne there as well, all of them looking tense and impatient.
Woolsey had been standing in front of his pompous bookshelves, studying them as if they could offer some skill or insight he obviously and painfully lacked. He turned around when Rodney stormed in, unsurprised and unsmiling, walking around his desk.
"This," he said simply, and handed Rodney what had been in his hand. "Kahla gave it to me," he said, and Rodney realized Woolsey looked uncertain, maybe even afraid. "She, ah passed it to me surreptitiously in a corridor. I naturally hid it until I returned to Atlantis."
Rodney looked at the tiny wad of cloth in his hand, then at Woolsey. He realized distantly that he was too terrified to unfold it. "What is it?"
"Why don't you unwrap it so we can find out?" Lorne said, sarcastic as ever. But when Rodney glanced at him he could see the nervousness there in his face.
"Right, of course," Rodney said. He unwrapped the cloth quickly, knowing there was no way he could steel himself. The others gathered close, peering down almost comically with their heads nearly touching.
The outer wrapping was brown cloth. Just cloth, nothing special. It might have come from a shirt or a bed sheet or one of a hundred other things. But the cloth inside was unmistakable.
"That's his wristband," Lorne said.
"We'll need to have it checked for DNA," Woolsey said. "Verify that it's the Colonel's"
Rodney nodded absently. He was staring at it, cradled like a bird in the nest of brown cloth in his hands.
"There's blood on it," Ronon said. He pointed at a tiny stain, the black cloth made darker and stiff. Rodney knew he wouldn't have seen it if Ronon hadn't shown them.
He hoped to God it belonged to someone else.
"There is something inside," Teyla said.
Rodney only realized then that he hadn't even noticed. He put the precious bundle down on Woolsey's desk and carefully pulled out the neatly-folded material. It was the cloth the Keshirans used to write on. Rodney remembered watching it scroll out of their printers like linen off a roll.
He didn't recognize the writing, but he assumed it was Kahla's.
Don't believe them.
Woolsey looked up at all of them, eyes large and blinking. "Don't believe whom? What does that mean?"
"I don't know," Teyla said. "Could she be a Melorist?"
"'Don't believe them'," Lorne quoted softly. His eyes were distant, considering. "She has to be talking about the government. Why would she have given you that, otherwise?"
"To confuse us," Ronon put in. "Throw us off the trail. It's just more of their games."
"We should meet with her," Teyla said. She looked at Woolsey. "Richard," she said, voice quickening in urgency, "the next time you contact the Keshirans, you must--"
Down below them, the Gate started dialing.
"Unscheduled off-world activation," Sergeant Campbell announced needlessly. He looked over his shoulder at Woolsey; they had all come running into the Control room. "It's the IDC we gave to the Keshirans."
Woolsey gave Rodney a swift, indecipherable glance. "Open communications," he said.
"Someone's contacting us," Campbell said, and keyed on the intercom.
"Atlantis? This is Sheppard," John said.
"John?" Rodney said, and suddenly he felt like he couldn't breathe. His chest hurt, and he realized he had his hands on the back of Campbell's chair, gripping it so tightly his knuckles were aching. "Oh my God, John?" His whole body was frozen, nothing working except his racing heart, wild with dread and exultation.
And he could hear the smile in John's voice, when he answered. "What other Sheppards do you know?"
"John," Teyla said. She was beaming, tears in her eyes. Rodney couldn't remember the last time he had seen either her or Ronon look happy. But Ronon was grinning too. He slapped Rodney on the back, as if Rodney had anything to do with this.
"Hey, Teyla," John said. "Good to hear your voice. I'm at the Alpha site, with a couple friends of mine. I was wondering if we could come on over, if it's not too much trouble."
"Drop the shield," Woolsey ordered. Campbell's hand was already on the crystal.
Rodney bolted down the stairs, John's wristband clutched tight in his hand.
Don't believe them, he thought. But then John walked through the Gate, flanked by a Gendarme and Chief Minister of Armament Absalom himself. And John was smiling, whole and alive.
Teyla made a childish squeal of delight that Rodney would never have imagined could come from her and hugged John tight. Rodney saw John's eyes widen before he hugged her back. His expression was so absolutely, perfectly John that Rodney's next breath hitched, and he had to wait for an embarrassing moment before he could look up again, for fear he'd start bawling in the Gate room in front of his team, Woolsey and all the Marines.
Teyla was crying, her tears flowing openly down her cheeks. He watched as Teyla let go of John, but only to pull his head down into her people's version of an embrace with their forehead's touching, and she was smiling up into his eyes.
"It is good to have you back, John," she said.
"Yeah, likewise," John said. He straightened from her, only to be snatched off the floor into one of Ronon's typically crushing bear hugs. John let out a yelping laugh, hugged Ronon back as best he could with his feet dangling. Ronon let him go long enough to rough up John's hair, but then grabbed the back of John's neck, ducking his own head down so that when they embraced again it was more intimate, with their temples touching.
John gave Ronon a single, quick nod when Ronon let him go, looking happy but overwhelmed.
He turned immediately to Rodney, who had been hanging back. Rodney was overjoyed and inexplicably nervous, thumb moving restlessly over his fingers. He had no idea what to do.
"Hi," Rodney said, knowing his smile probably looked weak and awful but not being able to change it. "I'm glad you're not dead."
John smirked a little. He didn't come any closer, either, as if Rodney had thrown up a barrier between them. "Me too."
Rodney kept smiling. He wanted to touch John so badly his hands twitched with it, but he stayed where he was. He was sure that if he embraced John now he wouldn't want to let go of him, he wouldn't be able to hide anything anymore. Everyone would know exactly how he felt. John would know how he felt. "Well, uh, welcome back," he said.
"Thanks, Rodney," John said quietly, and Rodney didn't really know what it was on John's face that made it impossible to hold his eyes anymore, but Rodney flicked his glance down and away.
Woolsey had been speaking to the two Keshirans, but now he immediately gave John his full attention, warmly shaking his hand.
"It's very good to have you back, Colonel," Woolsey said. Teyla had said almost exactly the same thing, but it was just as true.
"Thank you, sir," John said. His smile was diplomatic and fake, which only proved to Rodney how crowded John was feeling. John loved praise, but hated being at the center of attention like this. It made Rodney want to go to him, protect him with his voice and belligerence, but Rodney didn't move. John wouldn't really want that, anyway.
"Chief Minister Absalom tells me you're in remarkably good health, considering your ordeal, but we should probably get you to the infirmary to make sure," Woolsey said.
"Of course, right," John said. He looked almost grateful for the out, his smile still uncomfortable. "I guess I should go there, then."
"We will walk you, John," Teyla said, smiling at him and putting her hand on his arm.
Ronon slapped John on the back, hard enough that he staggered. "Sure," he agreed happily. "Let's go."
Rodney hesitated, but then John looked over his shoulder at him. "You coming, Rodney?"
"Of course," Rodney said instantly, brusquely, like he'd never even considered doing anything but going with them.
And when John gave him one of his shy but real grins, Rodney realized he really hadn't.
"His DNA matches perfectly," Jennifer said, smiling. "This is definitely our Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard." She peeled off her gloves with finality.
"Well, of course he is!" Rodney said, mostly to cover how deeply relieved he felt. Not that he hadn't believed this was John, but, well. They'd met copies of expedition members before, some less benign than others.
And Rodney didn't want to think about what he would have done if it hadn't actually been John, sitting on the examination table and looking at them all a little bemusedly, as if he couldn't entirely grasp why everyone was so happy to see him.
"'Knew it was you," Ronon said. He clapped his hand on John's shoulder and shook him a little, grinning ferociously when John smiled at him.
"Well, it's always better to be sure," Jennifer said to Rodney, but she was beaming as well, her admonishment lost in the happiness they were all feeling. Except that she kept darting quick, shifting glances at Rodney, her smile going weak and unsure, like she didn't know if it would be welcome.
Rodney didn't care. They'd had a fight, but he loved her and everything was good. They were good. Right then he loved the whole city, the entire galaxy, even. Because it was really John sitting there, and he was just fine.
John was in the white examination scrubs now, but he'd come through the Gate dressed in a truncated version of the stuffy suits the Keshirans liked. His hair was even messier and he badly needed a shave, but other than that he was in perfect health, Jennifer said. Not sick, starved or dehydrated, not implanted with a Wraith tracking device or crawling with nanites, and in full possession of his limbs, his organs and his brain. Other than the tiny, healed scar showing where his locator beacon had been removed, he didn't even have any injuries. No cuts, no bruises, no recently-healed bones, nothing. Rodney had almost made a joke about John having been on vacation.
Except John couldn't remember what had happened to him. Almost nothing, until he woke up in the Keshirans' hospital.
Rodney, Ronon and Teyla were clustered around him; Jennifer hadn't even bothered to ask them to leave. None of them could stop touching John, either, Ronon especially: his shoulders, his back, his head. He was grinning at John, mouth full of teeth. He would occasionally rough up John's already chaotic hair, and it was obviously just because he could.
Teyla pulled John into another Athosian embrace. "We are most pleased that you are well, John," she said.
"Um, thanks," John said. He still seemed a bit overwhelmed, but he touched his forehead to hers anyway.
"It's actually kind of miraculous," Jennifer said. She blinked when everyone looked at her, as if she hadn't realized she'd been speaking aloud. "Sorry," she said quickly. "I just mean..." She spread her hands, her smile sweet and full of self-recrimination. "I just mean I was expecting a lot worse. I'm normally not so lucky, you know?" She shot a quick glance at Rodney, as if expecting some nasty reply.
"We were all lucky," Rodney said. It was maudlin and squeamishly sentimental and not something he would ever say, except that it was absolutely true. And the hopeful, pleased light in Jennifer's eyes made it worth it.
"Rodney is correct," Teyla said fondly to John. "We are all very lucky that you have been returned to us well and whole."
"Right," John said, but his mouth twitched unhappily. He shook his head. "I just wish I remembered what they did." He sounded confused and a little angry. Rodney wasn't sure it had entirely sunk in yet that he'd lost nearly a month. "I have a vague image of a dark room, and something...a control chair, maybe?" He made a face. "I don't know, Maybe I dreamed it."
"They gave you something to keep you from remembering," Rodney said, because it was the most obvious conclusion and still meant that John was fine, perfectly fine.
"Well, if they did inject you with a substance of some kind, it's gone. There's no trace of anything in your system." Jennifer smiled a little crookedly. "Unfortunately, that doesn't rule out something undetectable, but considering the number of Ancient scans I put you through, I think we can safely assume that's not the case."
"So, amnesia drug," Rodney declared firmly, because that's what he wanted to have happened. So maybe the Melorists had drugged him a bit. It had worn off just like Jennifer said. John was fine.
"Great," John said, looking up at Jennifer with a hopeful smile. "So, am I good to go? I'd really like to get into some real clothes. And shave."
"I think all of that shouldn't be a problem, Colonel," Jennifer said, beaming comfortably again. "I want you to take it easy for the next few days, just to be on the safe side, but as long as you check out fine, I have no objection to you resuming your original duties again, say, in a week or so." Her smile became softer, like the ones she would occasionally turn on Rodney, the ones he felt so proud to have managed to elicit. "Welcome back, Colonel."
John's smile faded a little. "A whole week, huh?"
Jennifer laughed brightly. "Consider it a vacation, Colonel." She patted his shoulder. "I'll schedule an appointment for you."
John slid off the examination table, and Ronon slapped him on the back again, which had to sting with only the thin material of the scrubs protecting John's skin. "I can't believe Absalom kept his word."
John shrugged. The four of them started walking out of the infirmary. "I didn't really know him long enough to form an opinion," he said. "But I get the impression he's not exactly a celebrity around here."
"We were...not pleased with how he handled your disappearance, John," Teyla said. "He refused our offers to help."
"Forced us back through the Stargate," Ronon said. He glanced at Rodney, and there was a flicker of rage in his eyes, banked but not gone. "I wanted to go back."
"I'm glad you didn't," John said. "When I left, they had two of the giant robots guarding the Gate. Whoever came through wouldn't've made it very far."
Ronon shrugged, like the prospect of his dying was either impossible or insignificant. He threw a glare at Rodney again. "If we'd gone in earlier, they wouldn't've had the robots."
"Right," Rodney snapped. "Just several well-armed guards instead, and I guess you missed the metal monster following that Leader guy around? What about that?"
"I believe it no longer matters," Teyla said. She smiled fondly at John, putting her hand on the part of his shoulder where it met his neck. "We were all very worried about you."
"I can see that," John said. He winced. "Look, guys." His expression was contrite, like he'd done something wrong. "I really don't remember what happened. Someone grabbed me from behind, and after that it's pretty much a big blank, so it doesn't feel as long for me as it was for you. But I'm sorry you were worried about me."
"Good," Rodney said, realizing only afterwards that he hadn't actually meant it as a joke. "I mean," he added quickly, glancing at Teyla's foreboding expression, "that we know it wasn't your fault. We just..." He trailed off weakly, shrugging. "We were really worried."
"I'm sorry," John said again, seriously.
"Cut that out," Rodney said. He bumped John's shoulder like it was a reprimand, but it was really because John was right there, walking next to him, and Rodney could still barely believe it. It occurred to him that this might be the most he'd touched John in the entire six years he'd known him. "It's not your fault, remember?" He smiled again, amazed at how easy it was. "It's good to have you back. Lorne's competence was unnerving."
"Ooh," John deadpanned. "Good one. That was so funny I forgot to laugh."
Rodney smirked, and John grinned back: wide and warm and perfect.
"So," John said. He tried to put his hands in his pockets, but his palms just slid along the smooth cloth of the scrubs. Rodney saw him visibly hesitate before he put his hands on his hips instead. He looked around his room. It was exactly the same as the day he'd disappeared, and Rodney suddenly wished he'd thought about tidying it for him. Dusting; doing the laundry. Something.
But, "No one touched anything?" John asked. He smiled before Rodney could answer. "When I found out I'd been gone so long, I was kind of worried all my stuff would be in boxes."
"Your surfboard wouldn't fit in a box," Rodney said, and even he had no idea if what he'd just said was a joke or a desperate attempt to keep them from drifting into awkward silence. Rodney almost never had problems finding things to say, but the second Teyla and Ronon left them at John's door it was like all the words fled from Rodney's brain.
He probably shouldn't have come inside, but John had just walked right into his quarters like he expected Rodney to follow. And so Rodney had.
But now he was standing in the middle of the tiny room and they were looking at each other and Rodney had no idea what to say to him. It felt like his entire existence on Atlantis had been eclipsed, swallowed up by John's disappearance, and even if Rodney could remember specific events, everything else was trivial compared to this.
He kept wanting to say, 'I missed you', but couldn't. It would be...he didn't know, exactly. But the idea of actually saying it was too much. Terrifying.
"They don't normally box surfboards," John said, looking at his, still propped against the wall with his skateboard leaning against it. Rodney had no idea if John was joking either, or if he was just as frantic to fill the threatening silence as Rodney was.
"Right," Rodney said. "They probably just wrap them with bubble wrap."
"Actually, you can buy special bags for them," John said, "to keep them from getting scuffed, or the fin being broken. Surfboard bags." He pointed vaguely at his closet. "I uh, I have one in there."
"Oh," Rodney said. "Why the hell are we talking about this?"
John looked at him. "You started it."
"I know!" Rodney snapped. "And why did you even bring a surfboard, anyway? Have you ever actually gone surfing here? I mean, what a moronic waste--"
"Rodney," John said.
"No, I'm serious!" Rodney said, getting angry now. He knew what he was saying was ridiculous, laughable, and he didn't even know what he was angry for, but he couldn't stop. "What kind of idiot brings, brings useless crap like this to another galaxy?" He thrust a hand out in the general direction of the two boards leaning innocently against the wall. "I mean, what if you died? How the hell are we meant to--"
"Rodney," John said again, more stridently, authoritative.
