Disclaimer: Stargate Atlantis - and all the characters and settings related to the show - do not belong to me, obviously. That credit goes to MGM, Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper. The plot of this little story, however, does.
A/N – Well, here it is – the final chapter. I realise that this story has only been a short ride, but it felt right to end it here. Maybe one day I'll do a sequel, but for now I hope you like this last offering – enjoy!
~ Death Stare ~
Hours later, John stirred. Awareness came slowly, and at first, his thoughts were simply a swirling mess of fog and random memories. On some level he knew that he was alive – or at least he felt alive – but his mind was so clouded by the fog that it made any conscious thought beyond that simple fact almost impossible. Something was wrong, he knew that much at least, but he just didn't have the energy to open his eyes and find out what…
How much time passed then, John didn't know, but eventually other things began to filter through the fog. The beating of his heart – a little too fast, but pumping nonetheless. The air that was being pulled into his lungs on instinct alone, keeping his body alive as his mind struggled to catch up. The slightly pulsing pain right behind his eyes, reminding him once again that something was wrong.
His heart began to beat faster as his mind clung to that thought. Something was wrong…
"Are you actually going to wake up properly, or am I going to have to call Beckett?"
John stilled, keeping his eyes closed. He knew that voice, but he couldn't quite place who it belonged to; friend or foe. Fighting for control, John tried desperately to open his eyes, but his eyelids felt too heavy, almost as if they were weighed down by rocks…
John mumbled something in reply, but it was incoherent even to himself. He swallowed, trying to work up enough moisture in his dry throat to form an actual sentence, but it was no use. Like the rest of his body, his vocal chords felt completely out of his control.
"Come on, Sheppard," the voice said again. "Open your eyes."
I'm trying to, John thought angrily. He tried again, but it was a futile effort. Instead, he focused as much as he could on the little things that had finally began to register as well. The feel of the stiff bed sheets below him, the soft beeping of a nearby machine, the slightly out-of-breath breathing of someone standing a little too close to him…
John tried to calm his rapidly beating heart as he focused in on that last sound. Someone was there, that much was clear, but did they pose a threat? Who the hell was it…?
With an effort that sapped even more of his precious energy, John finally managed to open his eyes a crack, blinking at the brightness of the room. It took a few seconds for his vision to clear, and even longer before his brain actually registered what he was seeing.
"McKay?" John croaked, frowning up at his friend. He squinted slightly as his eyes adjusted to the bright light of the Infirmary.
Rodney rolled his eyes, but even though he was still half out of it, John could see the relief in his face.
"Welcome back to the land of the living," McKay said, although after a few seconds, a look of guilt seemed to cross his face. "Sorry, poor choice of words."
"S'fine," John mumbled, not quite sure what Rodney was referring to. His head was starting to hurt again, and he still felt a little queasy. Part of him wanted to simply slip back into blissful unconsciousness, but a larger part of him wanted – no, needed to know what was going on.
"Anyway, it's about time you woke up," Rodney said, clearly trying to cover up the uncomfortable moment. "I was beginning to worry about brain damage."
"What…happened?" John asked, his mind still a little foggy. He glanced around the room, but there was no one else around. Apparently, he was the only one who had been hurt…
Rodney frowned. "You don't remember?"
John thought about it for a second, but when the memories began to swirl through his mind, making his headache even worse, he almost subconsciously forced them back.
"I remember a bit," he replied quietly after a few moments, trying to hold back his growing nausea and settle his breathing. "Not much."
"Well, I'm not going to be the one to explain it to you," Rodney said, standing up. "I'll go and get Carson – "
"No!" John interrupted, shooting out a hand to grab Rodney's arm.
He felt pathetic, but he couldn't help it; he didn't want his friend to leave. Not until he knew what was going on.
"Please, Rodney…" he continued.
Rodney paused and then sighed deeply. "Fine. But the minute you feel even the slightest bit off, you need to tell me."
"I will," John promised.
"Yeah, right," Rodney replied sarcastically, clearly unconvinced. Still, he stayed, and that was enough for John.
"Help me sit up," John croaked, holding out his hand. Rodney rolled his eyes once again, but he apparently knew better than to argue.