"You asshole!" Rodney exploded at him. "How the hell could you be so stupid that you let someone grab you? Didn't you learn anything from Ronon and Teyla? Why did you let them beat you up for five years, if you're too fucking dense to absorb anything?"
John glared at him. "I didn't get abducted to spite you, McKay! I wasn't asking for it!" He gestured angrily at his head. "You think I wanted this to happen? I'm missing nearly a month of my life! I have no idea what those bastards even did to me!" He turned abruptly, scooped the War and Peace hardback off his bedside table and threw it against the wall. It hit with a crack so loud it made Rodney wince, derailed him from his own fury. "God damn it!" John yelled. "I am so sick and tired of losing time!"
He stood there, breathing heavily with his hands clenched. John had thrown the book with such force that its binding had split. The book lay in two pieces next to the wall, pages spread around it.
"I was in that stasis chamber in the future for seven hundred years, Rodney," John went on, while Rodney stared at him in quiet shock. The last time Rodney had seen John like this was when he'd activated the nanites in Elizabeth's body to save her life, even though John had told him 'no'. "I aged four years because of that. Four years, in an empty Atlantis, waiting for the right conditions to send me back in time. I'm forty-six years old, but everyone pretends it didn't happen. I lost six months with those god damned Ancients, doing nothing but running and pretending to meditate, so bored I thought I was going to lose my mind. And I don't know what was worse--worrying that you couldn't come for me because you were all dead, or figuring that you'd just left me there, cut your losses."
"No! We never left you, John! We never did that!" Rodney said. He stepped forward, closing the space between them. "I'm so sorry I didn't think to send you a note, let you know, but we didn't leave you. We wouldn't."
"I know," John said, quiet now. He didn't look angry anymore, just sad. "I know that." He took a breath, carding his fingers through his too-long hair. "But now I've lost another month, and I don't even know what happened to me. Sometimes it's like this galaxy just takes and takes and takes, and never gives back anything."
"I know," Rodney said. "Believe me, I know. But it's not always like that, is it?" He smiled again, a little bit, looking at John's scruffily handsome face. "Sometimes this galaxy gives back, too." He felt his smile widening, reaching his eyes. "Like you. You're back, John."
John swallowed. "Yeah. I...Thanks."
"Forget it," Rodney said. And he pulled John into a hug, the way he had wanted to before but hadn't dared.
But they were alone now, safe, or at least as safe as they could ever be in Pegasus; as safe as Rodney could ever be with himself. And Rodney thought that maybe it would be okay, if he didn't let go for a little while.
So Rodney hugged John first time ever, and probably the last. And he put his chin on John's shoulder and felt John's on his. And he knew he was hanging on too tightly, but he didn't give a damn.
"It's okay, Rodney," John said. He was patting Rodney's back, steady little thumps that were as awkward as they were comforting, and Rodney had no idea why John figured he should be comforting him, but that was what John did, wasn't it? Always making sure everyone else was all right.
"Stupid idiot," Rodney said. "Getting yourself kidnapped."
John smirked next to Rodney's ear. "Yeah, well, at least I didn't blow up a solar system."
Rodney laughed, and when he turned his head just enough to brush his lips against John's jaw, it was because they were alone, and he was sure John wouldn't even notice. Or that Rodney could pretend it was an accident if he did.
He didn't expect that John would move one of his hands to the back of Rodney's head and cradle him against his shoulder. He didn't expect John to turn his own head, until Rodney could feel the barest touch of John's lips against his neck, light as a ghost.
Rodney gasped, and John stiffened, let go.
"No!" Rodney said, and John stepped back, eyes widening. "No, I mean--" Rodney hesitated. He put his hand to his neck like an automatic reflex. He could still feel the touch of John's lips. His heart was pounding. "I mean...was that...what I did?"
John let out a harsh blast of air, ducking his head and pressing the heel of his palm against one eye. "Rodney...I'm sorry. I thought--"
"I chose Jennifer because I thought I couldn't have you," Rodney said.
John's head snapped up.
"I thought I couldn't have you," Rodney repeated, and now he knew he sounded peevish, hurt. "I went with Jennifer because I couldn't have you! And then you were gone, and now..." He broke off, shaking his head. "I don't...what do I do about this?"
John's mouth set in a thin, white line. "You don't have to do anything, Rodney. It's not..." He put his hands on his hips again, turning to look at his stupid surfboard. "It was nothing, okay?" He itched under his jaw, frowning. "Look, I'm going to get cleaned up, shave this damn beard off. Teyla and Ronon are expecting us in the mess hall, anyway." He looked back at Rodney, and Rodney had no idea what his expression meant. "I'll see you later, alright?"
"No, it's not all right!" Rodney said. "You kissed me! That's not nothing! How can that be nothing?"
"Rodney," John said on an exhale, and something about his voice, the heaviness in it, made Rodney's mouth snap shut. "I'm tired. I've had a pretty rough day and I'd like to get out of these scrubs. I can't...I'm not doing this now, okay?" He ran his fingers through his hair again. "Go, Rodney," he said when Rodney hadn't moved. "Please. I'm asking you to go."
Rodney swallowed. "It's not nothing, John," he said.
John closed his eyes. "Rodney, please. Just go."
Rodney hesitated, but John stayed still, not looking at him. Rodney wondered how long John stayed like that, after he left: standing still with his eyes shut, like he was in pain.
"I guess I should break up with her," Rodney said. He was sitting in Carson's tiny office in the only chair, staring morosely at the tin cup of scotch between his hands. He hadn't actually drunk any of it yet, but he appreciated having it all the same, Carson's ritual of comfort for a friend.
"Aye, probably," Carson said. He was sitting on the edge of his desk, in a space he'd cleared by pushing paper and equipment aside. He took another sip of his own cup. "I can't imagine she'd be happy knowing she was your second choice."
Rodney tipped his head up. "I wouldn't tell her, Carson!" He scowled. "I know I'm not always the most, um, adept at relationships, but even I know enough not to do that." He shuddered at the idea of it. "God, I wouldn't do that to her." He finally took a sip from his cup then grimaced. "I truly have no idea how you can drink this stuff."
Carson shook his head, clucking his tongue. "And you a McKay. I despair of you." He held his cup in his lap, looking at Rodney. "Even if nothing happens between you and John, it won't be fair to stay with her like this. Not if your heart's with someone else."
Rodney snorted humorlessly into his cup. "Is it just you? Or do all Scots talk like cheap romance novels?" He took another drink, then made a face and put the cup on the table, sliding it away from him.
Carson just arched his eyebrows. "I think you're missing the point, Rodney."
Rodney shot him a dark look, then sighed. He ran his hand miserably over his face. "I don't know what to do," he said. "I've felt like this for so long I'm not even sure when it started anymore. Maybe when I first saw him in the control chair, back in Antarctica. It might have been that far back. But I never...I never thought there was any point in doing anything about it."
"Mmm," Carson grunted. Rodney assumed it was in agreement, but he had to admit he hoped it was in sympathy as well. "He does play things close to the chest, that one." He sat in thought for a moment then took another sip, swallowing appreciatively. "You really don't know what you're missing, Rodney." Carson's expression became serious. "But I don't ken why you're saying you don't know what to do."
"Because I don't!" Rodney snapped. "He said it meant nothing--what am I supposed to do with that? Force my way into his affections? Sky-write my deathless devotion with a Puddle Jumper?"
"He might like the last one, actually," Carson said musingly. He smiled when Rodney glowered at him. "I'm not going to tell you what to do here," Carson began.
"Yes you are!" Rodney said. "I came here so you would tell me what to do!"
Carson rolled his eyes. "As I was saying, Rodney, I'm not going to tell you what you should do. But I will say this." He took another sip of his drink, as if fortifying himself. "As I recall, when the...other Carson died, you had a few regrets, didn't you? About things you wished you'd done with or said to him?" He turned to Rodney, face unsmiling but warm. "Don't tell me all the times you've let me drag you out fishing is because you've suddenly found a taste for it."
Rodney smirked again, but he couldn't sustain the smile. "I promised myself that I wouldn't let you down again," Rodney said. "I still think about it sometimes, how if I'd only gone with you the way I said I would in the first place, you would never--"
"Rodney, that wasn't me," Carson said, and when Rodney looked up at him, Carson's expression was rueful. "But I'm sure he would have forgiven you for not going, just like I would."
Rodney smiled. "Thanks." He didn't say that he would never feel that he deserved that forgiveness. The guilt still gnawed at him, all the things he should have done while Carson was still alive. Ironic, because he was still alive, right there in the same room. But this Carson hadn't bought the scotch Rodney hadn't drunk, and this Carson hadn't invited Rodney on the fishing trip. Most of the time it was easy to forget that. Rodney was sure that Carson himself had made himself forget. Who would he be, otherwise? How could he claim a life he only remembered having? And how could this Carson possibly forgive Rodney for a transgression he'd never experienced?
"Rodney?" Carson asked, and Rodney looked up at him, blinking. "You were a thousand miles away for a moment there. What're you thinking?"
Rodney looked at Carson for a moment, then made himself smile for his friend. "I was thinking how much I missed you, when you were dead," he said truthfully.
"I missed you too, while I was Michal's prisoner," Carson said. He took another sip of scotch, and then shook himself a bit, like he was physically throwing off the melancholy that had settled over them. "Which, I think, is all the more reason you need to sort this out with John." He smiled at Rodney again, wistful and understanding. "I'm not telling you what to do, but I think you know what you should."
Rodney sighed. He hunched over, forearms on his legs and hands dangling. "I really love her," he said quietly.
"I know you do," Carson said. "And I'm sure you could make a lovely life with her, if that's what you wanted. But I don't really think it is."
Rodney looked at his ugly gray IOA standard-issue expedition boots. "It's not," Rodney said quietly. "I thought it could be. I mean, I'm no John Sheppard, but I still got the girl." He looked up again. "She chose me over Ronon. Can you believe that?" He shook his head at the wonder of it, but let his gaze drift back to the floor. "And it was good. I was happy."
"Aye," Carson said. "But you're not really happy anymore, are you?"
Rodney shook his head. "No," he said.
Carson patted his back. "I think we all have enough regrets, Rodney," he said.
Rodney activated John's door chime, a thin, tense smile stretching across his face. His heart was pounding.
John didn't answer his door, but Rodney went in anyway. Ronon had told him that John had gone to hang out in his quarters after their morning run, so John was most likely inside.
Rodney had barely slept last night after his talk with Carson. He had no idea what would happen once he dealt with this...thing between John and him, but he hadn't gotten further than the 'I love you more than Jennifer' part in his head.
Maybe 'I love you' was all he needed to say.
He heard the shower running as soon as he was inside. He sat on John's bed to wait but hopped up almost immediately, too nervous to stay still.
Rodney took a deep, anxious breath, then squared his shoulders and went to John's bathroom, pushing the door open gently so as not to startle him and staying well back to make sure he wouldn't see anything he shouldn't.
"John," he called loudly, "John, it's Rodney! I'm just, ah, going to wait for you here. I mean outside, okay? We, um, that is, I, I need to talk to you, okay?" He gestured at the room behind him, wincing at how badly he'd managed to mangle four sentences.
He was relieved when John didn't answer, since it meant he hadn't heard him. "John!" he called even more loudly, poking his head a little further into the room. It was very humid. "John, it's Rodney! I'd like to talk to you when you're ready, okay?" There, that was better. That didn't sound awkward.
John still didn't answer.
"JOHN?" Rodney called again, yelling now. He stepped fully into the bathroom, wondering why John couldn't hear him. Maybe he was really preoccupied, or...
John was sitting on the floor of the large Ancient shower stall, slumped so that his head and shoulder had fallen against the side nearest to him. One leg was bent, the other straight out like he'd just slid straight down the wall. His arms were hanging, his fingers curled softly over the palms of his hands. His eyes were unfocused and bewildered, as if he'd been taken by surprise.
Rodney's mouth caught open on a soundless cry as he rushed forward, throwing himself to his knees in the shower stall, heedless of the water still pounding down like a hot, unforgiving rain.
"John!" he called to him, putting his hand on his throat, fumbling desperately for a pulse. "John! Can you hear me? John!"
John's body was the exact temperature of the water, already stiffening. He'd been dead for quite some time.
"The autopsy confirmed that he died of an aneurysm," Carson said. He and Jennifer were in their uniforms, no trace on them of how they'd just finished sewing John's body closed a few minutes before. Not that there would have been, Rodney knew. But part of him still expected to see blood, somewhere. Something this terrible should have left a sign.
"You said he was fine," Rodney said. "You said the scans all checked out, that there was nothing wrong with him! You said there was nothing wrong with him!"
"There wasn't," Jennifer said. She was crying, looking small and lost as a child. "Everything came back clean--the MRIs, his blood work, everything! There was no indication of an aneurysm, no indication of anything that would have raised a red flag! I didn't--" She swallowed thickly, using the tissue Woolsey had silently handed her to blot her puffy eyes again. "I looked," she said. "I looked for things like that. But there was nothing. There was nothing."
"Sometimes these things just happen, Rodney," Carson said with the awful gentleness Rodney had come to loathe in people like him, people who were willing to blame God or Fate or happenstance for whatever disaster befell them, rather than look for reasons. Rodney couldn't stand it. There were always reasons. There always had to be a reason.
"People's brains don't just start bleeding for nothing, Carson!" Rodney shouted. He was crying as well. Almost everyone in Woolsey's office was. Part of Rodney kept wanting to make some joke about the city getting swamped by tears and sinking again, and then had to brutally remind himself that John wasn't there to hear it. He kept expecting John to saunter into the meeting, drawling some smiling excuse about why he was late. And each time Rodney remembered that John wouldn't, not ever, it was the exact same punch to the heart, like he had to start grieving all over again.
"Rodney," Teyla said quietly, "this is not their fault." She was holding herself with the same rigid dignity Rodney had seen when her friend Charin had died. Her people were used to death, and Rodney almost envied her for that. She had a place to put this where she could hold the loss tight, keep it like an animal in a cage. She wore her sorrow like grace.
Ronon was more used with death than anyone; he hadn't come to the meeting. Rodney envied him for that, too. Part of him just wanted to get up, leave Woolsey's office and keep going. As if he just went far enough he could walk out of this pain.
"You're right, they don't," Carson said to Rodney. "But aneurysms can come up extremely quickly, or be virtually undetectable." He drew a deep, shuddering breath. "It's possible that the stress John was under while he was a captive contributed to it, and the fact that he was running right before it burst. It's rare that an aneurysm would develop this fast, but it happens." He shook his head, wide-eyed with grief. "Sometimes these things just happen, and there's nothing anyone can do. I'm so sorry, Rodney."
"You're sorry," Rodney said. He didn't know what he was saying it for. He put his hands over his eyes, pushed in with his fingertips until it hurt. He felt like a minnow in a bucket: racing around and around and around and achieving nothing.
"This caught all of us by surprise," Woolsey said. He hadn't known John long enough to truly grieve for him, and Rodney thought he probably envied him for that most of all. Even so, Woolsey's face was pinched and gray. He had the grief of an entire city to assuage, and he already looked exhausted. He turned to Rodney. "I've seen how close you were as a team. I can only imagine how you must be feeling. But trying to find someone to blame isn't going to help. What we need to do now is begin moving forward." He sighed, then started clicking through files on his laptop. Rodney assumed it was all of John's official information, his whole life reduced to the memory stick in the side of the machine. "He left no specific information about his wishes for a funeral, so I thought we should have a memorial service here." Woolsey looked up at everyone gathered in his office. "I personally think it would be appropriate for him to be buried at Arlington. Unless anyone has any objections, I'll request that his body be taken back to Earth."
Teyla looked at Rodney. "My people would be honored to have him rest among us, but we must do what we feel he would want."
Rodney nodded numbly. It felt so strange to be talking about this, pretending to be calm when he felt like he should be screaming, like deep inside some part of him already was. "I don't know what he would want," he said honestly. John had never seemed particularly tied to Earth, but the idea of him being left behind on a planet the Athosians might need to abandon was more terrible than Rodney could bear thinking about. "He has a brother on Earth," he said.
Woolsey nodded. "Very well." He sighed again and rubbed the bridge of his nose under his glasses. "He left private messages for each of you," he said. "The files are code-locked, but I assume you'll be able to access them." He pulled the memory stick out of his computer and handed it to Rodney. "Please let me know if he says--said--anything about his wishes for a memorial service or for the distribution of his personal effects." Woolsey's smile was very sad. "I was warned that this was the worst part of this job,'' he said. "I had somehow hoped I'd be able to avoid it. The fact that it's Colonel Sheppard..." He trailed off, looking down at his desk. "I'd hoped I'd be able to avoid it."
Rodney swallowed. He had John's memory stick clutched in his hand, which was shaking. "I'll go look at this," he said. He was desperate to get out of there. The room was too small; it felt like he couldn't breathe.
"Rodney," Jennifer said. Rodney looked at her. She was still crying, using the sodden tissue to wipe ineffectively at her eyes. She held out her hand, reaching for him. "Rodney. I'm so sorry."
Rodney looked at her, and then walked away.
There was nowhere in the city that he wanted to go, nothing that required his immediate attention, nothing he wanted to do. The only thing he wanted was John back, but he couldn't have that, and everything else was worthless now.
Just as well, he thought. All this galaxy did was take.
Rodney stood inside the doorway of his quarters for a while. Everything was exactly the same as he had left it--when? Yesterday afternoon? John had been alive, yesterday morning. The day before he'd been smiling as he walked through the Gate, and now he was gone and Rodney's room looked exactly the same.
Rodney sat down at his desk and opened his laptop. It was still running. He had no idea what he'd been working on anymore. He put the flash drive in.
There were five files: one for each member of John's team, one for Lorne and one for Carson. Woolsey probably shouldn't have put all the files on one stick. Rodney actually thought about opening them, but decided he didn't care that much.
The key phrase for the file marked 'Rodney' was 'it's in your favorite movie ever'. Rodney hesitated only a second before he typed 'Delorean'.
The file opened immediately. Rodney wished he felt like smiling.
It was a video of John, taken within the last two years if his sloppy black uniform was any indication. He was sitting on his bed with his hands clasped earnestly in his lap, looking like he was nervous about something but trying to hide it.
John was still alive on the screen, his image was right there even though he himself was gone, and the dichotomy of that almost made Rodney shut the file without playing it. But he knew if he didn't watch it now he might never have the courage, so he clicked 'play'.
Hey, Rodney, John said. He was smiling self-consciously. Um...if you're watching this, then I'm dead. Well, I guess you already know that. He looked away, running his fingers through his hair. Then he made a face and moved like he was getting up, and the video went black, being edited. John looked marginally more comfortable when he appeared again. I hope we're still friends, he said, still smiling. I hope that you're looking at this a long, long time from now, and you and me and Ronon and Teyla are all still together on Atlantis and Teyla is always pissed off at us because we're such a bad influence on her kids. He laughed a little, enjoying the idea. Yeah, he said, sobering, his smile becoming wistful. That would be good. But if that's not what happens...well... He took a deep breath, but the screen went black again. When John's image reappeared John looked nervous again, and sad. There's a copy of my will at the SGC, so you don't have to worry about that. Most of my pay and inheritance is going to my brother and his family, and a couple veterans' charities. Some of it is going to Nancy--that's my ex wife. Ronon knows her. But, uh... He smiled, still nervous. I'm donating a chunk to the Ontario Humane Society, for the cats. I figured you'd like that. It's in your name.
Rodney smirked, wiping his eyes so he could see the screen.
You, Ronon and Teyla can divide up my stuff however you want. But, I'd like you to have my dog tags. John shrugged, like it was no big deal. You don't have to wear them, or anything. I just...I'd just like you to have them. Just, you know, something to remember me.
Rodney paused the video. He had to clear his eyes again, get his breathing under control so he could hear what John was saying.
John had lost his dog tags on Keshirana; he'd died before he could replace them.
Rodney started the video again, but John had stopped talking, hesitating. He licked his lips, eyes shifting away from the camera. So, yeah. That's it. I... His eyes focused on the lens again, as if he were forcing himself to do it. I know things haven't always been...easy, between us. But I want you to know that doesn't matter. You're my best friend, Rodney. And I love you. He grinned, even though he looked horribly embarrassed. You know, like a friend loves another friend. His grin faltered, and he rubbed his nose, blinking. His eyes were a little red.So, yeah. That's it. Thanks for everything, Rodney. So long.
The screen went dark.
Rodney swallowed and closed his eyes for a moment. But when he moved the pointer to shut the video file, he realized it was still running.
This time when John had restarted recording it was obviously days later, maybe months. John was wearing what might have been pajama pants and a black shirt with a fanged panda on it, with a red flannel shirt over that. Rodney had a vague recollection of seeing John wearing that outfit, but he couldn't remember when. John looked exhausted and upset.
You're, uh, really sick right now, Rodney, John said, and Rodney realized with abrupt horror that this must have been when the parasite had inhabited his brain. He didn't remember John looking so upset at the time, but then again he didn't really remember much of anything, except being confused and frightened and desperately wanting John near him. He'd remembered John's name even when he'd forgotten his own. And you might not...you might not be able to see this. But, the thing is... John took a breath, then gave a single, firm nod, as if convincing himself to continue. Yeah, okay. The thing is, Rodney, I love you. I mean, I'm in love with you. If anything John looked even sadder after he'd said it. And I know I shouldn't say that. Because, well, I'm sure it's nothing you wanted to hear. And I know you've got a thing for Jennifer, anyway. He smiled. I never told you, but you and Jennifer, you got together in the other timeline, the one where Michael took over the galaxy and I never got back through the Gate. So I guess you could say there's a precedent for it, you and Jennifer. You guys would be good together, anyway. He looked away, his voice dropping. I know I shouldn't have told you. It won't help anything. But...if you even get to see this, I'll be dead, so it won't matter anymore. And I guess I just want you to know. He rubbed his eyes, dropped his hand listlessly back to his lap. So, now you know. God, I hope you get better, Rodney.
The video ended. Rodney stared at the black screen.
"You asshole," he whispered. "You fucking asshole. Why didn't you ever tell me?"
Rodney was gagging on his knees in the hallway when Ronon found him.
"Hey, you all right?" Ronon asked, nudging Rodney mostly gently with his foot.
Rodney looked up at him blearily, blinking. He wasn't entirely sure where he was. "Um. I was...going..." He rubbed his forehead. His head was aching, and he wanted to throw up, but nothing would come out. "Where are we?"
"Corridor off the south pier," Ronon said. He reached down and grabbed Rodney around his upper arm, using it to haul him upright. The world spun. "You sick?"
"No," Rodney said faintly. He shook his head slowly, because moving faster than that hurt. He looked at Ronon again. He seemed very far away. "I, um, I was walking."
"You were gone all night," Ronon said. "Here." He shoved a Power bar at Rodney's face. Rodney blinked at it until Ronon tore the package open with his teeth and handed it to him again. "Eat. You get stupid if you go hungry for too long."
"Right," Rodney said. The idea of actually putting food in his mouth made him want to throw up again, but he took a large bite anyway. He chewed mechanically as Ronon held him up by his arm. "Thanks," he said around a mouthful. "How'd you know I was here?"
"Life signs detector in the control room," Ronon said. "Teyla had to stay with Torren, or she would've come too. She was worried we were going to find you dead."
Like Sheppard, Rodney knew. But Ronon didn't say it.
"I'm sorry," Rodney said. "I just came out here to think. I must've fallen asleep, lost track of time." He used to come here sometimes, sit on the pier with John, share John's terrible American beer with him and talk. He wished he remembered more of their conversations now. It had seemed much less important to do that before, when Rodney had been certain it would happen again.
He wasn't really sure why he'd gone out there last night. There was no more reason to.
He suspected that he'd actually passed out, though, because his last coherent memory was feeling dizzy and cold. He supposed he should be glad he hadn't fallen into the water. At least Ronon and Teyla wouldn't have to mourn him, too.
"S'okay," Ronon said. "You ready?" he asked, and Rodney nodded. He was already feeling more coherent with the food in his system. He knew he'd feel even more awful soon, as his blood sugar levels rose, but at least he wasn't in danger.
"We should probably go to the mess," Rodney said. "What time is it, anyway?" It felt late, but he wasn't sure if it was even still night.
"Late," Ronon said.
"Oh," Rodney said. He let Ronon pull him along, feeling light-headed and jittery.
"The Daedalus is coming to get John's body," Rodney said.
"Yeah," Ronon said. He glanced at Rodney. "That why you're out here?"
"No." Rodney shook his head. "Well...no. Maybe. Caldwell requested it, apparently. To come, I mean." He wasn't sure why he was telling Ronon this, since Ronon already knew. "I thought he wanted to gloat, you know? That John was dead and he wasn't. Or take over John's job. But Woolsey said he wanted to be part of John's honor guard. That's nice, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Ronon said. "Woolsey gave Sheppard's job to Lorne."
"Oh," Rodney said. "Right. You were at that meeting. I didn't remember that." He was finding it difficult to remember much of anything at all, these days. He worked a lot, because it helped keep his mind off things.
Ronon jerked his chin at Rodney's arm. "You started wearing that?"
It wasn't really a question, since they both recognized John's black wristband. "Carson gave it back," Rodney said. The blood on it had been John's, but the few epidermal cells that weren't his didn't match anyone in the database. "John gave me his dog tags," Rodney said. "But they're gone."
"I know," Ronon said.
"I really miss him," Rodney said, and then he was suddenly blinking away tears again. John would make fun of him for how maudlin he'd become. But John wasn't there anymore.
Ronon pulled him into a hug, right there in the corridor, his arms strong and warm across Rodney's back, holding him more tightly than Rodney even knew he wanted.
"Me too," Ronon said, his voice a gentle rumble beside Rodney's ear. "It's okay. You're going to be okay."
"No," Rodney said. "I'm not. I'm really, really not." But he didn't push away, and Ronon didn't let him go.
"Rodney," Radek said, "you need to take a break."
"No," Rodney said tightly, "I do not." He typed a new set of equations and hit 'enter', then watched with some satisfaction as the results scrolled up the screen. "If I do this right, we'll finally be able to know which address was last dialed on any given DHD, instead of having to sort through fifty of them." He frowned when the laptop beeped to show the results were completed. "Damn." He started typing again.
He heard Radek sigh. "Noble as that endeavor is, I think we both know what you're really doing."
Rodney finally looked at him, glowering. "Attempting to make sure that the next time someone gets kidnapped and taken through a Stargate we can actually find them? I'm not trying to be noble, Radek, I'm trying to save lives! Haven't we lost enough people?"
"We have lost more than enough people," Radek agreed soberly. "The first was too many. But you will not be able to bring Sheppard back this way. And you know it won't keep you from thinking about him for long."
"I'm extremely aware that John is dead, Radek," Rodney said, taut with anger. "Teyla and I boxed up his things yesterday afternoon. And I'm also extremely aware that there was nothing I could have done to save him, before you bother mentioning it. But at least I can do something that might save someone else." He finished inputting the new algorithm, then scowled as he saw the first results scrolling on the screen. "Damn it!"
"You won't be able to save anyone if you become so tired that you start making mistakes," Radek said reasonably. Rodney wanted to punch him. "Come," Radek said, putting his hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Taking a half hour for a cup of coffee won't hurt anything." His hand squeezed gently. "And you know I will always listen, if you wish to talk."
Rodney wanted to jerk his shoulder away, but he wasn't that much of an asshole, so instead he closed his eyes, rubbing at the space between them. "You're just like Jennifer," he said wearily, except that he hadn't seen Jennifer in days. "I'm not going to work myself into the ground, okay?" he said, opening his eyes. He was aware he was pleading, and inwardly he grimaced. "Just, let me do this. I need, I need to be able to stop thinking about him for awhile." He gestured at the laptop. "This is the only place I can. Everywhere else, he's there, you know? At least here I don't keep expecting to see him." He felt his throat tightening and ruthlessly swallowed it back. He needed to stop sobbing like a child every time someone mentioned John's name. "I'll take a break later." He made himself smile, hoping it looked even halfway like he meant it. "Tell you what--why don't you bring me back a coffee and a sandwich? I'll...we can eat here. I'm sure you've got plenty of work to catch up on yourself."
Radek looked at him for a moment, then nodded, his lips curving in a tiny smile. "You must feel more like yourself, because you're making me your servant again. But yes, fine. I will bring you food, anything to keep you remotely pleasant." He patted Rodney's shoulder then left the lab.
Rodney rolled his eyes because he was fairly certain that would be his normal reaction, and he appreciated Radek's effort, he really did. And he badly wanted to feel like himself again, whoever that had been.
But when he heard, "Doctor McKay?" on his radio he answered, "I'm here, Sheppard." As automatic as breathing.
"It's the Alpha site," Woolsey said to Rodney as soon as he jogged into the control room. Rodney could guess by the way Woolsey's eyes momentarily widened and then the quick sweep he made up and down Rodney's body that he probably looked like hell--unshaven, unkempt and like he hadn't slept much or well, all of which was true. He gave a quick nod to Lorne, who was there also. So this was something Woolsey thought he needed the military for, then. "Sergeant Benjamin Saba contacted us about three minutes ago. A Keshiran war robot has just come though their Gate."
Rodney stared at him. "Oh my God! Are they in danger?"
"Not yet," Lorne said grimly. "So far it's done nothing but stand there."
"It doesn't appear to pose a threat," Woolsey said, though he hardly looked certain of it. He pointed at the large screen that he and Lorne had been standing in front of when Rodney came in. "They've just set up visual feed."
Rodney turned his attention to the screen. He assumed the Mediterranean-looking, dark-haired Marine in front of the camera was Sergeant Saba. Whoever was holding the camera had it aimed with the Gate right behind Saba's shoulder, so that part of the robot was visible.
"I've never seen anything like it, sir," the sergeant said nervously, obviously taking to Lorne. He had both hands on his P90 and he kept looking behind him, as if he figured that the robot would attack any second. Considering it was between the two Marines and the Gate, Rodney could easily understand his concern. "It just came through the Gate and stopped. It's like its waiting for something."
"Fine, fine, so let us look at it already," Rodney snapped. On the screen, Saba nodded at the Marine holding the camera, and he obediently swung it towards the robot. The image zoomed in, going blurry for a second, then refocused.
"It definitely looks like the robots I saw during the negotiations," Woolsey said. His voice was hushed, as if he was worried the robot would hear him. Rodney supposed that was actually possible, but he couldn't see why that would be a problem. Woolsey turned to Rodney. "What's it doing there?"
"How should I know?" Rodney said. He realized he had unconsciously lowered his voice the same way Woolsey had. "We haven't been in contact with the Keshirans since...since John came back." It wasn't a question, but Woolsey nodded anyway. "How do they know the address for the Alpha site?"
"I was wondering about that myself," Woolsey said. "Do you think Sheppard gave it to them?"
"Of course not!" Rodney negated loudly, and then had to swallow back the sudden fury. "But...that's a good point. Why do they have it?"
Don't believe them, the note had said. But don't believe who? And about what? And now one of the Keshirans' robots was standing in front of the Alpha Gate, and Rodney didn't know if it was a warning or something else.