With no small amount of difficulty, and quite a bit of reluctant assistance from McKay, John finally pulled himself up on the bed. He was breathing heavily, and he could see little red spots dancing across his vision, but at least he was upright. And the effort had served to wake him up a bit more, so it was worth the effort in John's opinion.
"You gonna tell me what happened then?" John asked, closing his eyes briefly as he rode a slight wave of dizziness.
"Fine," Rodney sighed. "But you're not going to like it…"
By the time Rodney had finished his explanation, John had definitely woken up a bit more, but the fog in his mind had been replaced by a dull headache. He ran a hand over his face and sighed deeply.
"Damn," he muttered. Surreptitiously, John took a moment to glance around the room, but he couldn't see anyone else– living or dead. He and Rodney were alone, at least for the moment.
"Yeah," Rodney replied, coughing nervously. Clearly he had noticed John's actions. The scientist frowned. "So all in all, it's really not been the best week for you."
"Yeah, well enough about me for now," John said, more than a little desperate to get the conversation away from him and his ghosts. "What about the chamber that did this to me?"
"What about it?" Rodney asked, eyes moving down to look at his knees. John had known the other man long enough now that he didn't buy the innocent act for one minute.
"Come on, I know you've been studying it, McKay," John said, well aware that the scientist would not have been able to resist having a poke around, even with all the trouble it had already caused.
When Rodney didn't immediately protest at the accusation, John knew he was right, but he couldn't find it in himself to be angry. Instead, to his surprise, he was even a little bit curious.
"So," John began quietly. "What've you found? Who built it and why?"
"The creators were Ancients, obviously," Rodney replied, looking relieved that John wasn't angry with him. "Although I suspect they were part of a secret faction of scientists rather than part of any group we've come across before. I couldn't find any mention of them or the machine in the ancient database on Atlantis."
"So the machine was a secret Ancient experiment?" John asked, frowning. "What were they researching?"
"Death, I think," Rodney replied gravely. "Specifically, what happens to a person after death."
"I thought the Ancients had ascension?" John asked, brow furrowed.
"They did," Rodney replied. "Except I don't think these particular Ancients were all that interested in ascension. I think that their research was centred on finding alternatives to ascension."
"I can't say I find the idea of ascension all that appealing either," John said quietly. Rodney nodded in agreement. John sighed to himself. "So what did this particular group want to do?"
"It's not exactly clear yet," Rodney replied, "But I think I worked out how they planned to do it, at least in the beginning."
"Go on," John prompted.
Rodney nodded. "Well, from what I can gather, the machine they created as part of their research – the one that effectively scrambled your brain - only ever affects the area of the brain that deal with memories, not imagination. I think that's actually by design," Rodney paused, and then after checking that John was still following his explanation, continued. "Essentially, this faction of Ancients…they wanted to do more than simply explore the concept of the afterlife; they actually wanted to speak to those who had travelled beyond. Because what better way to study the afterlife than actually speak to someone who had experienced it?"
"Creepy," John noted.
"Yeah," Rodney agreed. "Anyway, I think they designed the machine to do just that, and it seems that they had some success."
John rolled his eyes, and gestured towards himself. "Ya think?"
"Yes, well, I did say some success," Rodney replied, scowling at John. "I'm not entirely convinced that they ever actually managed to talk to someone who had passed on – just that they just thought they had."
Rodney looked at John earnestly, as if that should explain everything, but John still had a banging headache and a queasy stomach, so he wasn't in the best frame of mind for critical thinking.
John looked at him blankly. "Okay, now you've lost me, McKay. Start at the beginning. Why the hell would they create a machine that only deals with memories when they're trying to talk to dead people?"
"Well," Rodney answered a little impatiently. "Think about it logically. First off, in order to 'talk' to someone that had passed on, the scientists had to find a way to differentiate between visions of dead people, and visions of people they believed to be dead, but who could theoretically still be alive."
John mulled that over for a moment.
"I think I get it," John began thoughtfully. "It's like Elvis."
Rodney paused. "What?"
"Elvis," John continued. "Well, he's dead, right? Except, how do we know that for sure? Plenty of people believe that his death was a conspiracy, and that he's not actually dead at all."