"Whoever abducted him might've gotten it from him," Lorne said.
"No!" Rodney said immediately, snarling it. "Sheppard would never give up that kind of information."
"Not willingly," Lorne agreed, looking like he didn't want to be saying it. "But he told us himself he had no idea what they did to him."
"Sir?" Sergeant Saba's nervous voice came through the connection. "What should we do, sir?"
"Sit tight," Lorne instructed him. "We'll get a team together and go through the Gate to you."
"Yes, sir," Saba said. "We'll see you soon. Alpha site out."
Lorn spoke to Sergeant Campbell. "Dial the Alpha site as soon as the Gate closes. I don't want those guys cut off in case they need help."
"Yes, sir," the Canadian sergeant said. Below them the event horizon blinked out, and Campbell started dialing.
Lorne turned to Rodney. "Gear up," he said. "Bring whatever you think you'll need to examine that thing, but make it fast. We're moving out in ten minutes."
If it had been John, Rodney would have huffed and made some sarcastic noise about knowing his job, thank you very much, and how he couldn't exactly get to the labs and back in less than four minutes, let alone find his gear. But this was Major--soon to be Lieutenant Colonel--Lorne, and they had never really been friends. Lorne would just think he was complaining.
Rodney went to the nearest transporter without saying anything.
Rodney stepped through the Gate, loaded for bear with as much equipment as he could grab in the pathetically short amount of time Lorne had allotted him. The robot loomed in front of him and Rodney stopped dead in his tracks, more than a little intimidated. The damn thing was so big.
Lorne was right next to him, staring up as well. Saba and the other Marine ran up to them, still carrying their P90s.
"Good to see you, sir," Saba said to Lorne. He could barely tear his eyes away from the robot.
Lorne nodded automatically. Behind him the four Marines he had brought fanned out into a wide circle surrounding the robot. Ronon and Teyla had come as well; there had never been any question of that. They were both standing with their heads tilted back, the same as everyone else.
"Well, Doc?" Lorne asked Rodney. "What do we do with this thing?"
"I have no idea," Rodney said honestly. The robot's featureless head had turned to track them as soon as they came through the Gate. It was incredibly unnerving, knowing that many metric tons of metal and firepower were focused entirely on him and his team. The robot had gun ports on its shoulders, more in its forearms and what looked like still more on either side of its head. What passed for hands were more like metal mittens, though the specs he'd seen didn't make it clear if the robot could actually grasp anything. Not that it needed to. Rodney knew that a slice from one of those hands would cut a person in half, and a punch would pulverize them. The robots had been designed to wade through the enemy like that, once their ammunition ran out. Rodney could easily imagine how terrifying it would be to have something that size and that relentless coming at you. He wondered if it would have the same effect on a Wraith.
"Perhaps we should abandon this site until the Daedalus arrives," Teyla suggested.
Rodney knew what she meant. A Jumper could take it out, but the robot was so close to the Gate that a Jumper would smash into it. And there was no way the thing was crawling through the Gate to Atlantis. The Daedalus could destroy it easily, though, and that really might be the best solution.
But, "Not yet," Rodney said. "I want to find out why it's here."
"So, let's ask it," Ronon said, and he walked right up to the robot and kicked it in its equivalent of an ankle.
"Ronon!" Teyla shouted in alarm. Rodney shouted 'No!' at the same time, and Lorne and all the Marines instantly brought their guns up.
The robot turned its massive head--Rodney could hear the grinding noise as it moved--and Rodney could just make out the lens that most likely passed for its visual sensor tilting, looking down at Ronon. Rodney was sure it was assessing Ronon as a threat, and didn't know if he should hold his breath or try to pull Ronon out of the way or what.
Ronon, naturally, looked completely unaffected by the metal behemoth staring down at him. "Hey," he called up to it. "Who sent you?"
KAHLA the robot said.
Ronon actually jumped back, as startled as the rest of them. Rodney heard one of the Marines swearing behind him, but he was too busy gaping to see which one. The robot's voice was completely mechanical, as featureless as its face, but it could speak, and it had understood the question. It was astonishing, but in a way that sent rivers of unease sweeping down Rodney's spine.
"Kahla sent the note," Teyla said.
"Yeah," Lorne said. He visibly took his courage in hand and stepped closer to the robot. "Why did Kahla send you?" Lorne asked it. "What reason?"
The robot's lens fastened on Lorne instantly, but it stayed silent.
"Perhaps the question is too complicated," Teyla said. "Why did Kahla send you?" she asked the robot.
HELP the robot said.
"Huh," Lorne grunted. "That's weird. Why did Kahla send you?" he repeated to it.
The robot's lens shifted again, obviously registering who was speaking, but it said nothing.
"Okay..." Lorne said slowly. He looked at Rodney. "Ask it something, Doc."
Rodney swallowed, but nodded. He looked up at the robot, his mind for once amazingly blank. "Um," he said, licking his lips. Even though he was expecting the lens to move as soon as he made a noise, it still made him cringe. "Did--did the Melorists send you?"
The robot didn't answer for so long that Rodney was thinking it wouldn't. Rodney looked at Ronon and Teyla, not sure if he should be relieved or disappointed. "Either we're wrong about it only speaking to us, or it didn't understand."
YES the robot said.
Rodney whipped his head back around to the robot. "Wait--you mean, the Melorists sent you?"
YES the robot said again.
"Holy shit," Saba said.
"It's like it has to translate what you said, or something," Lorne said to Rodney. His terminology was completely wrong, but Rodney just nodded.
"Okay," Rodney said woodenly, "does someone else want to try twenty questions with the big, scary robot? Or can we safely assume it's only going to respond to us?"
"W-Why do you need help?" Saba called out, his voice wavering audibly.
The robot's lens moved again, but the robot stayed didn't speak.
Teyla stepped closer to the robot, seemingly unafraid as it tracked her. She reached up and wrapped one of her hands around the edge of the robot's shovel-shaped paw, staring up at its empty face. "Please, tell us how we can help you."
The robot was silent for another minute, and then its other arm moved, and Rodney yelped and the Marines all did their gun thing again. But it was just so that the robot could stretch its arm out, like a lion offering its paw. And it was very obvious that it was offering it to Rodney.
"It's like it knows you," Lorne murmured.
"Am I the only one freaked the hell out about this?" Rodney asked the group. He thought he heard some muttered agreement but he ignored it, concentrating instead on the robot's hand. Parts of it retracted piece by piece, until it revealed what looked astonishingly like a USB port, only the wrong shape and larger.
"Guess everyone's into 'plug-and-play'," Saba said.
"Shut up," Rodney snapped. He held the robot's massive hand in both of his as he examined it, mind already mentally cataloging and discarding pieces of the equipment he had with him, thinking of what he could McGuyver up to fit in the port. "Okay," he said finally, letting go. "I can rig up something that will go in here, but it's going to take a few minutes." He looked up at the robot again, not able to help himself even though he knew it made no difference. He started shrugging out of his backpack. "What do you need help for?"
HURT the robot said.
Rodney's pack dropped out of his hands and thudded to the ground. Something inside it cracked. He was frozen again, like he had been in the Gate room. Only there was no hope here, just the slow, inexorable creep of horror. "Oh, no," he said softly. "No, no, no, no, no. Oh my God."
Lorne looked at him with big, perplexed eyes. "What? What is it?"
"I'm wrong," Rodney said. "I'm wrong. Of course I'm wrong." But he was fumbling in his tac vest, cursing to himself as he had to yank the life signs detector out of the pocket that was almost too small for it. He turned it on, his heart beating so hard and fast it felt like it might explode.
"Okay," he said, his voice shaking as much as the rest of him. He looked around quickly at his team mates and the others. "We--everyone's here, right?"
"Yes, sir," Saba said, nodding. He looked scared. "Dr. McKay, what--"
"Shut up," Rodney said again. He concentrated on the screen.
Besides Rodney, there were two Marines from the Alpha site, and Lorne had brought another four with them, along with Ronon and Teyla. That meant ten life signs, gathered around the robot.
But there was one more than that, an eleventh. In the same position as the machine.
"Oh God, oh my God, oh my God," Rodney was muttering to himself. He was kneeling on the ground, scrambling through his equipment, collecting pieces and piling them together.
He'd recruited Saba and Teyla to help him, mostly to hold the things he needed. Ronon was with the robot, asking it more questions, though Rodney could barely hear him and only had a tiny portion of his awareness on Ronon's one-sided conversation anyway. But he knew the robot didn't respond, no matter how Ronon rephrased the questions or how often he asked. Rodney had no idea if it meant the robot wasn't able to, or couldn't understand the questions, or both.
Mostly he concentrated on what he was doing and tried not to think too much about the life sign still pulsing on the detector, how there was a body in there, trapped in the dark.
"It might not be John," Teyla said as if she'd read his mind. She dutifully took the tangle of wires he shoved at her. "The Keshirans already had war robots when we first encountered them."
Rodney didn't answer. All he knew for certain was that the body in there was alive. He didn't want to think beyond that: if it was John; if it wasn't, and what might be worse.
"I, uh, thought Colonel Sheppard was dead," Saba said.
Rodney snatched the memory stick out of the sergeant's hand, started unscrewing the casing. "He is," Rodney said, and the pain that came with the words was still raw as an open wound. "But whatever--whoever--is in there only spoke to Sheppard's team." He tossed the memory stick's casing aside and grabbed the tweezers Teyla handed to him.
"Wow," Saba said. Rodney saw him glance anxiously at the robot. "Is that--is that the real Sheppard?" he asked.
"I guess we'll find out," Rodney said with only a small tremor in his voice. He straightened, leaving his tools and equipment scattered at his feet. He jogged the few meters to where the robot was waiting. Lorne and the other Marines were still gathered around it. Their P90s were no longer raised but they were holding them ready. Rodney scowled at all of them, even though intellectually he knew they were only taking reasonable precautions. "Get a med team up here," he said to Lorne, who nodded and went to the DHD.
Ronon patted one of the robot's tree-limb-sized arms, looking up at the non-face. "He'll get you out," he said before he moved aside. Rodney gave him a tiny smile.
"Okay," Rodney said, both to himself and the robot. His hand was shaking as he stuck the USB he'd cobbled together into the slot meant for something far different. But he'd done this more times than even he could remember and in order to make interfaces with far more alien technology than this, and the USB slid into place with a gentle click. Instantly the tablet he was holding in his other hand started flooding with information.
"All right...all right...now we're talking," Rodney said to himself, holding the tablet in one hand while he paged through the readouts. "I'm going to pull up your schematics, hang on." A few touches of his stylus and there it was, the exact same version as he had seen in the library. Neither of them showed where a human-sized body might have been. Rodney wondered if that had been deliberate, since presumably the person inside would be the weakest part of the machine...
"Rodney?" Teyla's hand was on his arm, grounding him, her eyes looking worriedly into his. "You have gone pale, are you all right?"
Rodney nodded, choking down the wave of nausea before it could consume him. "Yeah," he whispered, and then had to swallow bile. "I just..." He took several deep breaths, thinking, clear blue skies, clear blue skies. You're outside, you can breathe. "I was just thinking how small the space is in there."
Teyla's eyes widened a little as she realized what he meant. "You will get them out," she said.
"Yes, yes I will," Rodney said, because he had no choice but to free the person trapped inside the hulking shell, no matter who they were. None at all.
He concentrated on the tablet in his hands again, eyes flickering over the screen as he searched. "Yeah, here we are," he said. "I think I've found the release mechanism for the carapace." He traced it with the stylus. "Yes, I've got the activation commands." He took a breath, much more frightened than triumphant, then looked up at the robot. "I'm not sure what's going to happen when I do this. I, uh, don't want you to fall out, or anything. So, can you, um, lie down?"
The robot didn't answer.
Teyla shot Rodney a look of mild reproach. She took the robot's hand again, her fingers tiny as they curled over its thumb. "Can you lie down?" she asked it.
The single lens of its eye jerked from Teyla to Rodney to Ronon, then to Lorne and the Marines.
"It's all right," Teyla said. "You are among friends. We are trying to help you."
Rodney stared at her, then up at the robot. "It's scared?" he asked. "How--"
"I am certain they understand how vulnerable they will be, Rodney," Teyla said.
Rodney blinked. "Right," he said softly. "Right."
The Gate burst into life behind him, making Rodney startle in surprise. He fumbled the tablet so badly that Sergeant Saba had to grab it before it fell in the dirt. The Atlantis medical team Lorne had called came through, pushing a gurney loaded with equipment. Carson was leading them, Jennifer right behind. Carson looked tense in the way he did when he was prepared for something awful, which Rodney somehow found reassuring. Jennifer couldn't keep her eyes off the robot.
The robot didn't move, but the readings on the screen went haywire, a constant stream of attack protocols, each one countermanded by an order to stand down in glaring red, over and over and over again. Rodney looked back at the robot's face, watching the lens dart to each member of the medical team, acquiring targets. Rodney wondered how much energy it was costing the operator to keep the robot body from massacring them.
"That's, that's um, really big," Jennifer said quietly, awed.
"Yeah," Saba said.
"Would you shut up?" Rodney hissed at both of them. He used his stylus to page frantically through the robot's systems until he reached what he was almost certain was weapons control and shut it off.
The robot didn't do anything, but to Rodney it seemed to relax somehow. Something almost imperceptible changed in the slope of its artificial shoulders, the way its eye lens's constant movement slowed and then stopped.
"You're welcome," Rodney said to it, absently patting the side of the mitten-hand. "All right, I think we're ready here." He tilted his head to look up at the robot's face. "Can you lie down?"
In response the robot dropped ponderously to its knees, making a sound like a felled tree.
"Wait! Wait!" Rodney frantically snatched the makeshift USB out of the port in the robot's hand. As soon as he'd done so the components slid back over the palm.
The robot curled its mitten-hands and dropped to all fours, making Rodney skip back and the Marines shift nervously again. This was how he'd seen the robot on Keshirana navigate the tunnels. The P90-sized gun turrets on either side of its head snapped up like bull's horns.
"I, uh, shut the weapons system off," Rodney said quickly to everyone.
The robot slowly keeled over. It landed heavily on its side, and then continuing to roll until it was on its back. Rodney saw Carson wince.
Rodney wet his lips. "Okay, let's do this," he said, as much to the robot as everyone else. He went to it again, and the same paw opened so Rodney could reinsert the USB. He paged through the command screens, but hesitated with his stylus hovering over the tablet. "You should probably get ready," he said to the medical team. "I have no idea what kind of shape the person in there will be in."
Carson nodded. "Aye."
Rodney drew a breath. "Here we go." He touched the stylus to the screen.
The robot's chest had looked as solid and seamless as its hand, but it split down the center like the space between an insect's wings. The two pieces, each thick as cinderblocks, slid to the sides like elevator doors, leaving the torso of the robot open.
Instantly Rodney was hit with the stench of sickness and the sickly-sweet smell of filth and rot. He reeled back, slapping his hand over his nose and breathing through his mouth until he was sure he wasn't going to vomit.
The being inside was a man, or something approximating one. His skin was bright white, where it wasn't covered by a rime of what Rodney guessed was oil, sweat and flakes of his own skin. He was hairless. What was visible of his skull was riddled with cable and wire, like worms burrowing into his brain. Most of the connection points were either seeping blood or putrid with infection. Half his face was covered with a metal mask, which was probably meant to supply oxygen. The skin around it had been rubbed raw, and the wounds looked like they were constantly reopening. The man's eyes flicked like the single lens in the robot's skull, obviously blind because he didn't react to the sudden light. The sclera was yellow instead of white, but the irises were bright green with flecks of brown.
"John," Carson said, and Rodney could hear the stunned anguish in his voice. Rodney couldn't say anything.
Saba turned around and staggered a few feet away. Rodney could hear him throwing up.
John's body was nothing but skin and bone, too malnourished for muscle to survive. The bones--Rodney could see them under his skin, every single one, like cloth stretched over a frame--were far too thin. They looked like they would snap if he touched them. John's arms didn't exist past the elbow, ending in rounded stumps and the delicate bumps of unformed fingers. They were held in neat oval hollows obviously designed for them, and bolted in place. More blood crusted around the spikes of metal that had been drilled through the bone. They had given him no lower body at all, nothing beyond the last, fragile curve of rib except enough flesh to be bracketed to the robot as well. Tubes and cables connected to him everywhere, most of them infected, nearly all of them bleeding. John's chest was moving frantically as he breathed. He was so thin that Rodney could see the rapid pulsing of his heart.
Rodney had forgotten he was still holding the tablet. The screen was insane with system warnings.
Ronon bellowed in grief and anger. Rodney watched him stalk into the nearby forest.
Teyla crawled onto the robot's shell, heedless of the odor and the suppurating wounds. She leaned over as far as she could without falling in and placed her palm over John's chest, putting no weight on it. "John," she said, and Rodney could hear the tears in her voice. They were streaming down her face, dripping onto John's body. "John, you are safe now. We have you. You're among friends."
Rodney looked back at his tablet so he wouldn't have to look at John anymore. The tablet started sounding an alarm; the warning messages were turning red. "Carson...!"
"I'm here!" Teyla obediently moved aside to let Carson and Jennifer swarm in, their medical team hovering within easy hearing. Carson had one of the portable Ancient scanners and ran it over John's body. "Mother of God," he whispered. "Set up a glucose IV," he told Jennifer.
"Where?" Jennifer nearly wailed.
John's breathing changed from too-fast to sickly, labored pulls of air, his back arching within the confines of his coiled prison as he tried to breathe. Every single warning was bright red now, flashing. The tablet began screeching.
"Carson!" Rodney yelled. "I have to close him up! Now!"
Carson looked at Rodney, expression stricken. "But--"
"He's dying!" Rodney was already tapping the screen, pulling up the necessary commands. "Get out of the way!"
Carson moved back, pulling Jennifer with him. The two halves of the robot torso slid back into place like the doors on a mausoleum.
Almost instantly the shrilling of the tablet stopped. The warnings blinked out one by one.
Rodney swallowed. "Okay, okay, yeah," he said, feeling like he was choking. "He--he's all right now." He slowly sank down into the dirt, next to the robot's massive hand. He patted the side of the mitten where it wasn't still open to admit the USB, then left his hand there, even though he doubted John could feel it.
"You call that 'all right'?" Lorne asked him. His eyes were liquid and blank with shock. "That...what did they do to him?"
"That wasn't the colonel," Jennifer said. She sounded numb. "Those...his limbs weren't amputated. He was grown like that."
"Like a clone?" Sergeant Saba asked. His face looked green. He spat into the dirt then wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
"Exactly like that," Rodney said. "They made him to fit in that fucking thing."
Teyla dashed tears out of her eyes with the heel of her palm. "We must free him."
"We can't," Rodney said. Everyone stared at him. "Just cracking the carapace nearly killed him. All that crap attached to him--it's not just to enable him to control the robot. It's life-support."
"That's not a life," Lorne said.
No one disagreed with him.
"We need to take him back to Atlantis," Carson said. "I can at least make him more comfortable, there. And it's possible there is some way to extract him without hurting him."
What for? Rodney thought, but he didn't say it. Instead he bent closer to the robot's body, until he knew he was speaking to the place where John's head was, buried in the technology like a corpse in the earth.
"You hear that, John?" he asked, even though he knew he probably couldn't answer. "You're okay, now. You're going home."
The hand he was still holding curled slowly around his fingers, gentle as the folding of a wing.
"I've made him as comfortable as possible," Carson said. He looked haunted, and kept glancing down to the Gate room and away. They had decided to keep the robot there, after he'd knuckle-walked behind them through the Gate; he was too big to get to anywhere else in the city. "Rodney was able to find, ah, a feeding port. John--this John--has no stomach, intestine or kidneys. We're assuming that the robot shell performs some kind of dialysis function as part of its life-support, otherwise he wouldn't still be alive."
"Dear God," Woolsey said. He had his hand over his mouth, reminding Rodney of Sergeant Saba. He moved it just enough so they could hear him. "Why would they do that?" He was looking at the robot too; everyone's eyes were drawn to it like magnets.
"To save space," Rodney said flatly. "The same way they only grew half his arms."
"I see," Woolsey said, sounding sick. "Please continue, Dr. Beckett."
"He was grown to be fed intravenously," Carson said. "But they've only been providing enough calories, protein and nutrients to ensure basic survival. He was dehydrated and suffering from several illnesses related to vitamin and protein deficiencies when he came to us." Carson put his hands in his lab coat pockets, looking deeply upset. "He's no longer dehydrated, and receiving as adequate a diet as possible considering the limitations of how he's able to absorb it. We're also giving him antibiotics to deal with the infections and analgesics for the chronic pain."
"Thank you, doctor," Woolsey said. He swallowed. "What's his prognosis?"
Carson glanced at the robot again. It was standing like a monolith in one of the back corners of the Gate room, completely unmoving. Rodney wondered if John was asleep, since Carson had given him enough meds to knock him out as far as Rodney could tell. He was distantly pleased with the idea that John could escape his prison that way, and then realized that John's dreams might be just as bad or worse.
"He's dying," Carson said simply. Woolsey's eyes widened. "It's inevitable. Even with the best care we can give him, a human body simply isn't equipped to survive under those conditions. It's only a matter of time before he contracts pneumonia or throws a blood clot from one of those horrid tubes sticking into him, or his body simply fails from far too long on a grossly inadequate diet."
Woolsey nodded. "How long would you say he has?"
Carson shook his head. "I've honestly no idea. It could be months, it could be a few days. It could even be years." He shrugged miserably. "John's always been a fighter, but...I can't imagine he'd have much will to live, like that." He grimaced. "I certainly wouldn't."
"I agree," Woolsey said.
"We should think about euthanasia," Lorne said. Everyone's attention snapped to him immediately. Rodney had seen Lorne irritated, in pain and even frightened, but he'd never seen him angry before. Lorne's face reminded Rodney of John in ways he didn't want to think about. "That's no life, what they did to him. That's torture."
Ronon was standing next to Lorne with his arms crossed, bristling with anger. He nodded. "No one could want to live like that."
"It is not our place to make such a decision," Teyla said.
"He's got half a body and he's bolted into a fucking box with wires sticking in him!" Lorne exploded at her, making Rodney gasp. "Don't tell me we have no right to decide to end that! We wouldn't let an animal live like that!" He looked around the circle, eyes furious and imploring. "Is there anyone here who wouldn't rather be dead?"
Woolsey pulled his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. "No one's denying that he's suffering, Colonel," Woolsey said, and Rodney was startled before he remembered that Lorne was being promoted so he could take over from John. Caldwell would make it official when the Daedalus arrived for John's body. "But I agree with Teyla--we have no right to undertake such a momentous decision without at least attempting to have Sheppard's consent."
"So let's ask him," Ronon said.
"We will," Woolsey said. "But that's not the most pertinent issue right now." He looked at Carson. "Is the body in our morgue actually that of Lieutenant-Colonel John Sheppard, or another clone?"
Everyone went still, waiting for his answer. Beneath his crossed arms, Rodney clenched his fists until his hands hurt.
"He was a clone," Carson said. "The duplication was perfect, even down to his scars. Better than what Michael did with me. His telomeres are the exact length they should be for a man his age. Those are part of a human chromosome," he explained to Woolsey. "They're used up gradually when chromosomes are torn apart and rebuilt during cell division. Mine are shorter than they should be. Jennifer thought it was because I was, ah, grown from an adult cell." He looked uncomfortable mentioning it, as if they were talking about something indecent. "But the deceased Sheppard's are perfect."
"Then how do you know he's not...he's not the original?" Rodney asked. Part of him was so relieved he'd thought his legs might give out, but he didn't understand what Carson was saying.
"Because his body was grown too fast," Carson said. "As I said, the Keshirans' cloning technique is far superior to Michael's, probably because they're using Ancient technology. We would never have found anything untoward if we weren't specifically looking for it. But John's body developed far too quickly for anything like normal human growth. That's why he developed an aneurysm, actually," he added unhappily. "One of the causes can be over-rapid growth of brain cells. But there were also signs of deterioration beginning in other organs." His mouth pressed into a grim line. "I'm almost certain it was done on purpose--he was never meant to survive."
"Why?" Lorne asked. "Why didn't they just...let us have that Sheppard? We would never have known the difference."
"It was a failsafe," Rodney said, guts churning with rage. "We get him back, he dies, we mourn and go on and they never risk our discovering that we got the Memorex version instead of the genuine article."
"And meanwhile they do whatever they want," Ronon said.
Carson nodded. "Aye."
"His family thinks he's dead," Rodney said, suddenly realizing it. "The Daedalus is almost here to take the body home."
"Dear Lord, you're right," Woolsey said. He put up his hand. "We'll deal with that later. Right now our priority is getting our John Sheppard back."
"Let's go to Keshirana and take them out," Ronon said. This time it was Lorne who nodded with him.
Rodney shook his head. "We can't." Ronon glowered at him. "I want to!" Rodney insisted. "Believe me, I want them to pay for this as much as you do! But if we just waltz through their Gate all we'll do is get killed. Remember all those deadly giant robots? Oh, God," he said suddenly, sickened. "Those are...those robots are Sheppard too, aren't they?"
"Perhaps not all," Teyla said. She sounded as shaken as Rodney felt. "They had at least one that we saw before John was taken."
"Well, we got a Sheppard robot of our own now," Ronon said. He barred his teeth. "That'll even things up."
Rodney shook his head. "Not enough."
"McKay," Ronon growled.
"Hey!" Rodney retorted. "I want him back too! Are you kidding me? But we won't exactly be able to rescue him if we're all dead!"
"So are we going to keep doing nothing?" Ronon demanded. "Let them just keep taking pieces of him and making those things?"
Woolsey raised his hand. "The first thing we're going to do is contact Keshirana," he said. "I know what you're thinking, Ronon," he said to him. "And you're right--I don't think negotiation is going to get us anywhere, either. But it might answer some questions."
"Like whether it was the Keshiran government who did this, or the Melorists," Woolsey said. "I don't want to start a war with the wrong side."
"John told us that the Melorists sent him," Teyla said.
"I realize that." Woolsey nodded. "But that doesn't make it true. It would be very convenient for the Melorists to have us stage their coup for them, wouldn't it?"
"All right," Ronon agreed with obvious reluctance. "So we find out who did this to him, and then we take them out."
"Oh, yes," Woolsey said, and his smile was thin and cruel. "And then we make them wish they'd never been born."
"I am pleased that you have chosen to contact us, Chief Minister Woolsey," Absalom's voice came creaking over the sound system of the control room's transmission screen. "When may we expect the return of our property?"
Rodney was impressed at Woolsey's ability to keep his expression neutral. "So," Woolsey said coolly, "you're not denying that the war robot is yours?"
"Of course not," Absalom responded. "It came from our munitions plant, the one we showed Colonel Sheppard when he and Chief Scientist McKay came to visit us. This one was stolen by Melorists in another attempt to topple the legitimate government."
"I see," Woolsey said. He shot Rodney a look, arching his eyebrows before turning back to the screen. "I'm curious as to how you were aware that we...found it."
Absalom smiled, and Rodney slowly clenched his fists. Down in the Gate room, one of the medical technicians was on a stepladder. She was feeding a catheter through the robot's intake valve, which was high up on the left side of its chest and almost entirely camouflaged by the overlapping metal of its body. Prolonging a hellish existence that Absalom was responsible for.
"We were lucky enough to capture the Melorists involved in the theft," Absalom said, smiling toothily. "I'm certain that they sent the robot through the Gate just prior to being taken in a misguided attempt to solicit your assistance. Former Officiate Kahla was more than forthcoming about the robot's whereabouts once she had the proper persuasion."
Rodney stifled a cry of denial, thinking of the black wristband he was still wearing, the note Kahla had risked her life to deliver: Don't believe them. He wondered if she was dead.
Woolsey glanced at him again, his eyes momentarily reflecting what Rodney was feeling, then he looked back at the screen. "She wasn't trying to hide the robot, Absalom," Woolsey said. "She wanted us to know what you did." He leaned closer to the screen. "We found the clone. We know the John Sheppard you sent back was a clone, too, and that you intended for him to die. We know you still have the original Sheppard captive, and we want him back."
Absalom paled. Rodney smiled, seeing that. But then the Chief Minister of Armament's narrow shoulders straightened and his face set. "I'm sorry to hear about your loss, but I assure you, we have no idea what you're talking about. The robot pilots were created from cells Colonel Sheppard donated when he toured our munitions factory. He was impressed with our plans to defeat the Wraith and wanted to help."
"Like hell," Woolsey snarled. "You have twelve hours to return him, Absalom--not a clone, Sheppard. And if you don't, I swear we will come down on you so hard you'll wish it had been the Wraith."
Absalom jaw worked for a moment before he could speak, either from indignity or fear. Rodney hoped it was fear. "Our Gate is shielded," he said. "And we have a warship in development. I believe we have as little to fear from you as we do the Wraith." He cut the connection.
Woolsey straightened, looking at Rodney. "Well, that answers that. Do we believe them about the shield?"
"It doesn't matter," Rodney said. "The Daedalus will be here in less than ten hours. All we have to do is wait."
"Hey, are you awake?" Rodney said softly to the robot. It was nighttime, no one was in the control room but Chuck, who was drowsing over his Esprit de Corps magazine. No one was going to hear him, but he kept his voice low anyway. Possibly because this felt so much like a bedside vigil, or because the robot was so still.
The lens instantly moved, tracking him, but John didn't say anything. Maybe it wasn't the kind of question he was able to answer.
"I just...I wanted to see how you were doing," Rodney said. "Tell you about our plans, that kind of thing. So, um, how are you feeling?"
No answer, and Rodney snorted in irritation at himself. "Sorry, sorry, that's not a direct question. Okay. Do you still hurt?"
Rodney felt his mouth spreading in a relieved smile. "Good! That's good. I was hoping that, uh, that Carson's medicine would help." He patted the robot's nearest hand.
It turned until it was palm-up, as if in some kind of invitation.
Rodney stared at it for a moment, not understanding. Then, "Oh," he said. "Sure." He slid his hand onto the robot's palm. His hand wasn't small by any means, but it looked like it belonged to a child, lying in the huge paw of the robot.
The hand folded over it again, stopping when Rodney could just feel it on the back of his knuckles, holding him but not hurting.
Rodney swallowed, looking at their joined hands. "I missed you so much," he said. "I thought--we all thought you were dead. We didn't know that they'd done this to you. I'm so sorry."
He thought he felt a minute tremble go down the robot's arm, but he couldn't be sure.
"I don't know if you heard Woolsey up there before, talking to Absalom," Rodney went on, and then looked up, the lens staring back. "Did you hear Woolsey?"
"Good," Rodney said. "So you know that we're going to go back there, to get--" He stopped speaking abruptly, eyes widening.
This time the tremble had been unmistakable.
"Oh my God," Rodney said, understanding. "You didn't know, did you? You didn't know what they did to you."
NO the robot said.
Rodney put his hand over his eyes. "Oh God," he said. "Oh no. I'm so sorry. John, I'm so sorry. I didn't..." He opened and closed his mouth helplessly, at a loss for words. "I should have realized that you didn't know. Oh God. I'm so sorry."
The robot didn't answer; there was nothing it was able to say.