"Please tell me you're not one of those people."
"Of course I'm not," John said with a roll of his eyes. "But you're missing my point. I believe Elvis is dead, but until I've actually seen him die, how can I ever be absolutely one hundred percent certain that he is?"
Rodney didn't seemed convinced, and John knew that he still had lingering concerns about brain damage. In hindsight, the Elvis talk probably wasn't helping…
"You said that the machine is linked to the memory section of the brain, not the area that deals with imagination, and that they designed it to do that on purpose," John began instead. "The machine triggered the images from people the subject had seen die, because that was the only certain way to make sure that the vision was of someone who had passed on – their memory of that moment couldn't be questioned, but a believed or imagined dead person – like Elvis –always could."
"Exactly," Rodney replied, looking faintly surprised that John had understood so quickly. "As to the machine itself, I'm not really sure exactly how it works yet, but essentially it seems to be designed to send a pulse that triggers something in the memory section of the brain in order to bring about the visions of dead people."
"And," Rodney continued. "Just in case you get any stupid ideas about what happened to you, when I say 'visions' I actually mean 'visions'. The pulse caused the brain to see things that weren't there. When we went into the chamber the second time, it created another pulse that reversed the effects."
"And the natives?" John asked. "Why did they want me to use it in the first place."
"We didn't exactly have a lot of time to chat with them," Rodney replied with another roll of his eyes. "But we think that they knew the legends about the Ancients' experiments with the afterlife, and wanted to try it out for themselves. Apparently, even though there is some evidence of the ATA in their population, no one seems to have been born with a strong enough gene to activate the machine in a number of generations. When they saw us, naturally they got excited, thinking we were their precious ancestors coming to help them communicate with their dead loved ones. And then of course, your gene just had to be strong enough to meet their needs."
"But I'm okay now?" John asked quietly. He wasn't convinced by Rodney's assessment that the ghosts hadn't really been there, but he was too tired – and scared – to argue about it with him now.
"You tell me," Rodney shot back. "See any dead people?"
"Not at the moment," John replied, head bowed. He purposely didn't look around the room – but then, he didn't need to. Rodney was right; whatever the cause – machine or not – the ghosts had definitely gone. John tried to ignore the stab of pain that shot through him at the realisation that he wouldn't see his mother again. He hadn't even been able to say goodbye…
"You okay?" Rodney asked awkwardly. They had never been the type to discuss their feelings; it was one of the many reasons they got on so well together, but since Rodney had just saved his life, John thought he owed him a little bit of the truth at least.
"Not really," John replied with a sigh.
"Oh," Rodney said, clearly a little taken aback by John's answer. "Right."
"I haven't spoken to my mom since I was a kid," John continued quietly. "Even if it wasn't real, it was nice to see her again, but it was...difficult at the same time, you know?"
"She died when you were a kid?" Rodney asked quietly.
"Yeah," John replied. "The other ghosts…they were tough to see, but seeing her again…that was the hardest."
"Sorry," Rodney said softly.
"Do you still want to know why I could see her?" John asked quietly. "Why I have a memory of her dying?"
Silently, Rodney nodded, though John was unsure whether he was genuinely curious or whether he was being uncharacteristically considerate. After a moment's thought, John decided in the end that Rodney was just being a really good friend.
"I was eleven," John began. "I wasn't a stupid kid, so I knew she was dying, not matter how much they tried to hide it from me and my brother. She had cancer," he explained at Rodney's questioning look.
"Anyway," John continued. "I did a lot of research on the type of cancer she had, and I snuck a look at some of the notes the doctor had left for my dad. She was diagnosed as terminal pretty early on. So I knew."
Rodney nodded, but stayed silent, and John appreciated that more than he could ever say. It was easier to keeping talking now that he'd started, and he found, surprisingly so, that he did want to keep talking.
"My dad…" John continued quietly. "He wasn't the easiest person to live with, but he loved my mom. He stayed with her as often as he could, but sometimes he was needed elsewhere. One day, he told us he was going on a business trip, and that we – my brother and I – had to look after mom until we got back. She'd started to get worse."
"But he still left," Rodney noted, brow furrowed.