"We're going to get you back," Rodney said. He reached out and put his free hand on the robot's metal belly. It was cold as anything not alive. "And we're going to make them pay for everything they've done to you." He stared up at the only thing John had for a face. "I promise you, they are going to pay."
The robot said nothing.
Rodney drew a deep breath, filling his lungs. "Look," he said, and even though it wasn't really John's face he had to look away, otherwise he knew he wouldn't have the courage to say it. "I know...I know you're not the same John Sheppard as the one they've got captured, but that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter to me. You're just as real as Carson is. You're still John, no matter what they did to you. So, so I need to tell you this."
He took another breath. It felt like there wasn't enough air in the whole Gate room, the entire city, and then he wondered if John felt like that, like he was always suffocating. And then Rodney had to grit his teeth until they ached so he wouldn't have to think about it.
"I saw the video you made," he was able to say finally. "When we thought you'd died, Woolsey gave the videos to us. So I know how you feel. About me. He still couldn't make himself look up, but he smiled anyway. "And I want you to know, I feel the same way. I always have. I--I love you, too."
The giant hand holding his tightened a fraction, almost but not quite enough to hurt, and Rodney's gaze snapped up. But of course there was nothing to see, just the translucent faceplate and the dormant guns. But at least he knew John had understood him.
"I chose Jennifer because I thought I couldn't have you," Rodney said. "I do love her...I did...but it wasn't the same. It wasn't like what I felt, what I feel about you." He smirked humorlessly. "I just wish you hadn't waited to die to tell me."
The robot's hand opened, letting Rodney's free, and he blinked at the robot in confusion. "John? What--?"
YES the robot said. RODNEY
Rodney barked out a laugh that was humiliatingly close to a sob, but for once he didn't care. The robot's arm circled his back, awkward and heavy and dangerous, and as much a real embrace as John had ever given him.
"We'll be over the target in approximately ten minutes," Colonel Caldwell's voice sounded from the bridge.
They'd agreed on Rodney's plan because it included the fewest civilian casualties while doing the maximum damage. The only real problem would be the other robots. The other versions of John.
Their war robot had a bright red slash painted from its shoulder to hip, and Rodney had smiled grimly at the Battlestar Galactica reference, knowing that no one else would get it. But none of them knew what would happen when the other robots saw the Atlantis teams. Would they recognize them as friends? Would they attack?
"I'm not hurting the Colonel," Carson said again.
"You don't get it," Rodney snapped at him, not for the first time since the Daedalus had taken off from Atlantis. "If the robots attack us then they won't be Sheppard! Either they'll be some other poor bastard who was unlucky enough to reveal that he had the ATA gene, or..."
"Or he'll be so far gone he'll be better off dead anyway," Ronon cut in, saying what Rodney couldn't. Rodney nodded gratefully, his throat too thick to speak.
"It's like the Goa'uld,' Lorne said to Carson. He checked his tac vest again, probably so he wouldn't have to meet Carson's eyes. "Most of the time, the people the snakes grabbed were innocent. But you couldn't always save them."
"It was the same when Michael made my people into Wraith hybrids," Teyla said, her eyes distant and sad. "Most of them died as our enemies."
"I remember," Carson said softly. "I'm so sorry I couldn't stop him."
"You were also one of his victims, Carson. No less than the Athosians." Teyla said. She put her hand on his arm. "I have never blamed you."
"Thank you," Carson said. He patted her hand and then nodded at them all. "I just can't bear the thought of it--putting him down as if he were some sick animal."
"He'd want us to," Ronon said. "When he was turning into an Iratus bug, he asked."
"All right," Lorne said. "We're going to treat the war robots as enemies unless and until they do something to indicate otherwise. Got it?" He looked at the group of Marines, the six who would be coming with them and the four who would be piloting the Jumpers. They all nodded, their expressions as dark as Lorne's. "Good." Lorne sighed, scrubbing his hand over his face. He shook his head. "Sometimes I hate this fucking galaxy."
"Yeah," Rodney said. He cleared his throat. "Right, so just to make sure everyone's on the same page here, once we have our intel on the complex, we've got two goals, and two goals only." He looked pointedly at Ronon, who just stared back at him. "Find where they keep their prisoners, and find where their cloning facilities are."
"And blow the shit out of them," Ronon said, showing teeth.
Rodney nodded. "And get the prisoners out, because that's where John's got to be. And Kahla, I hope."
"Yes," Teyla said, nodding. She had volunteered for that part of the mission, and would be going with four of the Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Lorne. "We owe Kahla a great deal."
"Yeah," Rodney said softly. She'd purposely kept him away from the munitions factory, and then sent one of John's clones to the Alpha site. Rodney and John owed her their lives.
Rodney would be going with Ronon, Carson and John, and a couple of Marines with names he didn't know. Each team would have a Jumper backing them up, specifically to take out the robots. The Marines piloting the Jumpers were from the Daedalus; they'd never met John. It seemed better that way.
Besides, Rodney kept telling himself, if the robots attacked them, it wouldn't make any difference who was inside them. Ronon was right: it wouldn't be John anyway.
"We've arrived," Caldwell said.
Rodney adjusted John's black wristband, sitting snugly under his right hand.
The Daedalus's ring transporters bored a perfectly circular tunnel down into the earth, right through the ceiling of rock that covered the Keshirans' underground city. Rodney wished he could have seen it, but he was too busy keeping his eyes glued to the screen of his tablet, waiting for the ship's sensors to send him the diagram of the city's layout.
"Oh, yeah, here we go," he said, grinning as his tablet beeped and suddenly lit up with something like a cross between a blueprint and a maze. He recognized the Gate room, the Library, the location of the Minister of Armament's offices and what had to be the munitions factory almost immediately, based on their location and the amount of power they were putting out. "There!" he said triumphantly to Lorne and Teyla, jabbing at the screen. "Does that look like a prison to you?"
"Sure does," Lorne said, nodding. "All right, tell them where to put us, Doc. Gear up!" he hollered to the Marines as he and Teyla jogged to the center of the 302 bay, the only place on the ship large enough to fit John.
Rodney sent the information back to the bridge with a few taps of his fingers, and in a handful of seconds both Jumpers started up, ready to launch once the teams were away. A few seconds after that, Lorne, Teyla, and their team were gone.
"Godspeed," Carson said to the air where they'd been. His hands were moving nervously on the barrel of his P90. He looked at the war robot, standing as still and silent as ever, and the eye lens flickered to him. Carson's smile twitched a little--Rodney had reinitialized the robot's guns--but it didn't falter. "How you doing, big man? You ready?"
YES John said. Carson had given him extra painkillers for this. Not enough to make him dopy, but enough, Carson assured Rodney, to make sure the robot could handle extensive and rapid movement without the operator being in agony. The fact that it might give John an advantage over the other robots went unsaid.
"Okay," Rodney said, eyes roaming quickly over the map. He hit his radio. "This is McKay. I think I've got the cloning facility. I'm sending you the coordinates." He waited for the acknowledgement, then trotted to join the Marines, Carson, Ronon and John. "We're, uh, ready to transport," he said, feeling the odd but by now overly familiar mixture of excitement and terror that came with missions like these. He glanced at his friends. Ronon had a tight, deadly smile. Carson looked very afraid but determined to do this anyway. The robot didn't even look alive.
And then they all dissolved in a wash of light.
And reappeared in the middle of what was probably some kind of anti-chamber, if the huge, bolted wheel-locks on the enormous doors were any indication. Rodney had enough time to blink, think, oh, gee, robots, and then John was pushing Rodney behind him with a sweep of his metal paw. It was like being hit in the kidneys with a shovel, but Rodney was so keyed up on adrenaline that he was crawling towards the doors at almost the same second he hit the floor, trying to rip his tablet off the Velcro housing on the back of his tac vest at the same time.
He was a little worried that he didn't know where Carson was. He assumed that Ronon was protecting him, but he didn't dare stop moving to check. He just hoped to hell that Ronon and John could keep the robots occupied until the Marines could toss the magnetized locator beacons at them and give the Jumpers somewhere to aim.
Rodney resolutely didn't think about the possibility that both the robots were being piloted by two other versions of John, too sick or starved or lobotomized by the wires in their brains to recognize who they were aiming at. So far gone they'd be better off dead anyway. Or maybe it wasn't John inside them at all, just another nameless victim of the Keshirans' ambition.
"GET DOWN!" Ronon's hand hit the middle of his back like a jackhammer, shoving him face-first to the floor and mashing his nose against his tablet. Rodney was getting a little tired of his teammates beating the hell of him even if it was to save his life, and then something very much like a swarm of bees but actually wasn't zipped so close to him that if he lifted a hand he would have gotten his fingers obliterated. And the din that Rodney only then realized came from the constant gunfire suddenly stopped, followed by a sound like cars falling off a building.
Rodney pushed himself to his knees, looking for Carson, and was incredibly relieved to see him standing behind their robot, looking wild-eyed and shell shocked but thankfully unharmed. The two Marines looked okay as well, if a little freaked. Rodney just wished he knew their names.
John's armored carapace was peppered with dents from the other robots' bullets, and Rodney could see immediately that one of his arms wasn't working correctly, as if the joint had broken. The faceplate of the robot's head was cracked, which Rodney knew would impair his ability to aim. It didn't look on first glance like any bullets had pierced through the armor to the flesh and blood underneath, but with the shell weakened Rodney knew it was likely a future salvo would break through.
Rodney hadn't seen who put the magnetic beacons onto the two robots that had been shooting at them, but someone must have because the torsos of both robots had been perforated by at least ten of the tiny drone weapons he and John had discovered on Queen Harmony's planet.
Rodney's plan had worked perfectly, but the liquid pooling beneath the nearer robot was obviously blood, and for a moment Rodney was too horrified to move.
"Can you get it open?" Ronon panted next to Rodney, keeping his gun up and his back to the door.
Rodney gave a single rapid jerk of his head in acknowledgement, yanking himself back to the mission. He used the same USB stick he'd made to interface with John to connect his tablet to the closer of the two locks.
"Give me a minute!" He snapped, skimming over the information scrolling down the screen. "Is John okay?" he asked Ronon a moment later. "He doesn't--is he okay?"
"He's fine, McKay," Ronon growled, "but we'll be dead if you don't open the damn door!"
"What do you think I'm doing?" Rodney demanded, then his eyes widened in dismay at what he was reading. "No! No, damn it!" He looked helplessly at Ronon. "I can't! I got the codes--that was a piece of cake--but the drones went through the door and jammed it. It won't--"
Ronon grabbed Rodney by his tac vest and hauled him to the side. Rodney was about to berate him for manhandling him again, when John lumbered up to the door, lifted one leg like a battering ram and kicked it. The door swung open so fast it banged against the wall on the other side.
"Thanks," Rodney said to the robot, a little stunned.
The robot's cracked lens darted towards him, but the robot stayed silent. This close, Rodney could see that there was dark fluid running in a thin stream down the outside of one of the bronze and silver-green legs. Rodney hoped to hell it wasn't blood.
"Come on!" Ronon hollered at Carson, who was still standing like a cornered rabbit next to the wall.
Carson looked desperately at the two downed robots and then back at Rodney and Ronon. "They're injured!"
"They're dead!" Ronon shouted. "Get him!" He ordered the Marines, and the shorter one grabbed Carson's tac vest and used it to drag him towards the now open door. "Come on!"
There were at least two more robots coming; Rodney could hear the echoing thumps of their hands and feet as they knuckle-walked through the tunnel towards them.
Ronon pushed Carson through the open door and followed with the Marines.
"John! Come on, John!" Rodney called to him, because John was still standing in front of the door he'd kicked open, not moving.
The robot used his malfunctioning arm to shove Rodney the rest of the way through the doorway. He turned to stand in front of it as the other two robots came in to the anti-room.
"No!" Rodney yelled, "John! No!" Even after he heard the new burst of gunfire, he didn't leave until one of the Marines came back for him.
"This way!" Rodney shouted, pointing as the five of them skidded to a stop at a T-junction in the corridor. He heard someone running at them and had whirled and shot his P90 before the movement even consciously reached his brain. One Keshiran Warman or Gendarme or whatever the hell he was twisted to the side and fell. Ronon got another two with his blaster, and one of the Marines got the fourth. Carson killed the wall.
"Good shot," Ronon said to Rodney as they started running again, and Rodney's stomach twisted, full of pride and disgust and fear.
The next set of overkill-locked doors hadn't been hit by anything, and they were a cinch to get open. Rodney flipped his laptop over his shoulder to slap it against the Velcro on his tac vest as he ran through, making sure to slip the USB back into a pocket with his other hand. And tripped and fell headlong, skidding through something wet on the floor.
He scrambled to his hands and knees and realized he was right next to a corpse. He had tripped over what once had been someone's arm. He made a noise a little too much like a shriek and rocketed the rest of the way to his feet, looking around wildly.
The body was just one of at least six, thrown into a pile like sandbags. They were all hairless, missing hands and anything past their ribcage, and all obviously John.
"Mother of God," Carson whispered. The short Marine swore quietly in what was probably Spanish.
Carson knelt in the liquid on the floor and put his fingers to the throat of the nearest body.
"He's dead. They're all dead," Ronon said, the flatness of his voice betraying how shaken he was.
The room was about the size of the infirmary back on Atlantis, holding nothing but rows on rows of tanks like shallow aquariums, filled with something that looked like but obviously wasn't water.
And there was a copy of John in almost every single one. They all had umbilical cords, Rodney noticed with dull surprise. Each one connected to an artificial placenta floating sedately where the clone's legs would be, if any of them had been allowed to have them. The placentas in turn were connected by tubes and cables to the Ancient machines.
The floor was flooded with a thin layer of liquid. Rodney assumed it was the same as the stuff in the tanks, tried to ignore how it was now all over him. The parts of the room not taken up with the tanks of clones were full of the technology used to make them: sleek, confidently humming machines as obviously advanced as the tanks themselves weren't, like a jet engine strapped to a tractor.
"Those are the non-viable ones," Carson said, voice hushed. He was still staring at the heap of corpses: The ones who hadn't survived, or who might not have survived anyway, or who just didn't fit the Keshirans' particular requirements. One had skin so thin that the veins threaded overtop of it like yarn, another's skull hadn't grown properly, nor had most of its bones. Another, barely the size of a child, leaked coils of intestine like stuffing from a doll. One had begun growing real hands.
Rodney could imagine someone, a technician probably, checking the tanks each day, waiting until some threshold of time had been crossed and then doing the culling. Slicing the umbilical cords, lifting the half-formed bodies out of the tank, and then throwing them into the corner like garbage. He wondered who would be ultimately responsible for disposing of them.
Rodney wrenched his eyes away from the bodies before he gagged, turning back to the living ones, growing in the liquid of the tanks.
"What are they for?" The taller Marine asked. He was staring at Rodney.
"Their war machines," Carson said. The clones were meant for the robots. There were at least forty of them.
"We need to keep moving," Ronon said, and Rodney realized that he could hear the distant rain-patter sound of weapons. He wondered how long John would be able to hold the Keshirans off, and then tried very hard not to think about it.
He wordlessly followed Ronon as the Sateden stalked to the far end of the room where there was one more set of doors. These had the same kind of wheel locks, but one of them was already cracked open.
"Stay here," Ronon ordered the Marines. "Make sure no one gets in."
Ronon slammed the door the rest of the way open, already firing his blaster. Rodney was a second behind him, just in time to see a man scream and fall.
The other, also a man, had frozen in mid-motion, wide-eyed. He was reaching for the control panel of a stasis chamber.
"You move and you die like your friend," Ronon said, and the man's eyes got impossibly wider, brown saucers on a milk-white face. But he wasn't stupid. He dropped his hands to his sides, standing so still Rodney was sure he was trying not to breathe.
This room was smaller. There were only two tanks in it and the stasis chamber, aside from the smoothly purring machines. Only one tank had a clone in it, and Rodney glanced at it as he ran past, mostly registering that this copy of John had legs and hair.
But there was also a John in the stasis chamber, and Rodney was certain that he was the one they'd come for.
Rodney stopped in front of the stasis chamber's control panel, shoving the technician away. He made a tiny noise of triumph and impatience and desperation, the pads of his fingers hammering on the panel keys.
"Rodney," Carson said, "Rodney!" Harsher this time, when Rodney ignored him.
"What?" Rodney snapped, looking away from the panel to glare at him.
"There's no point, Rodney," Carson said with terrible gentleness. "Look."
Rodney had missed it at first, because he had been far more intent on releasing John from the stasis field and because it was mostly hidden under his hair. But it was easy to see the small, precise red hole in John's temple, now that Carson had drawn Rodney's attention to it. It looked like it had been done with something like an awl or ice pick. Not that it was important.
"Oh," Rodney said softly, dropping his hands.
John's body was naked. His upper arms and chest and stomach and thighs were riddled with gouges where the technicians had taken tissue from him, to use his genes to reshape into their deliberately malformed copies.
"They'd want the original chromosomes," Carson explained needlessly. He sounded sick. "Clones of clones degrade over time."
Rodney nodded woodenly, realized he was crying again. He was distantly amazed he had any tears left. He put his palm on the field of the stasis chamber, but he couldn't feel anything.
Ronon stared at John's still face, the heavy-lidded eyes that looked alive but weren't. Then he made a wordless shout of rage and pain and grabbed the tech's arm. He used it to swing the man around, giving Rodney an instant to move before Ronon shoved the technician against the field of the stasis chamber, holding him in place with a fistful of his sweat-sodden hair. He pushed the barrel of his blaster against the technician's damp temple.
"Wait! No, Ronon!" Rodney shouted. He yanked at Ronon's arm, trying to pull the gun away.
"They killed Sheppard!" Ronon yelled. "This fucker's not leaving here!"
"Fine! That's fine!" Rodney said quickly. "But not yet!" He pointed at the one occupied tank in the room. "Look, Ronon! Look what's in there!"
Ronon glowered at him, but he turned his head. "It's Sheppard," he said, like the word hurt. "It's another clone. So what?"
"Look at it!" Rodney insisted. "Look at him." He was still pulling on Ronon's arm. "He's perfect. He's John."
Ronon looked at the tank again, then whipped his head back to the prisoner, grinding the muzzle of the gun into his skull. The man whimpered. "John's dead."
"So was Carson!" Rodney hissed.
He watched Ronon struggle with it, remembering how badly Ronon had reacted to Carson's clone when they'd first rescued him. How long it had taken him to accept that he really was Carson in every way that mattered.
"He's not the same," Ronon said finally.
"I know," Rodney said. "But he's close enough, Ronon. He'll be close enough."
Ronon held the man there for another minute, so long that Rodney was sure he was going to kill the tech anyway and that Rodney wouldn't be able to prevent it. The distant sound of battle might have come closer; Rodney couldn't tell.
Then Ronon roared and wrenched the man away from the stasis chamber, nearly pulling Rodney with him. Ronon hauled the tech stumbling across the room until Ronon held him over the tank with John's clone in it, his blaster now shoved against the back of the tech's head. The man was nearly bent double, his face so close to the water that when Ronon's movement jostled it the liquid slapped up against the technician's lips.
"What's that one for?" Ronon said, grinding the gun into his scalp. "Why'd you make him?"
The tech was shaking with fear. He tried to speak, then choked and coughed as he inhaled the fluid. Ronon yanked him up by his hair.
"Why'd you make him?" he growled right into the man's face. There was a small red crescent where the barrel of Ronon's blaster had been was digging into the tech's forehead. A slow line of blood trickled down the side of his face.
"W-warship," he said, his lips trembling so much he could barely form the words. "P-pilot--"
"Don't kill him yet!" Rodney ran to them. He grabbed the wilted collar of the technician's shirt, twisting his fists into it until the man's eyes were bugging from more than just fear. Ronon was still holding him by the hair, his blaster burrowing into his head. "Is he a perfect copy?"
The man stared blankly at him, too numb with fear to register what Rodney had said.
"Answer him!" Ronon screwed the blaster in a little more. The tech whined like a dog.
"Yes! Yes, yes," the man stammered. "W-we had too, for--for the control chair..." He swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing. He started crying. "Please don't kill me."
"What's his lifespan?" Rodney snarled.
"I don't know!" The man's chest was heaving, his face wet with terror. "Please! I don't know! He--he's an adult, I don't--"
Rodney shook him and he shut up instantly. "So you're saying he has a normal lifespan?"
The technician nodded frantically. "There's every indication--"
"Good," Rodney snapped. He yanked the tech towards him, and Ronon let him go. Rodney hauled him by his collar and pushed him at the humming machines. "Wake him," he said.
The technician blinked at him. He was marble white except where Ronon's gun had scraped off a layer of skin. He put his fingertips over the wound, as if ashamed. "Now? B-but he's not finished--!"
"Is he viable?" Rodney asked.
The tech just stared at him.
Rodney slapped him. "Is he viable? Can he live outside the tank? Answer me!"
"Yes! Yes he is. He is!" The tech was nodding like his life depended on it; it did. "He is, but--"
"Then get him out of there," Rodney said. "Now." He let go of the man's shirt so he could snap his fingers, not moving his eyes from the man's bloodless face. "Carson, get over here and help. My friend really wants to kill you," he said to the technician. "If you don't do this right, I'll let him."
The tech kept nodding, head moving like a toy. He wiped the sweat and blood off his forehead with a badly shaking hand.
"Right, then," Carson said, trotting up to them. Rodney couldn't decipher the look Carson threw at him. "Tell me what needs doing."
Rodney curled and uncurled his fingers to get the kinks out of them from gripping the technician's shirt so hard. "Stay with him," he said to Ronon.
"Sure," Ronon said. His grin was like chips of ice. He held his gun almost casually, but it followed the man every time he moved.
The technician walked shakily to the bank of Ancient machines, rubbing his throat. There were bright red abrasions there where Rodney had tightened his collar. He looked over his shoulder at Carson. "The surfacing process is quite simple, but you'll need to cut the umbilical as soon as possible. The clamps are located over--"
"I'm not using those bloody filthy things," Carson spat. He set his backpack on the wet floor and pulled out his field first aid kit, opened it and took out a set of plastic-wrapped clamps, scissors and gloves, and then opened them. "It's a wonder any of these people survive at all, the way you've been growing them like this was a bloody fish farm!" He deftly clamped the umbilical near to the clone's belly, even though it meant reaching into the artificial amniotic fluid to do it. Carson didn't even wince. "Rodney," he said. "Be a help and get ready to pull him out, will you? I don't want his first breath to be liquid."
Rodney knew he was making a face, he couldn't help it. But he'd delivered Teyla's baby, and putting his hands in whatever this was to make sure John didn't drown would be nothing at all compared to what he'd already experienced. "Hang on," he said. He shucked his tac vest and jacket, letting the jacket drop to the floor. He quickly put the vest back on.
"Okay," Rodney said. He gritted his teeth and slipped his bare forearms into the liquid. It was perfect body-temperature, which somehow only made it feel worse. But he gamely supported the back of John's neck and head, lifting it so that John's face was out of the water. He looked pale and fragile, terribly young with his overly long hair hanging into his eyes. Rodney quickly pushed it off his forehead so John would be able to see.
"I'm ready," he said.
Carson nodded then turned to the technician. "Go."
The tech nodded some more. "Surfacing the clone in three...two...one..."
All it needed, apparently, was to hit a button. A ripple of greenish light flickered through the liquid. Rodney's hands and arms tingled.
John's whole body convulsed, his eyes opening as he gasped in air. Rodney hauled him up, cursing at John's dead weight, how slippery his skin was. "Carson...!"
Carson sliced through the umbilical in one precise cut. The other, unclamped end spurted something that was almost like blood as it flopped onto the edge of the tank and slid like a decapitated serpent back into the liquid, turning it pink. Carson dropped the scissors and helped Rodney with John. Ronon came to help as well, but the coffin-like tank was low enough to the floor that between Rodney and Carson they were able to pull John out and hold him upright.
John sagged against Rodney. He wasn't standing by himself, he wasn't doing anything. His mouth was slack, his eyes blinking sightlessly at the floor. The fluid dripped down his body unnoticed.
Ronon took one look at him and aimed his gun at the technician again. Rodney could hear it whirring as Ronon pushed the power level up. "What's wrong with him?"
The man cringed. "Nothing!" he blurted. "Nothing! He--he just needs the p-personality matrix..." He rushed over to another part of the large chamber, Ronon's gun on him the whole way. He quickly pressed a series of crystalline keys on the wall, and something that looked like a reverse-engineered control chair unfolded from it. There was a bracket at the top with nodes set in it, very obviously meant for someone's head.
"No, no way," Rodney said. He clutched John a little more tightly, as if someone were going to try to rip him out of his arms. "That thing looks like it was made with Tinker Toys! I'm not putting John in that!
"It's the only way to make him--to replicate the original!" the tech said, wringing his hands. "He'll have no mind otherwise. He will be useless to you!"
Ronon snarled, started stalking forward.
"Wait!" Carson cried, stopping him. He turned to Rodney. "I know it looks dangerous, but it works, doesn't it? And what choice do we have?"
Rodney closed his eyes, hugging John, who wasn't John at all. "Yeah, okay," he whispered.
The two of them carried John over to the chair, settling him into it as gently as possible with Ronon's help. Rodney hated that John was still naked, that he should be so exposed and vulnerable like that, but there was nothing they could do about it.
Rodney saw that the chair was equipped with arm and leg restraints, and had to control a spike of rage before he launched himself at the weasel of a technician. They didn't have time.
"Do it," Rodney snapped at him.
"Yes, of course," the man said quickly, pressing keys.
The chair glowed, a pale, milky version of the normal rich blue. John's body spasmed.
"Carson!" Rodney held John down as gently as he could, terrified of what would happen if he managed to jerk himself out of the chair before the procedure finished. "It's okay, it's okay, you're all right, we're here, we're here." He found himself babbling, automatically gripping John's hand as he held him down, John's fingers convulsing around Rodney's.
John's body relaxed all at once, so suddenly that Rodney thought he'd died. He almost screamed, and then John's hand closed over his, and John blinked open his eyes.
"Rodney?" He looked bewildered, still terribly young, but he was there, present behind his eyes. Whole and alive.
"John," Rodney said. He swallowed, shoving down a surge of emotion so enormous it hurt. "It's all right--we've come to get you."
"Thanks," John said dully. He still looked confused, probably because as far as he remembered he'd only been attacked minutes ago. He sat up, looking down at himself. "Why am I...wet?"
"Long story," Ronon said. He took John's arm, about to pull him to his feet.
"Not yet," Carson said quickly. And before Rodney fully realized what he was doing, Carson had stabbed a hypodermic into John's upper arm.
"Hey!" John exclaimed. "What..." He started keeling over. Ronon grabbed him before he toppled off the chair.
"What the hell was that for?" Rodney exclaimed, gaping at Carson.
"Take a good look round, Rodney!" Carson snapped. He pulled a silver thermal blanket out of his pack and started wrapping it around John. "Do you really think he needs to see what's out there? His own corpse?"
Rodney swallowed. "Right," he said. "Good call."
"He could've handled it," Ronon said. But he dutifully helped Carson make sure John was completely covered, then hefted him easily into his arms. Unconscious, John looked even younger than he had as a blank slate. It was beginning to make Rodney worry a bit, like an itch in the back of his mind. The technician said he hadn't been finished, after all. But, "Let's go," Ronon said, already moving, and Rodney decided he wasn't going to think about it.
The technician was next to the chair, blinking rapidly and shaking. He was standing perfectly still, as if trying not to call attention to himself.
Ronon barely glanced at him. "You'll probably live if you can run fast enough."
The two Marines were standing guard the way Ronon had instructed them. Rodney wondered if they felt as creeped out as he did, being surrounded by the silently growing grotesqueries that resembled their CO so much. They both looked relieved to see him and the others.
"We've been hearing gunfire in the corridor, but nothing's come close so far," the short one reported. Then he blinked, his face splitting into a grin. "Is that the Colonel? He's all right?"
"Aye, just asleep for the moment," Carson said smiling, lying more easily than Rodney would have ever suspected he could.
It was like the two Marines couldn't stop grinning. Rodney nodded a little at their happiness, trying to smile in return. What he was feeling was as grotesque and malformed as the copies of John that surrounded them, so much grief and terror and hope and joy and anger inside him that it was like he couldn't feel anything at all. He wondered idly if he'd lost his mind.
He snapped his fingers at the Marines then held his hand out. "Give me a locator beacon," he said.
They looked at him for a moment in obvious confusion, but either their automatic military obedience won out or they just decided to trust him, because they each handed him one.
"Why do you need those?" Carson asked.
"Why do you think?" Rodney said. He looked around the chamber, considering, trying not to see the living clones or the dead ones on the floor. In the end he just stuck both beacons to the door behind him.
He slapped his radio. "This is McKay," he spoke into it. "We're done here--get us up, then fire on the two target beacons. Take this place out."
"Understood, sir," came back from whichever bridge crew he was talking to. "Major Lorne's team is already up here. See you in a minute."
A second later they'd all turned into light.
Rodney looked around, confused. They'd rematerialized in the infirmary, not the F-302 bay. Lorne's team was already there, tense and expectant and short two Marines. There was also a medical team and two gurneys, obviously ready for the worst. By the look on Lorne and Teyla's faces, the worst had already happened.
"We lost Scott and Greer," Lorne said. Rodney didn't know the names, but he was sure they had to be the two missing Marines. "And Kahla's dead. They executed her before we got there."
"There was no sign of John," Teyla said. "We fear--" she stopped abruptly as she registered Ronon putting John gently down on a gurney, under the watchful concern of the medical team. "John?" She looked at Rodney, her face sliding from sorrow to shock to joy so quickly Rodney wasn't sure how her body was able to contain it. She hugged him so hard he lost breath. He'd barely returned it when she broke away to run to John's side.
Lorne's face broke into a huge grin. "Good job, Doc," he said. He followed Teyla.
Rodney ignored them both. Ronon would tell them what happened, or not. John would be fine. He tapped his radio again. "Bridge, this is McKay--where's the robot?"
"This is the bridge," he heard. "We had to delay retrieval until the two Jumpers were in the hanger."
"What? You just left him there?" Rodney barked. "What if he's injured?"
"Doctor McKay, this is Caldwell," the Colonel broke in. "If we took on the Jumpers after we'd transported the robot, he would have been sucked into space when the bay doors opened. This was the most viable option. He's being transported now."
Rodney cut the connection without responding. "Carson!" he hollered at him. Carson was helping get John settled. He whirled as if Rodney had shot a gun next to his ear. "The war 'bot," Rodney said.
Carson's eyes widened, but he nodded. "Med kit," he demanded of the nearest infirmary crew. She wordlessly handed one over and Carson bolted after Rodney, who was already running.
The transporter spilled them out into the 302 bay, and they both rushed to the place where they'd waited to be transported down to the planet. John was there.
Rodney stopped dead. "Oh, no," he breathed. Beside him Carson sucked in a breath through his teeth. Rodney shook himself and ran to the robot, lying on its back between the rows of F-302s. It was so full of holes it was almost impossible to see the red stripe.
John's hand was open, exposing the triangular USB port, like he'd been waiting for Rodney to come.
"Oh no oh no oh no oh no," Rodney chanted as he yanked the USB out of his pocket. He pushed it into place and ripped the tablet off his back, plugging the cord into it. The number of red warning messages made his breath hitch.