"Yeah," John replied, unwilling to get into the enigma that was his dad. "Anyway, we weren't completely on our own. We had a nanny, but she wasn't the most observant person in the world, and my mom's carers only came at certain times a day. I was worried about her being alone."
"So, anyway," continued John. "The day after my dad left on his trip, I skipped school, hitched a ride home, snuck into the house through an open window in the kitchen, and went to sit with my mom until the carers were next due to visit. I stayed with her, and she…er…she died that afternoon."
"Oh," Rodney replied. Clearly he didn't know what to say…
John shrugged slightly. "I…er…didn't handle it well. I'm not sure I really understood what had happened. One minute we were talking and laughing, and the next minute, she was…gone."
"That's tough," Rodney said sympathetically.
"Yeah," John agreed, sighing deeply as he scrubbed his hands over his face. "Anyway, I don't know why I'm telling you all this."
"It's the machine," Rodney smirked, clearly trying to cover the awkwardly emotional moment with humour. "It messed with your head."
"Really?" John asked apprehensively, eyes widening slightly in concern.
Rodney laughed. "You're fine, you idiot. No more crazy than usual - according to Carson anyway, although I'm not sure I'd trust anything that quack says..."
"Yeah, that's really reassuring, McKay," came a sarcastic voice from the doorway. John smiled as he saw the rest of his team in the doorway.
Ronan sauntered into the room, Teyla following calmly behind him.
"Good to see you awake, Sheppard," Ronan said as he joined them. "Been quiet around here without you."
"Quiet is good," John replied softly, smiling at his friend. In truth, he meant that in more ways than one. Apart from his friends, he couldn't hear anything else; no spooky ghostly voices, no taunting messages from beyond the grave…
Quiet was definitely good.
"Are you sure I'm okay now?" John asked apprehensively, turning his attention back to Rodney.
"Dr Beckett has assured us that you will feel no ill effects from the chamber," Teyla replied patiently. "You will be fine."
"Look, why don't we prove it," Rodney said, moving away from John's bed. John watched him leave to go and get something. He had a feeling he knew what it was…
"Chess?" he guessed.
"Obviously," Rodney replied as he placed the chessboard on the table beside John's bed. "It's been a while since I've beaten you. I'm going to enjoy this."
"Yeah, beating a man who's currently recovering from having his brain fried by an Ancient experiment," John shot back. "Definitely something to be proud of, McKay."
"Hey, I was in the chamber too," Rodney defended. "My brain was just as fried as yours."
"I thought Doctor Beckett had determined that you were fine, Rodney?" Teyla asked, smiling knowingly. "Something about you having a thick skull...?"
"Yeah, well what does he know?" muttered Rodney irritably.
"About medicine and the human body?" John replied. "Quite a bit since he's real doctor, and not just a PHD like some people..."
"Oh, just shut up and play," Rodney muttered, moving the first piece and nudging the board towards John.
John smirked at him, but didn't say anything further. The truth was, he didn't need to. His friends were here, by his side as always, and they weren't treating him any differently despite his recent near-breakdown. His head still hurt, and he knew it would take a while for him to get over what he'd seen in the last few days, but his team - by their presence alone -had made it clear that they were going to be with him all the way. He knew they wouldn't press him to talk about any of it until he was ready, and if he was never ready - which was always a possibility - he knew they'd never bring it up again if he didn't want them to.
They were really good friends, he thought to himself with a smile as he moved his first piece, and started to focus on the game as he friends talked about everything and nothing in particular in the background.
The next hour passed quickly, and even Rodney actually did win the first game in the end, John found that he didn't mind in the slightest. Eventually Elizabeth and Carson joined them too, and somewhere amongst the laughing and chess and talking in the hours that followed, John realised that even though the dead would always haunt him in some form or another, the living – these living, breathing people who called themselves his friends – would always be around to help him chase the ghosts away.
~ The End ~
A/N – So that's it – the end of my little tale. I hope you like how I've left it. I'd appreciate any parting thoughts you have, good or bad (although preferably good). I've loved the reactions I've had to this story, so thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who has reviewed, favourited, or followed it over the last few weeks. And for the last time (for this story at least) thank you for reading!