The chest panels only opened half-way when Rodney keyed them. He dropped his computer and wedged his hands in between them, trying to push them apart. They were slimy with fluid and what he was all-too-aware was blood. He needed Carson's help to finally get the panels to move.
John wasn't dead, though Rodney thought that might only have been because the robot was sustaining his life. He was covered in blood from the shoulders down, blood dripping out the bottom of his metal air mask, from the ends of the tubes where bullets had torn them apart. His blind eyes were half-closed, like the John they'd found in the stasis chamber.
"Oh, no," Rodney said. He hesitated a moment, not wanting to cause John more pain, then carefully crawled overtop of the machine the way Teyla had, balancing himself on one of the panels. "John!" he said, right next to an incongruously perfect ear, "John! Can you hear me? It's Rodney! You--we're calling a medical team. You're going to be okay!"
He glanced at Carson, who shook his head.
Rodney took a shuddering breath and turned to John again. He reached down and put his hand so, so gently on John's bleeding chest, over his struggling heart. John's breath rattled like tin.
"I'm here, John," Rodney said, fighting to keep his voice even and strong. "I'm okay--your whole team is fine. Ronon, Teyla, Lorne and Carson too. We're all okay. And, and we've made sure they'll never do this to anyone, ever again."
The mask was bolted in place, just like everything else was. Rodney didn't have the tools to remove it, and he knew he didn't have time. But he could still see when John smiled, the way his skin crinkled next to his unseeing eyes.
"Goodbye, John," Rodney said. "I love you."
John was still smiling as Carson carefully slid the needle into his arm.
Rodney stayed there, not moving, his hand over John's heart until he felt it slow, falter and finally stop. Then he pushed himself back to his feet. He made a fist around John's blood on his palm.
Carson put his hand on Rodney's arm. "I'm so sorry, Rodney," he said.
Rodney nodded mutely, then walked away.
He spent a long time verifying that the Keshirans' cloning facility and munitions factory had been destroyed before he told Caldwell they could leave orbit. He wasn't entirely sure why Caldwell indulged him, but figured it probably had something to do with the John who had died in the 302 bay and the one who died back on Atlantis. The Keshirans' unfinished warship was still out there somewhere, but Rodney decided it wasn't worth worrying about. The Keshirans had no idea where Atlantis was, and the Daedalus had already obliterated every other aspect of their war machine. And they'd ostensibly been doing all of this to fight the Wraith, after all--might as well leave them some way to possibly do it.
John's body was put in the ship's morgue. The robot was transported to just above the thermosphere of the planet and left to burn. Caldwell had suggested they keep it for study, but Rodney had insisted there was nothing there they needed to know. In the end Caldwell hadn't argued very much.
The other John, the perfect one who had survived, was still in the infirmary in a closely-monitored sleep. They would be in hyperspace for approximately nine hours before they arrived at Atlantis. Carson had assured Rodney that John would be awake and coherent before then.
Teyla and Ronon were sitting with him when Rodney arrived, just watching him. Ronon was looking at John and frowning. Teyla was holding John's hand, but she didn't look happy.
"What? What is it?" Rodney said as soon as he saw them, the sudden bloom of fear in his chest too painful to keep his voice kind. If there was something wrong with John, they were out of chances. There would never be another John Sheppard in this universe.
"Nothing," Teyla said, but it was too quick and bright and couldn't assuage the concern in her eyes. "It's just..." She tried to smile. "He looks younger, I think." She shrugged. "It's probably just that his hair is overly long."
"No it's not," Ronon said. He looked like Rodney felt, but maybe angrier. "He's not right. He isn't old enough. The guy said he wasn't finished when we took him."
Teyla held John's lax hand a little more tightly, as if they were in danger of losing him again. "If this is true--what does it mean, Rodney? What will become of him?"
Rodney stopped, scrubbed his hand over his face. He was unbelievably tired. "I don't know," he said. "It doesn't matter right now." He made himself look at both of them. "It doesn't matter. What matters is that John is here and safe and he's healthy and he's not going to die, all right? If this body really is younger, we--we'll work it out, okay? The SGC has dealt with weirder things than this. It's going to be fine. You'll see."
Teyla looked just as worried, but she nodded. "Of course," she said. "The only thing that matters is that we have him back."
"He's still Sheppard," Ronon said. But he looked at Rodney as if he really didn't know.
"Of course he is!" Rodney snapped. "Will you at least let him wake up before you both have hissy fits? And I'd like a few minutes with him, if you don't mind."
Teyla's smile was slight, but she stood smoothly, inclining her head to mean that Rodney should take her seat. "I will bring you some coffee," she said, which was both her being kind and a subtle hint that Rodney had no monopoly on John.
"That's fine," he said. "Thanks."
"Later, McKay," Ronon said. He shoved his chair back loudly enough to wake anyone who wasn't snowed under by morphine.
Rodney waited until they were both gone until he sat down.
He wrapped his hand around John's, unaccountably relieved that John's skin was warm, even if it was too pale. His fingers felt the same.
"Thank you," Rodney whispered. And he held John's hand in his, precious as life, and Rodney put his other hand over his face and wept: for the John he had lost in Atlantis, and the one who had died protecting him, and for all the others whom they had to leave behind. And for Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, who would never be able to come home.
And Rodney wept for himself, because he loved them all and could only save one. And the one he saved was still John Sheppard, but he wasn't the same. And he would never be the same.
John was looking at himself in his bathroom mirror when Rodney walked in.
"Oh, hi," he said, sounding embarrassed. He made a vague gesture encompassing his whole body. "I was just...you know." He shrugged self-consciously. "It's still kind of weird."
Rodney nodded. He tried to smile, but he was sure it was wan and thin. "New you is still freaking you out, eh?"
"Yeah," John agreed vehemently, nodding. He sighed, ran his fingers through his hair, then walked out into his bedroom and sat on the bed. The only other comfortable place to sit in the room was the ottoman at the foot of John's ridiculously tiny bed, so Rodney dragged it into the center of the room.
"Oh, hey," John said, wincing. "How'd it go? Uh, I mean..."
"The service?" Rodney asked bluntly, and then felt a little guilty at John's pained nod. "It was..." Rodney let out a breath. "It was strange. And sad. I mean, it was you, right? He felt and thought like you and did the same kinds of things that you would, and then he died. But you're still here."
"Yeah," John said. "I can see how that would be...disconcerting."
"Well," Rodney said, "if it's any consolation, you died heroically."
"No, not really, thanks," John said. He closed his eyes and ran his fingers through his hair again. He'd cut it shorter than it used to be, Rodney noticed. He wondered what that meant. "And the other one of me died in the shower. Jesus," John said before looking up at Rodney. "Now I know how Carson felt. This sucks."
"I know," Rodney said, meaning it. "Believe me, I know." He sat for awhile in silence, looking down at his hands on his thighs. He was still wearing John's wristband. He supposed he should stop wearing it, now. He knew he wouldn't.
"Do I look different?" John blurted suddenly, making Rodney snap his head up. "I mean," John went on uncomfortably, "my pants are a little looser, 'cause I weigh about as much as I did when I was a Captain. But...I feel the same, right? But, do I look really different?"
You look beautiful, was what Rodney didn't say. "You look fine," was what he did. He even made himself smile, though it probably was a little too crooked. "Seriously--you look like you. Just, younger. But it's not such a big difference that people who didn't know you well would even notice, really."
"Okay," John said. He didn't sound relieved, but then again Rodney generally had problems knowing what John was feeling. John clasped his hands between his spread thighs, his head down as if he was studying his boots. "Do you think I'm different?" he asked.
Rodney opened his mouth, closed it, at a complete loss for what to say. "Well, you kind of have to be different, don't you?" he said finally. "Carson said that his best guess was that you're about thirty years old." He stopped speaking, because John was looking at him and he seemed sad. "Well, that was his best guess," Rodney said. "He said even the Ancient equipment wasn't precise enough to give an exact age."
"I could be younger," John said.
Rodney hesitated, then nodded. "Well, yeah."
"I don't want to be different, Rodney," John said.
"You're not!" Rodney said. "I mean, yes, I just said you were," he amended quickly at John's look. "But not--not who you are, or anything! You said, you said you know how Carson felt, and I'm sure that's true, but you also need to remember that Carson is Carson, right? He's the same person, even though he's not, um, not the original. And you just said you don't feel different yourself," he added.
John nodded slowly, thinking about it. "Woolsey wants to know what my plans are," he said.
"What do you mean, what your plans are?" Rodney asked, suddenly terrified. "You can't--are you leaving Atlantis?"
John's face scrunched up the way it always did when he was confused, and the profoundness of Rodney's relief had him sagging. "No! Of course not! It's just..." John paused, mouth pulling unhappily. "My family thinks I'm dead. Hell, I am dead. In a real sense I'm not John Sheppard anymore."
"Don't say that!" Rodney exclaimed, so quickly and loudly that John actually looked at him in alarm. "Don't say that," Rodney repeated more calmly. His heart was still hammering, as if he was about to lose John again: not to death, but to something just as terrible and permanent. John still seemed too ephemeral, transient; as if any second he would disappear again, never to be found. "Of course you're John Sheppard," Rodney said. "You're you. You're still you. Just because you're not forty-six or whatever now doesn't change that."
"I think it kind of does, Rodney," John said. "I don't even have any scars."
Rodney swallowed. "You don't need scars," he said.
John smirked. "Maybe you're right." And Rodney didn't know what that meant, either.
"So, Woolsey wants to know what my plans are, and I've been thinking," John went on. "Lorne's doing a great job running this place, and I'm not really Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard anymore, but...But maybe that isn't so bad."
"What about your family?" Rodney asked, voice rough.
John smiled in a way that really wasn't. "I hadn't talked to Dave for literally decades before our dad died. I haven't been back since the reading of Dad's will. I haven't wanted to." He shrugged. "I don't think my death will be much of a loss for either of us."
"It was to me," Rodney said.
"I know," John said. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had to go through that."
Rodney had to clear his throat so he could speak. "Yeah," he said. He sucked in air, forcing a smile. "So," he said, making his voice light. "You've been thinking."
John didn't smile. "Rodney," he said.
"No," Rodney said. "Don't. Not now, please." He looked away, pressing his thumb and two fingers against his eyes. "I scattered your ashes today, and I can't..." He blinked a few times, gritting his teeth, then looked up again. "I really want to talk about something else."
John looked at him, then nodded. "Sure, okay." He licked his lips. "So...Woolsey said the SGC will want to give me a new identity, the way they did for the clone of O'Neill and the aliens they adopt."
Rodney smiled. "They mostly say they're from Canada."
"Yeah," John said. He stretched with a casualness so forced that even Rodney saw it. "I was going to ask if I could be Canadian too."
Rodney's mouth fell open. "What? Why?"
John frowned at him. "What, there's something wrong with Canada?" He shrugged with the same kind of casualness as the stretching. "I thought Canada was kind of cool. Snowboarding, really polite people--"
"As if," Rodney snorted.
"Really polite people," John continued, giving Rodney a sour look. "Universal health care, good beer..."
"You hate Canadian beer."
"I'll learn to love it," John said. He smiled, and it wasn't forced, but seemed strangely shy. "And, uh, there wouldn't be any problem with...with us having...maybe being together, that way. Especially if we're not on the same team."
"Oh," Rodney said softly, stunned.
John looked at him for a moment, as if waiting for something, and then his face closed like a slammed door. "Right," he said, and made a sound nothing like a laugh. "I...Yeah. Kidding." He waved his hand like he was trying to push away everything he'd just said. "I was kidding. Don't worry about it."
Rodney blinked. Then, "No!" he said loudly, surprising both of them. "No! I mean--I mean, you never told me this before! I didn't know you...we, we could--" he made a quick gestured that was meant to mean the two of them, but probably looked obscene. "I found out from the video! When you were dead! And even then you said you shouldn't have told me! So, so this doesn't make any sense! Why now?" He spread his hands helplessly. "Why are you suddenly telling me? I don't understand."
"Because I died, Rodney!" John said. "I died! And it doesn't matter that it's not this me, because it still was me, wasn't it? I mean, everyone grieved like it was." He looked at the floor. "You grieved."
Rodney nodded. "I don't actually think it had entirely hit me yet," he said quietly.
"Yeah, so, I died." John said. He let out a breath through puffed cheeks. "And so I was sitting here thinking how I've got another chance now--how I've had a whole bunch of chances handed to me." He looked at Rodney again. "And I know you're with Jennifer, but I didn't want to keep regretting this, not telling you."
"Okay," Rodney said. He knew his eyes were probably more than a little wild but he couldn't seem to do anything about it. "But, um, Jennifer and I broke up."
John blinked, and Rodney could actually tell he was trying to look sympathetic, not to smile. "You did? When?"
"After you came back. The first time," Rodney said. And even now that was so painful to remember that he had to push it away, just think about this John, alive and whole and perfect. "I was going to break up with her anyway, because I didn't want to have more regrets either. And, well, then you died. And...I know it was unfair to her, but I couldn't. I just couldn't do it anymore." He gave John a very small smile. "I, um, this is a terrible thing to say, but I only asked her out in the first place because I thought there was no chance with you." He smiled humorlessly. "This is actually the third time I've told you that."
John blinked again. "Oh,' he said, and his smile was real, a wide grin as beautiful as the rest of him. "So, we're both kind of idiots, huh."
Rodney laughed because it was so obviously not a question.
John laughed as well, and then he tilted his head consideringly, and then he sort of half stood and half leaned, and then he was straddling Rodney's thighs and they were kissing.
Rodney closed his eyes, gently slid his fingers through the thick hair on the sides of John's head. It felt like something came loose in his chest, like he could breathe for the first time in months; maybe for the first time ever. And when they broke apart for air John was smiling at him, looking surprised and smug and happy and so young and so like himself, and Rodney yanked him too roughly into a hug and held him until long after his legs had gone numb.
John let him, and hugged him back.
"I love you," Rodney said, murmuring it to the curve of John's neck. "You can't die anymore."
"I love you too," John said. "I know, I know, I know."
"So," John said, much later, lying next to Rodney. "I'm going to need a new name. A good, Canadian name."
Rodney rolled his eyes, more pleased than he wanted to admit. "There's no such thing as a 'Canadian' name."
"Come on," John said, making his eyes huge and pathetic. "Please?"
Rodney snorted. "Fine. Ian. It's another form of John."
"Ian," John said, trying it out. "Do I look like an Ian?"
"You look beautiful," Rodney said.
John smirked, which Rodney knew meant he was embarrassed, but he leaned in and kissed the corner of Rodney's mouth. "I don't have to be a John anymore," he said.
"Jesse, then," Rodney said.
"Jesse? Yeah?" With a lot of difficulty John shifted onto his side, propping his head on his elbow so he could look down on Rodney's face without going cross-eyed, since they were lying so close together. Rodney really wished John had a normal-sized bed. "Like Jesse James? That's kind of cool."
"Figures you'd go for the outlaw," Rodney huffed mildly. "It's actually a very old name. Biblical."
"Not that you looked it up, or anything," John said. "Jesse Sheppard?"
Rodney reached up and carded his fingers through John's short hair, exploring the bristly feel of it. "You'll have to be related to the deceased Colonel," he said.
John shrugged. "Well, yeah. I look like him--I figured I'd say I was a distant cousin or something." He smiled, strangely uncertain. "So, Jesse Sheppard--what do you think?"
"I like it," Rodney said, nodding. "It's good."
John grinned. "Cool." He let himself drop down to the bed, lying half on top of Rodney. "What does it mean, anyway?"
"Gift," Rodney said. He smiled. "I thought it suited." He wrapped John in his arms and held him tight.
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